Bill to Reauthorize LSC introduced in Senate
Thursday, March 26, 2009
- Office of Senator Frank Lautenberg
- Source: National
SENATE MEASURE IMPROVES ACCESS TO CIVIL JUSTICE FOR LOW INCOME AMERICANS
Restores the principle of "Equal Justice Under Law"
WASHINGTON, D.C. - A measure introduced in the U.S. Senate will expand and improve vital civil legal aid in this country. Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA), Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Ben Cardin (D-MD), John Kerry (D-MA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) today introduced legislation to increase funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), lift many of the restrictions on LSC-funded attorneys and improve corporate governance at LSC.
"As a former legal services attorney, I know firsthand how crucial legal assistance is to protecting the safety, security and health of struggling families who have no place else to turn. Unfortunately, limited resources and severe restrictions on LSC-funded attorneys impede the ability of legal aid attorneys to provide the most meaningful representation," said Senator Harkin. "Everyone in this country - regardless of income - deserves access to justice and quality legal representation. This legislation restores the principle of equal justice under law."
"In these difficult times, effective legal assistance for American families struggling to make ends meet is more important than ever. This bill will help many more families obtain the legal services they need when they can't afford a lawyer themselves. It will also help level the playing field by removing many of the unfair restrictions in current law that prevent full and vigorous representation by Legal Services Corporation attorneys. We all benefit when the rule of law works for everyone," said Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
"I hope all Senators will give serious consideration to reauthorizing the Legal Services Corporation and ending many of the restrictions that have burdened the provision of legal services to so many American citizens," said Senator Leahy. "Lawyers across the United States have dedicated their lives to helping the least fortunate among us gain access to the courts that serve us all. These lawyers play a critical role in ensuring that justice is carried out in a manner consistent with the Constitution's promise, and when justice is served fairly, it benefits us all."
"The Legal Services Corporation was created to ensure all Americans have equal access to justice under the law. Because of LSC, poor pregnant women being battered by their husbands have had a lawyer to turn to. Homeowners facing foreclosure have gotten assistance renegotiating their mortgage terms - and staying in their homes. People with disabilities, the elderly, and victims of natural disasters have had a place to turn for legal aid," Senator Mikulski said. "With the economic downturn, and increased stress on struggling families, the services LSC provides are needed now more than ever. I am committed to making sure LSC has the funding it needs in the federal checkbook to meet its mission."
"As the former chairman of the Maryland Legal Services Corporation, I am committed to expanding access to legal services," said Senator Cardin, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Unfortunately today, low-income Americans do not have access to justice. They can't afford to hire a lawyer or obtain legal assistance for serious problems. This legislation takes a strong step forward to close this justice gap by eliminating burdensome restrictions on LSC attorneys and by providing adequate funding to LSC."
"Every American deserves access to quality legal representation regardless of their economic status and the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) helps ensure they get it," said Senator Kerry. "This bill will give LSC the resources and authority it needs to keep its doors open and provide the best service possible to those in desperate need."
"Equal justice under law is a cornerstone of our democracy and for decades, LSC has played a vital role in ensuring that low-income Americans are afforded this basic right," Senator Durbin said. "I'm pleased to join my colleagues in supporting this legislation which will give LSC the tools and resources necessary to protect all Americans under the law."
"Everyone, regardless of their financial situation, deserves access to quality legal representation. One person turned away from legal assistance is one person too many. This measure would help ensure families are represented fairly and effectively in court," said Senator Lautenberg.
"Ability to seek justice through our court system should not be determined by income. Americans, whether rich or poor, deserve legal representation, and the Legal Services Corporation has made this possible for decades. With this bill, we can improve this organization's capacity to do good work," Senator McCaskill said.
"Inscribed over the Supreme Court steps is one of the most fundamental American principles: Equal Justice For All," said Senator Merkley. "For all, not only for those who have enough money to pay an attorney. As a result of the current economic decline, we've seen the number of individuals requiring legal assistance increase. This legislation will level the playing field for Americans in need of legal assistance and help guarantee access to the courts and to justice for all Americans."
The federal commitment to legal services is not as effective as it needs to be. In 1974, Congress established the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) - a private, non-profit corporation funded by Congress - to fund civil legal aid. LSC, however, has not been reauthorized since 1981, and federal funding has been slashed since 1995 - from $415 million to $350 in FY'08, with only a recent increase to $390 million for FY'09. Congress, moreover, has imposed severe restrictions on the use of both federal as well as non-federal funds - impeding attorneys' ability to provide the most effective legal assistance.
The Civil Access to Justice Act of 2009 recommits the principle of "Equal Justice Under Law" in five main ways:
- Increases the authorized funding level for LSC to $750 million, which is approximately the amount appropriated in 1981, adjusted for inflation, which was the high-water mark for LSC funding. At the time, this level was seen as sufficient to provide a minimum level of access to legal aid in every county. Adjusted for inflation, this "minimum access" level would need to be about $750 million today.
- Lifts many of the restrictions currently placed on legal tools that LSC-funded attorneys can use to represent their clients. The bill lifts the prohibition on collecting attorneys' fees, permits legal aid attorneys to bring class-action suits grounded in existing law and permits lobbying with non-federal funds. In the spirit of compromise, the bill does maintain the prohibition on abortion related litigation as well as many of the limits on whom LSC-funded programs can represent, including undocumented immigrants (with limited exceptions such as victims of domestic violence), prisoners challenging prison conditions and people charged with illegal drug possession in public housing eviction proceedings.
- Lifts all restrictions, except those related to abortion litigation, on the use of non-federal funds. Lifting these restrictions allows individual states, cities and donors the ability to determine themselves how best to spend non-federal funds to ensure access to the courts.
- Provides for better governance at LSC. Recent GAO reports highlighted the need for better corporate governance and oversight. A central feature of the bill is provisions to improve corporate practices.
- Authorizes a grant program from the Department of Education to expand law school clinics. Not only are law students a significant resource for legal services, but clinics are a bridge to careers in legal services and a professional career involving pro bono for young lawyers.
The bill is supported by, among others, the American Bar Association, Brennan Center for Justice, National Legal Aid & Defender Association, National Organization of Legal Service Workers and United Auto Workers.