On March 16, 2017, President Trump unveiled his proposed federal budget. With this proposed budget came many federal budget cuts to federal agencies and programs like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, “Meals on Wheels,” and the Office of Violence Against Women. Included in these cuts, was the Legal Services Corporation, an independent nonprofit established by Congress in 1974 to provide financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans. If President Trump’s current budget proposal is approved by Congress, this elimination of funding would directly impact those who seek legal representation.
On Lawyer 2 Lawyer, host Bob Ambrogi joins attorney Jim Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corporation, and attorney Linda Klein, president of the American Bar Association, to discuss President Trump’s budget proposal to zero out funding for the Legal Services Corporation. This discussion includes the state of legal services funding today and what cuts or elimination would mean for lower income Americans.
Attorney James J. Sandman has been president of the Legal Services Corporation since 2011. Jim practiced law with Arnold & Porter LLP for 30 years and served as the firm’s managing partner for a decade. He is also a past president of the 100,000-member District of Columbia Bar and currently the chair of the District of Columbia Circuit Judicial Conference Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services.
Attorney Linda Klein is president of the American Bar Association and the senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz. In June 1997, Klein became the first woman to serve as president of the State Bar of Georgia. During Klein’s term, she devised a proposal and advocated for the state to allocate funding for Georgia Legal Services and Atlanta Legal Aid to hire lawyers to help indigent victims of domestic violence.
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Will Budget Cuts to the Legal Services Corporation Diminish Access To Justice?
James Sandman: Any proposal from the President to defund the Legal Services Corporation is something that of course we take very seriously but Congress will ultimately decide what our funding is, not the executive branch or an independent agency that Congress makes appropriations to directly and based on our 42-year history, based on our experience with Congress over the last few years based on feedback we’re getting from members of Congress right now, I remain optimistic that Congress will continue to fund us.
Linda Klein: But when we read the United States Constitution in the preamble, it says we the people of the United States in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility etc. The point is if that establish justice is the first thing in the preamble that the founders of our nation said that we ought to be doing as a Federal Government, that means it’s critically important.
Intro: Welcome to the award-winning podcast Lawyer 2 Lawyer with J Craig Williams and Robert Ambrogi bringing you the latest legal news and observations with the leading experts in the legal profession. You’re listening to Legal Talk Network.
Bob Ambrogi: Welcome to Lawyer 2 Lawyer on the Legal Talk Network. This is Bob Ambrogi coming to you from Massachusetts. I write a blog called LawSites and also co-host Law Technology Now another program here on the Legal Talk Network along with Monica Bay.
My co-host on this show, Craig Williams is off today. We’re going to be talking today about President Trump’s proposed custody Legal Services Corporation, but before we do that, let me take a moment to thank our sponsors, LITERA and Clio.
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On March 16th President, Trump, unveiled draft federal budget which makes cuts to a number of key federal agencies and programs including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Office of Violence against Women, Meals on Wheels.
Included among those cuts is the Legal Services Corporation, an independent nonprofit established by Congress in 1974 to provide financial support for legal aid programs serving low-income Americans throughout the country.
The Legal Services Corporation currently funds 134 independent legal aid organizations and more than 800 offices in the United States. So we’re going to talk today about what it would mean if the Legal Services Corporation were to be defunded, talk about the President’s proposal and learn a little bit more about the corporation itself.
And to help us do that today, we have two guests who are very knowledgeable about this topic. First of all let me introduce James J. Sandman. Jim is president of the Legal Services Corporation since 2011. Before that, he practiced law with Arnold & Porter for 30 years and served as the firm’s managing partner for a decade.
He’s also a past president of the 100,000 member District of Columbia Bar and currently the chair of the District of Columbia Circuit, Judicial Conference Committee on pro bono legal services. Jim Sandman and welcome to Lawyer 2 Lawyer.
Jim Sandman: Thank you Bob.
Bob Ambrogi: And let me also introduce attorney Linda Klein. Linda is the president of the American Bar Association and senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz.
Linda previously became the first woman to serve as president of the State Bar of Georgia and during her term in that office, she devised a proposal and advocated for the state to allocate funding for Georgia Legal Services and Atlanta Legal Aid to hire lawyers to help indigent victims of domestic violence.
Linda recently issued a statement on behalf of the ABA strongly condemning any proposed cuts to the Legal Services Corporation. Linda Klein welcome to Lawyer 2 Lawyer.
Linda Klein: Glad to be here on this very important topic thank you.
