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May 21, 2010

House Panel Urged to Approve LSC Legislation

From the ABA Washington Letter, May 2010

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), the lead sponsors of legislation to reauthorize the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), appeared together April 27 before a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing to highlight the need to expand and improve vital civil legal services to low-income citizens.

“Because of the economic downturn, demand for legal services is skyrocketing,” Harkin said in his statement. Recalling his experience early in his career as a legal aid attorney, he said he knows firsthand that without access to an attorney, the poor are often powerless in the face of injustice and wrongdoing.

Scott, who was the original board chairman of the Peninsula Legal Aid Center, emphasized that the importance of the LSC has not diminished since it was established in 1974. He noted that reauthorization legislation, introduced as H.R. 3764 in the House and S. 718 in the Senate, would authorize $750 million per year for the program, which currently is funded at $420 million. Both bills also provide for more effective governance and oversight of the LSC.

The bills also would lift many, but not all, of the restrictions placed on the program through appropriations bills over the years since 1996, including the restriction on collecting statutorily authorized attorneys’ fees, prohibitions on what programs can do with non-federal funds, and restrictions on bringing of class action lawsuits under certain conditions.

Prohibitions would remain on abortion-related litigation and some limits on the types of clients LSC-funded programs may represent, including prisoners challenging prison conditions and people convicted of illegal drug possession in public housing eviction proceedings.

John G. Levi, the recently elected chair of the LSC Board of Directors, testified that the LSC has historically supported reauthorization because it represents an expression of ongoing support for the mission of the LSC. The $750 million annual authorization in the bill, he said, is approximately the amount appropriated in 1981 when adjusted for inflation. In 1981, the LSC for the first and only time achieved sufficient funding to reach the “minimum access” level of providing two lawyers for every 10,000 poor people. He noted that currently a least 54 million Americans are eligible for civil legal assistance under LSC’s income guidelines. By most estimates, however, 80 percent of the legal needs of low-income people go unmet.

“The people who come to our programs are in search of fair treatment and solutions to pressing legal problems,” Levi said. “Legal aid lawyers not only open the doors to justice, they provide assistance at a crucial moment in the lives of the poor, helping them get back on their feet and helping prevent a downward spiral into costly public support.” He said that even as the need for LSC programs increases, funding resources are dwindling. A major source of funding, Interest of Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) is eroding because of the drop in short-term interest rates and the decline in real estate transactions, he said.

Levi also told the panel that the LSC Board took steps to begin a nationwide search for a new LSC president at its April 16-17 meeting.

LSC Inspector General Jeffrey E. Schanz summarized the actions his office has undertaken during the past 18 months to address Government Accountability Office concerns about use of federal funds by the LSC. He also recommended some amendments to the legislation that he said would protect the oversight role of the Inspector General’s Office.

Other testimony presented at the hearing included support for the legislation by Rebekah Diller, deputy director of the Justice Program of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. Kenneth F. Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, opposed the legislation, maintaining that it “eviscerates most of the bipartisan reform that have been supported by Congress as part of the LSC’s appropriations every year since 1996.”

The ABA strongly supports LSC reauthorization, making it a priority issue during the recent ABA Day in Washington. The ABA believes that some restrictions should be lifted and that reauthorization will strengthen LSC corporate governance and accountability.

The ABA Washington Letter is a monthly publication produced by the ABA Governmental Affairs Office to report and analyze congressional and executive branch action on legislative issues of interest to the ABA and the legal profession. The newsletter highlights ABA involvement in the federal legislative process and focuses on the association’s legislative and governmental priorities and other issues on which the ABA has policy.