“Equal Justice Under Law.”
The words are etched into the façade of the Supreme Court building. Whenever we recite the “Pledge of Allegiance,” we reaffirm our beliefs with the last words: “with liberty and justice for all.”
The principles of fairness and equal access to justice are part of the very fiber of what for two centuries has made us Americans. These principles should be for all people, regardless of economic status.
These values that define us are precisely why it is so important that Congress sustains funding for the Legal Services Corp. On Thursday, the Trump administration proposed a budget that provides no funds for LSC, and it is up to Congress to rectify that.
LSC provides civil legal aid to low-income people who desperately need help to navigate the legal process — to help them achieve equal justice under law. To qualify for help, a family of four in the contiguous United States must earn less than $30,750 per year.
LSC secures housing for veterans, frees seniors from scams, serves rural areas when others won’t, protects victims of domestic violence and abuse, and helps disaster survivors back to their feet. It assists veterans and seniors who are about to lose their homes and to receive the government benefits they earned.
These are just some of the ways that civil legal aid helps Americans. Through its more than 800 offices, in every congressional district, LSC helped almost 1.9 million people in 2015 and closed more than 750,000 cases.
And, LSC does all this good at a reasonable cost. Last year, the federal government appropriated $385 million to LSC. That’s less than one ten-thousandth of the federal budget. It’s about $200 million less than what Americans spent on Valentine’s Day gifts in 2017 — for their pets!
LSC funding is a big part of the civil legal aid picture, providing about 40 percent of the money received by legal aid offices. State and local governments, other federal grants, private donations and money from Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts also help subsidize operations.
The struggle over limited government funding is difficult, since many worthy causes are looking for money. But LSC is a good investment.
More than 30 cost-benefit studies all show that legal aid returns far more benefits than costs to communities across America. If veterans become homeless, or seniors lose their money to a scammer, or disaster victims are unable to rebuild, they cost society far more than the funding for LSC.
The American Bar Association has steadfastly supported LSC ever since its creation in 1974. In fact, former ABA President and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell was a driving force in its creation.
President Richard Nixon signed the LSC Act into law on July 25, 1974. The law stated that “there is a need to provide equal access to the system of justice in our Nation” and that “there is a need to provide high-quality legal assistance to those who would be otherwise unable to afford adequate legal counsel.”
Since then, the need has grown. The number of Americans eligible for LSC-funded legal assistance has ballooned to 60.6 million. And studies indicate that at least 50 percent of qualified clients seeking legal assistance are turned away because of a lack of resources.
Nonetheless, LSC-funded grantees do great things in protecting the rights of the vulnerable. In my hometown, the Atlanta Legal Aid Society used LSC funds to help nearly 33,000 people in 2015, including about 15,000 children. In one case, they represented Ernestine Harris, a 65-year-old, legally blind, cancer survivor whose husband of 47 years had recently passed away.
Mr. Harris had signed a reverse mortgage and the lender told Mrs. Harris it was being foreclosed on after her husband died. She would lose her home. Despite congressional language protecting surviving spouses on reverse mortgages, Housing and Urban Development rules called for reverse mortgages to be paid in full at the death of the borrower. As a result of Atlanta Legal Aid Society’s lawsuit, HUD’s rule was declared illegal, Mrs. Harris kept her house and future widows and widowers were also protected.
The ABA has created ways for everyone to get involved in preserving this worthy program. Go to DefendLegalAid.org to let your representative know you care about this program. For more information on ways to help, go to HelpLegalAid.org.
Support for LSC has always been bipartisan. Guaranteeing fair representation to all is not a political issue, but a moral and ethical one. From Aristotle, who wrote centuries ago that “the only stable state is the one in which all men are equal before the law” to Ronald Reagan, who said, “protecting the rights of even the least individual among us is basically the only excuse the government has for even existing,” it is clear that this has been a fundamental pillar of democracy.
Denying access to our justice system for those who need it most is unacceptable in America. Equal justice is a basic principle of our Constitution; it should be advanced by our federal government. That’s why funding LSC is so vital.