Bob Ambrogi: I’m very happy to have you. Jim Sandman let me start with you. The Legal Services Corporation has requested a budget of about $503 million to $502.7 million, an increase from the prior year’s budget which is $385 million. The administration’s draft budget would completely defund the LSC. How serious do you consider this threat to be and what do you think Congress will ultimately do?
Jim Sandman: Any proposal from the President to defund the Legal Services Corporation is something that of course we take very seriously, but Congress will ultimately decide what our funding is, not the executive branch or an independent agency that Congress makes appropriations to directly.
And based on our 42-year history, based on our experience with Congress over the last few years, based on feedback we’re getting from members of Congress right now, I remain optimistic that Congress will continue to fund us.
We serve a very important mission. When Congress passed the Legal Services Corporation Act in 1974, they identified the need that they were trying to address and in the very first section of the law, they said there is a need to provide equal access to the system of justice in our nation for individuals who seek redress of grievances. That need is as great today; actually greater than it was in 1974.
The number of people, who are financially eligible for legal aid funded by the Legal Services Corporation stands today at about 60 million. That’s almost twenty percent of the American population. I think Congress is aware of the extent of the need. I think individual members of Congress know the important service that LSC funded legal aid programs provide to their constituents and I think they’ll back us.
Bob Ambrogi: Linda Klein let me ask you. Let’s just assume for a moment that the worst case scenario happens and the LSC is eliminated what would be the impact of that?
Linda Klein: It would be a disaster. I almost can’t imagine that when you think about all of the people annually, who are served by the Legal Services Corporation and then all of the people, who are turned away but yet because the Legal Services Corporation affiliates are there throughout the country, they’re almost a triage or emergency room where they help coordinate so much pro bono service around the country.
So not only will the individuals who will have literally the courthouse door slammed in their face because they can’t get lawyers, not only will they be affected but I also see the impact coming to all of the pro bono programs throughout the US, so it will have an enormous exponential effect.
Bob Ambrogi: Jim, what explanation, if any, has the White House or the OMB given for cutting the LSC? Have you been in communication with anybody there? Have they told you what anything about this?
James Sandman: We were informed that the recommendation to eliminate funding for LSC would be made the evening before, it was formally announced and then the formal document came out a week ago, Thursday.
The summary budget that’s titled a budget blueprint to make America great again and the only information and there is a paragraph on page five that identifies a long list of independent agencies whose funding would be eliminated in the budget proposal forthcoming and in May or so and we were on that list but beyond that no explanation.
Bob Ambrogi: Linda I know that, as I mentioned at the outset, you on behalf of the ABA issued statement opposing these cuts. I know that there was a letter sent to the Office of Management Budget by the leaders of 150 major law firms opposing these cuts.
There was a letter sent by the conference of Chief Justices and the conference of state court administrators urging adequate funding for the LSC and Linda in your statement one of the points that you made is that the benefits delivered by the Legal Services Corporation far outweigh it’s costs. I wonder if you could elaborate on that? What did you mean by that?
Linda Klein: There have been cost-benefit studies, at least 30 that we were aware of at the American Bar Association that showed that legal aid delivers far more in benefits and it costs. I know that in my home state when there’s a victim of domestic violence and the Legal Services Corporation’s lawyers are able to help that person often that means the father pays child support, provides health insurance for the children, sometimes that might mean additional federal funding that comes into this day in TANF or other family support.
And you can think about that in all other types of situations you might have, a senior citizen, who’s the victim of a scam and by making sure that the person who has perpetrated the scam on the senior citizen is brought to justice in some way than the senior citizen is able to perhaps keep their home.
There are so many examples that I could sit here all day and tell you them, but the point is that study after study continues to show that for every dollar we spend on legal services multiples of that dollar come back.
Bob Ambrogi: Jim I know that legal service’s programs around the country do not receive all of their funding from Legal Services Corporation and there are some that received no funding from legal services. Many do get funding through IOLTA grants, other services, here in Massachusetts where I am I’ve been very involved in the Mass Bar Foundation which is a funding entity for a lot of legal services programs.
So help us understand what LSC’s share of overall legal services funding is in the United States or maybe to put it another way if LSC were to be cut, what would be left of the legal aid infrastructure in the country?
James Sandman: LSC is the backbone of the legal aid system in the United States today. We ensure that there is some form of legal assistance available everywhere in every county in the country and particularly in rural areas, LSC funded legal aid programs are often the only game in town. There is no alternative. No other legal aid program funded from anybody that’s providing service to low-income people.
Our 133 grantees currently get about 38% of their total revenue from the Legal Services Corporation. We’re the biggest single funder of legal aid in the United States, but that is 38% average masks wide variations in the degree to which legal aid programs are dependent on us.
