Trump Targets the Legal Services Corporation

Another presidential assault on the courts and poor people—and another critical institution heedlessly threatened.

April 12, 2017

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Cross-posted at The American Prospect

Beyond eliminating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the endowments for the arts and humanities, and other extreme Heritage Foundation-inspired dismantling, President Donald Trump’s budget blueprint for the coming fiscal year puts on the chopping block America’s core ideals of basic fairness and equal access to justice.

That’s not just hyperbole. The so-called “skinny budget,” released last month by the Office of Management and Budget, proposes wiping out all federal financing for the 43-year-old Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the publicly funded but independently run nonprofit that is the largest source of support for high-quality civil legal assistance to low-income Americans—and a fundamental expression of the nation’s commitment to equal justice under law.

If the situation has a familiar ring it’s because the organization has faced extinction threats before. Readers of a certain age, for example, will recall President Ronald Reagan’s bruising but ultimately unsuccessful 1980s drive to eliminate LSC funding, pursuing a cause he’d championed in his previous gig as California’s Republican governor.

When Republicans won control of both chambers of Congress in 1994, they renewed the warfare against the civil legal services program. Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his cohorts failed to win abolition, but the program’s survival came at a price: deep funding cuts and pernicious restrictions intended to hamper the effectiveness and efficiency of lawyers for the poor, including a ban on filing litigation based on class-action lawsuits still in effect.

But Republican opposition to the Legal Services Corporation through the years has not been monolithic. The legislation establishing the organization, after all, was signed by Richard Nixon—one of his last, and most admirable presidential acts. A successor to the pioneering Neighborhood Legal Services program of the old Office for Economic Opportunity, the LSC has survived for more than 40 years because at particularly anxious moments, when it’s come under serious threat, a bipartisan group of supporters, in and out of Congress, has emerged to protect it.

It’s still early. Up against an April 28 deadline, Congress is now struggling to resolve the fiscal 2017 budget situation. But bipartisan opposition to Trump’s proposed LSC obliteration in FY 2018 (which begins on October 1) is already building.

The American Bar Association’s president, Linda Klein, has expressed due “outrage” at Trump’s LSC defunding plan and the slamming of courthouse doors “in the faces of millions of needy Americans,” especially in rural areas, should the plan succeed. LSC’s roster of clients includes veterans seeking benefits they’ve earned, individuals and families facing unjust foreclosures and evictions, victims of domestic abuse in need of court protection, seniors victimized by scams, and disaster survivors seeking to rebuild.

The state Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators have likewise weighed in with a letter to Trump’s OMB Director, Mick Mulvaney, urging an increase in LSC’s budget rather than a defunding. The groups underscored that the large number of unrepresented litigants is “overwhelming” the nation’ courts, and LSC’s essential role in enabling about two million people a year to obtain competent legal services “in matters involving basic human needs.” More than 160 law school deans have written to congressional leaders along similar lines.

On March 28, corporate attorneys from 185 companies, including Google, American Express, and General Electric, joined the pro-LSC chorus with a powerful letter to Congress. “While we understand that within this fiscal environment difficult decisions about spending must be made, we believe that access to justice is not an expendable luxury but an indispensable manifestation of our country’s most fundamental values,” the companies’ lawyers explained. “Just as investing in America’s roads and bridges are vital to our transportation infrastructure, LSC is a vital part of the infrastructure that undergirds our justice system ensuring that fair treatment is not dependent on a person’s ability to pay for it.”

The heads of more than 150 law firms have written the OMB chief to warn that eliminating LSC funding would “diminish the private bar’s capacity to help” individuals in need since private lawyers partner with local legal aid groups receiving LSC funding in providing pro bono representation. “The pro-bono activity facilitated by LSC funding is exactly the kind of public-private partnership the government should encourage, not eliminate,” the letter declares.

Perhaps the most encouraging development, though, comes from inside Congress. A total of 148 House members, including 11 Republicans—a small but still impressive number in this hyper-partisan climate—have signed a joint letter urging the chairman and ranking member of the relevant appropriations subcommittee to approve “continued funding” for LSC in FY 2018. The letter doesn’t mention Trump’s defunding proposal or urge a specific funding level going forward, but it references a 2009 study that found many LSC grantees turn away half of the eligible people seeking civil legal assistance owing to a lack of resources. That yawning justice gap is even wider now.

LSC’s president, James Sandman, expresses confidence that the legal services program enjoys sufficient popularity and bipartisan backing to defeat Trump’s proposal to put it out of business. His main worry, he told me when we spoke last week, is that the price of survival will be a big cut in funding amid a GOP push to shrink the federal budget.  

Given the unmet need for civil legal services, LSC is looking not just to dodge abolition or a compromise cut, but to actually increase the amount of federal financing the organization receives, from the current $385 million level to a still inadequate $500 million or so.

Getting there should be a priority for progressives and everyone else who cares about extending the ideals of justice to all Americans.