September 9, 1999
End Political Football With the Poor
By Deborah Goldberg
Legal advocates for the poor can breathe a sigh of relief now that Gov. George Pataki has signed a state budget that restores almost $14 million of the $16 million for civil and criminal legal services that he cut during the previous 16 months. But poverty lawyers should not have to hold their breath every year, praying that the governor will take equal justice seriously enough to fund legal assistance programs. The time has come to stop playing political football with the legal needs of the poor and to enact the Access to Justice Fund – a recent proposal that would create a permanent solution to the perennial legal services funding crisis, at least for civil legal services.
Crisis is exactly what the governor created last year, when he vetoed all funding for criminal and civil legal services. The 62-member office of Prisoners’ Legal Services, which lost its entire $4.8 million budget, was forced to limp along with only four part-time employees. Now the organization will have $3.5 million to rebuild its operations. And $550,000 will be available to provide legal assistance to victims of domestic violence across the state. But who knows what could happen next time.
Of course, for many years, the Legislature has provided bipartisan support for civil and criminal legal services. New York’s legislative branch, at least, has recognized that the promise of equal justice under law is a cruel hoax if meaningful access to the courts is reserved to those who can afford a lawyer. But as last year’s gubernatorial veto shows, bipartisan support for legal services during the annual budget battles is not always enough to ensure funding for even the most basic programs. There is always a lurking threat that access to justice will go down in flames in the heat of struggle between the Legislature and the governor.
It is possible, however, to protect legal services from the vagaries of politics and to provide a reliable funding stream for civil legal assistance. The Legislature could pass a law creating an “Access to Justice Fund” with $40 million per year from the state’s Abandoned Property Fund. Hundreds of millions of dollars of abandoned property, such as bank deposits or unredeemed gift certificates, go into the Abandoned Property Fund each year.
The Access to Justice Fund would be a big improvement over the current system. First of all, it would offer a permanent source of steady financing for the overextended organizations that serve our most vulnerable populations. It would provide a measure of security for poor people whose civil legal needs do not disappear when funding for their lawyers goes up in smoke. Such a guarantee would be a potent symbol of New York’s commitment to the reality of equality under the law.
Second, the Access to Justice Fund would provide substantially more money for civil legal services than is allocated now. The fund could not begin to meet all of the civil legal needs of the indigent, but $40 million would at least begin to make up for the loss of both federal funds and funds from the state’s Interest on Lawyers’ Accounts program over the past decade.
Third, the Access to Justice Fund could help finance legal services without raising taxes or cutting back on other needed programs for the poor. The legislation that has been proposed to create the fund would also increase the revenues to the Abandoned Property Fund, and $40 million of the increase would then be used to support legal services and pro bono programs.
This is a win-win opportunity that should not be missed. The proposal has the support of the chief judge of New York’s highest court, numerous bar associations in the state, and major business leaders. It could serve as a model for other states that face similar crises in legal services funding. And it would uphold the finest traditions of this state in providing for the needy and guaranteeing equal justice to all.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Deborah Goldberg is a senior attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.