In 12 states legal aid programs that we fund get more than half of their revenue from us so to lose that would have devastating consequences to their ability to serve low-income people, who can’t afford counsel.
I’d estimate that the legal aid programs that we fund account for about 64% of legal aid services in the United States. Now some of their funding as I said is coming from other sources, but LSC funded legal aid programs are about 64% of the universe of legal aid programs by volume.
So it’s a very significant impact across the country and as I said particularly in rural areas, where you don’t have private resources to fund legal aid and where the local LSC funded legal aid organization is the only alternative people have.
Linda Klein: So I live in Georgia, where 75% of the lawyers are in Atlanta and about 30% of the poverty population is in Atlanta. Georgia in square miles is the largest state east of the Mississippi. So we have a vast majority of the state where there just are not a lot of lawyers. We have six counties with no lawyers. So the only legal services that are provided are when legal services lawyers can come to those areas.
In the Boston area, in Atlanta, and large cities there are lots of lawyers and lots of lawyers can write checks and help but in the vast majority of square miles in this country that’s not the case.
Bob Ambrogi: In Georgia, I think is one of those states where LSC funds provide more than half the money to a lot of legal services in the state if I have that right?
Linda Klein: Right, we have two providers in Georgia. One’s Atlanta Legal Aid which serves five counties around Atlanta and the other is George Legal Services that serves the rest of the state.
James Sandman: They’re both funded by LSC.
Linda Klein: Correct.
Bob Ambrogi: Okay what about specific types of programs? Linda a signature initiative of your term as ABA President has been legal services for veterans. If the LSC were to be cut or even severely reduced in its budget, would that have an impact on veterans’ legal services?
Linda Klein: Absolutely. The Legal Services Corporation helps both active duty military and veterans. We have a problem with homeless sections in this country and the Legal Services Corporation is there to help them with so many of their problems. We learned through the studies in our veterans’ initiative at the ABA that at least half of the problems that lead to homelessness among veterans are legal problems. So I can’t even imagine the devastation that would do to that most vulnerable population.
Bob Ambrogi: It seems that from what I’ve read about cutting funding for LSC, it seems that all roads kind of lead back to the Heritage Foundation Conservative Group which is advocated for cutting the LSC from the federal budget and its position is that basically that it isn’t the job of the federal government to provide this kind of legal aid that, that should be left to state and local governments. Jim what’s your response to that argument?
James Sandman: I go back to the founding of our country and I think the principles expressed by the founders and the framers of the constitution directly refute that. Thomas Jefferson said the most sacred of the duties of government is to do impartial and equal justice to all its citizens, the most sacred of the duties of government. I don’t think he was talking about state and local government when he said that.
There is a fundamental national interest in the rule of law and people having access to a well-functioning justice system that can address their needs. If you don’t have that, that is a problem at the national level when people lose confidence in the justice system. You won’t long have a nation to defend or worth defending.
You can find similar statements in the writings of Alexander Hamilton and of James Madison, Federalist number 51 addresses this issue, I think it is a core purpose of any national government particularly in a democracy to be certain that there is equal justice under law; that the closing words of the Pledge of Allegiance “justice for all.” I don’t think there’s any distinction there between the role of the federal government and state and local governments in ensuring that fundamental promise of America to its citizens.
Linda Klein: I’d like to add, I can never be as articulate as Jim there, but I do want to add one point that — but when we read the United States Constitution in the preamble it says we the people of the United States in order to form a more perfect union establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, etc. The point is that established justice is the first thing in the preamble that the founders of our nation said that we ought to be doing as a federal government. That to me is critically important.
James Sandman: Linda’s got it exactly right and I don’t think that when the framers in the first paragraph of the Constitution identified their priorities, I don’t their order of listing was an accident. Establishing justice comes right after forming a more perfect union. I think they recognize that having a well-functioning accessible system of justice is essential to societal stability.
It’s the starting point for all of the values and goals that come after. This is what the great judge Learned Hand meant when he said in addressing the Legal Aid Society of New York in 1951. If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment’ “thou shalt not ration justice.” What he was talking about was the connection between the rule of law and the integrity of a democracy.
Bob Ambrogi: Jim and Linda please stay with us. We have to take a short break. We will be right back after these words from our sponsors.
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Bob Ambrogi: Welcome back to Lawyer 2 Lawyer. This is Bob Ambrogi and with us today is Jim Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corporation, and Linda Klein, president of the American Bar Association. We’re talking about federal budgets proposed elimination of the Legal Services Corporation.
