State Should Respect Equal Justice

Is Governor Pataki committed to equal justice under law? Then why has he vetoed all general funding for civil legal services for the indigent?

June 5, 1998

Times Union
June 5, 1998

State Should Respect Equal Justice
By Deborah Goldberg

Is Governor Pataki committed to equal justice under law? Then why has he vetoed all general funding for civil legal services for the indigent?

This veto will drastically reduce legal assistance available to poor women needing emergency protection against domestic violence, tenants facing evictions, senior citizens seeking home health care to keep them out of nursing homes, and thousands of other indigent citizens with legitimate and pressing legal needs.

And the veto comes on top of years of federal cutbacks on legal services funding, amounting to $40 million on an inflation-adjusted basis since 1993. After those cuts, legal services organizations rely more than ever on non-federal funds.

To its considerable credit, New York long has acknowledged an obligation to care for the poor. New York’s Constitution, unlike the federal Constitution, recognizes that aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns, for which the state has a duty to provide. For many years, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, the aid provided by the State has included funds for legal services to the poor. In that respect, New York has been a beacon to the rest of the nation.

Without legal services, as the Legislature correctly realized, the basic rights of the poor are little more than a joke. Without state funds budgeted for those services, New York will be unable to meet the most fundamental legal needs of its indigent citizens. The bi-partisan budget reflected the commitment of the Legislature to take its constitutional obligations seriously; the Governor’s veto of legal services funds makes a mockery of the law.

The bi-partisan budget also recognized that respect for law is threatened when people do not believe that justice is meted out fairly. Yet Governor Pataki has vetoed $48 million in funding for Prisoners’ Legal Services, a project implemented in the wake of the Attica prison riot, to address claims of inhumane and unconstitutional treatment. This cut comes at a time when the prison population is five times what it was during the uprising at Attica. It will leave 70,000 prisoners without any peaceful means of redress for guard brutality or denial of basic medical and mental health care.

Shall we return to the days when the only option maltreated prisoners had was riot and mayhem? What do we teach them about alternatives to violence when we deprive them of the tools for peaceful dispute resolution? And how can we expect prisoners to respect the law when they have completed their sentences and return to society, when that society callously refused them the resources needed to defend legitimate legal claims while in prison?

Equal justice is a sham if the rich and powerful can repel meritorious legal challenges by shutting the poor and vulnerable out of the judicial system. And we will all pay for more than the price of basic legal services if we allow the Governor’s shortsighted budget veto to undermine respect for the rule of law in this state. Let us hope that the Legislature stands by its commitment to fundamental fairness for all New Yorkers, regardless of economic status, by fighting to restore all of the funds budgeted for legal services.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Deborah Goldberg is a senior attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, which is involved in a constitutional challenge of the Congressional restrictions on legal services attorneys.