Linda, one of things I want to ask you about, I know that there’s been a lot of discussion about the justice gap in this country and in particular one of the effects of that has been a rise in more people representing themselves. We’re seeing that courts throughout the country. What would the impact be on these cuts to this issue of self-represented litigants?
Linda Klein: Any cut to the Legal Services Corporation budget would likely show perhaps a flooding of courts with the number of represented people.
Judges tell me all the time that pro se litigants slow down the court process because they certainly don’t know the process and they need additional help, and so if we were to flood the courts with even more pro se litigants that would cause delay for all litigants in the courts.
It would make the administration of justice all the more difficult for all of the state and local courts that we rely upon and therefore it’s going to decrease the quality of justice in the United States, something that we can ill-afford.
Bob Ambrogi: Jim Sandman this is not the first time a President has sought to eliminate the LSC. Back in the early 1980s, President Reagan tried to do that. He failed in doing that thanks to bipartisan opposition but one of the things that did happen at that point was that he succeeded in imposing restrictions on LSC-funded organization including bans on lobbying, on class action lawsuits, and on providing assistance to undocumented immigrants.
Do you have any reason to believe or to think or anticipate that trying to get some sorts of restrictions, further restrictions, on the LSC could be an outcome of this current budget round?
James Sandman: No, I’ve heard no suggestion about that. I have not heard any conversation about the need for additional restrictions. The talk is only about funding or not funding, but no suggestion that there is any need for additional restrictions.
Bob Ambrogi: There does still seem to be concern from conservative corners in particular something that’s been expressed any number of times over the years, the legal aid lawyers spend too much time litigating, political and social causes and not enough time representing those that they’re intended to serve, what do you say to critics of the LSC who raised that issue?
James Sandman: I think there are decades out of date in their understanding of what LSC funded legal aid lawyers do. The facts are exactly to the contrary. The work of a legal aid lawyer today at an LSC funded program is dealing with the day-to-day bread-and-butter legal problems of people who can’t afford a lawyer.
They are dealing with domestic abuse issues. They’re helping veterans get benefits. They are preventing wrongful foreclosures and evictions. 60% of the cases on average that our grantees handle are in the areas of family and housing law. Those aren’t hot-button political matters.
So the restrictions that Congress has enacted prohibit our grantees from getting involved in political matters and they don’t get involved in them. LSC has a rigorous oversight and enforcement function here. We visit our grantees regularly to be sure that they’re in compliance with the law and they are. The facts do not prove those allegations. In fact they just prove them quite strongly.
Bob Ambrogi: Linda I wonder if you could just talk to us more about what you see the ABA’s role as being here and what the ABA will be doing going forward around this issue?
Linda Klein: The ABA was involved in the very beginning in 1974 when ABA president, Lewis Powell, who later became a Supreme Court Justice led the ABA in supporting the formation of Legal Services Corporation. President Nixon was President and this has consistently been an overwhelmingly bipartisan effort and so all members of the ABA are very interested in this.
When I heard about this, I expressed the outrage of not only myself but of the entire association. So, we immediately got busy. We created defendlegalaid.org and I hope that everybody listening will go to defendlegalaid.org. When you get there, there will be a form feed to fill out for you to tell your member of Congress, exactly why you believe the Legal Services Corporation should be fully funded.
And if you need some talking points for that there’s a link to help legalaid.org which will give you some advice about things you might want to say but please put it in your own words and then if you’re not sure who your members of Congress are, we help you with that too and if you upload your picture that would even be better but you don’t have to and when you fill out that form a card is going to print at the ABA’s office in Washington DC.
And then sometime between April 25th and April 27th, which we call ABA Day in Washington DC and I’ll tell you about that in a minute but some time between those days we’re going to hand-deliver every one of these cards to your member of Congress. So whenever you fill out you can rest assured that the ABA will deliver it to your members of Congress to tell them why you believe the Legal Services Corporation should be fully funded.
You do not have to be a lawyer to fill this out. You can ask your friends, you can ask the people you exercise with, the people you worship with, the people in your office, please fill out the form so that we can show just how deep the support is for funding the Legal Services Corporation.
We have been all over social media. I had the privilege of speaking at the TECHSHOW, where I last saw you last Friday on March 17 and we talked about funding the Legal Services Corporation there and at the TECHSHOW, there were so many tweeters that we really appreciated all of the traffic we got on Twitter about this. I’ve been on all other kinds of social media and so many other people have been more encouraging everyone to use their social media like Facebook, Linkedin, etc to talk about the importance of funding the Legal Services Corporation.
But I do want to invite everyone to join us on April 25, through 27 when we talk with our members of Congress about funding the Legal Services Corporation. Every year the ABA has, what we call, ABA Day, it’s now two-and-a-half days and lawyers from all over the country from all 50 states come to meet with their members of Congress and tell them about the importance of funding the Legal Services Corporation.
We do it every year. This year it’s especially important. So if anyone would like to come join us, please go to ambar.org/abaday and we’d be glad to have you join us.
Bob Ambrogi: Thanks. Jim what would you add to that in terms of what our listeners, who support Legal Services Corporation can do to help you here?
James Sandman: Well, Bob I am permitted by law to lobby Congress myself, but I’m not permitted to engage in grassroots lobbying that is to ask other people to do things on behalf of LSC, so I’m not able to respond to that question.
Bob Ambrogi: Fair enough.
Linda Klein: But I’m happy too.
Bob Ambrogi: And I think you just did.
Linda Klein: I’m happy to respond and if anybody has any other ideas about how we can organize people, who are interested in this topic, please contact me and at the end of the show, we’ll give you some contact information, but a defendlegalaid.org is where we like everyone to start.
Bob Ambrogi: Right, well we are just about at the end of our time and before we conclude the program we do like to give each of you an opportunity to give your closing thoughts on this and also as you just suggested Linda to provide any further information to our listeners and how they can follow up on these issues or follow up with you. So
Jim Sandman let’s start with you, get your final thoughts.
James Sandman: There is no American value, more fundamental than equal justice under law. That’s what the Legal Services Corporation is about. We are as American as apple pie in the 4th of July. I think Congress knows that and I’m optimistic that we’re going to be around for a long time to come.
Bob Ambrogi: Great and are there any sources or other contact information that you care to let our listeners know about to find out more about this?
James Sandman: People are welcome to come to our website lsc.gov. We have a Facebook page. We have an active twitter account, where we keep people updated on developments affecting us and highlighting all our great work.
One of the great features of our website is a state-by-state story bank that provides real life examples of the life-changing legal services that our grantees provide across the entire United States and the territories. It’s a very rich resources. It’s lsc.gov. So friend us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter.
Bob Ambrogi: Yeah, I would mention there is also a very detailed explanation of your budget request on your website that goes into a much more granular detail than we’ve gotten anywhere near in this show, so anybody who’s interested should go there and read that. Linda Klein how about you, your final thoughts?
Linda Klein: Again it’s hard to me to be more articulate than Jim Sandman, but I will tell you that the lsc.gov website is one of the most transparent organizations I’ve ever seen, the detail that they give, whatever you want to know is there, it is very, very impressive.
I think perhaps a closing thought for me is we haven’t talked about any of the individual people and what it means and I was thinking about the floods last year in West Virginia and how many families lost everything. Many of them lost the papers that they needed, the insurance papers, and deeds to claim flood benefits and legal aid in West Virginia had to help hundreds and hundreds of people.
I was told the story of a woman whose house was destroyed and FEMA didn’t give her the aid that she was entitled to because she couldn’t get a copy for insurance policy and the legal aid lawyer stepped in, helped her file her complaints and she was able to get the documentation she needed.
And then a pro bono lawyer stepped up and helped her with her FEMA appeal and ultimately she received $22000.00 from FEMA that helped her rebuild her house. She would not have had that without the help of Legal Services Corporation lawyers and pro bono attorneys that were helping alongside them.
That’s the kind of thing that Legal Services Corporation does for our country and how important it is and I can’t imagine an America without it. With that, defendlegalaid.org is where we like everyone to start. We’ll get you to other resources if you need them to help you with your grassroots lobbying that we are allowed to do on Legal Services Corporation Funding, which is very important and if you need to reach me I’m @abapresident at americanbar.org. Thank you so much for this opportunity to talk about this very, very important issue.
Bob Ambrogi: Well, let us hope that Congress does the right thing here and not only funds Legal Services Corporation but increases the funding of Legal Services Corporation because it’s —
James Sandman: I like the way you think Bob.
Bob Ambrogi: — important in this country and James Sandman President of the Legal Services Corporation, Linda Klein president of the American Bar Association thank you very, very much for taking the time to be with us today. It’s been a really interesting and informative discussion.
Linda Klein: Thank you.
James Sandman: Thank you for having me Bob.
Bob Ambrogi: And that brings us to the end of another episode of Lawyer 2 Lawyer. This is Bob Ambrogi. Thanks for listening on behalf of everybody at the Legal Talk Network. Next time, you think legal think Lawyer 2 Lawyer. Thanks for joining us.
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