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    GOP has hard heart in legal aid for the poor

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    © St. Petersburg Times, published August 27, 2000

    Poor people in the United States needing legal assistance are caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock is the flawed nature of legal representation itself. The hard place is the conservative Republican attitude toward the poor.

    During this political season, when a new president and members of Congress will be elected, the candidates' stances on the legal rights of the poor bear watching.

    "The only thing less popular than a poor person these days is a poor person with a lawyer," said Jonathan E. Asher, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Denver, in 1996.

    Asher, like thousands of other lawyers in the 237 non-profit Legal Services offices nationwide that represent the poor, was reacting to the Republican attempt to destroy, or severely cripple, Legal Services. The GOP's 1996 proposal, which President Clinton wisely vetoed, was part of the Commerce, Justice, State conference appropriations bill. It would have slashed the 1996 Legal Services budget by one-third, from a then-already reduced 1995 level of $400-million to $278-million for the next fiscal year.

    Unfortunately, more than four years later -- even with a red-hot economy and disappearing welfare rolls -- Republican attitudes remain hard toward poor people needing legal aid. In June, the GOP-controlled House appropriated a miserly $275-million to Legal Services Corp. for fiscal year 2001. Mind you, this is a significant increase over the Appropriations Committee's recommendation of only $141-million.

    In July, the GOP-controlled Senate emulated the House's stinginess. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the Senate version of the fiscal year 2001 Commerce, Justice, State, and Judiciary Appropriations bill, cutting Legal Services Corp. funding from the current year figure of $305-million to $300-million. The Senate allocation is $40-million less than Clinton's request of $340-million.

    The House and Senate are expected to go to conference in September. As he did last time, and to his credit, the president has vowed to veto both the House and Senate versions of the Legal Services bill.

    "I am very disappointed to learn that the Senate did not approve us at or above our current funding level of $305-million," said Legal Services Corporation President John McKay. "Without adequate funding, LSC cannot meet its vital mission -- to ensure low-income Americans access to our nation's justice system.

    "The programs funded by LSC provide effective and meaningful access for the low-income to our courts. The most common categories of cases include family, housing, income maintenance, consumer and employment. More than one out of every six LSC cases involves efforts to obtain protection from domestic violence. Other case types frequently encountered include evictions, foreclosures, child custody and support, child abuse or neglect, wage claims, access to health care and unemployment or disability claims."

    We are talking about the basic stuff of life, stuff that people with money take for granted or never worry about.

    For a long time, Republicans, especially those in the House, justified their harsh measures against Legal Services in the name of balancing the budget. Well, the budget has been balanced for some time now, and we are enjoying record surpluses.

    So why the continued hard-heartedness?

    The real motivation is the GOP's warped belief that legal aid lawyers are leftist radicals representing people -- the unemployed, the working poor, the infirm -- who cause their own problems.

    Under GOP control, Congress has virtually hamstrung Legal Services. For starters, the party has limited the types of cases the agencies can handle. All class-action suits, for example, are outlawed, making lawyers unable to sue on behalf of indigent clients wanting to challenge unfair housing practices or consumer fraud. Imagine the universal outcry if citizens who can afford private lawyers were told that they cannot challenge unfair housing and consumer fraud.

    Legal-aid lawyers are barred from cases involving congressional redistricting, welfare reform and abortion. Neither can they participate in solicitation or public-policy training to benefit the poor or represent illegal aliens or prisoners. Even if lawmakers request them to do so, legal-aid lawyers cannot engage in administrative or legislative advocacy.

    They cannot, moreover, collect any fees. This is a crippling blow to the rights of the poor because fees often are awarded in housing, family relations, civil rights, job discrimination and Social Security cases.

    After these cuts and restrictions first took effect, then-Legal Services President Alexander Forger said: "To the extent that legal service programs can preserve employment or facilitate access to insured medical treatment or prevent eviction, we can make the difference between people remaining productive and independent or joining the ranks of the dependent poor. Without sufficient funding, these families, especially children, could literally be left out in the cold."

    The Republicans' real sin is their crass hypocrisy. While slashing legal-aid funding, they tell the poor to rely on pro bono largess. Republicans know as well as others that individual lawyers and firms are doing less pro bono work than ever before. The private legal profession is not -- and will not -- make up for the deep cuts to Legal Services.

    A recent survey by American Lawyer magazine shows the seriousness of the problem. The approximately 50,000 lawyers at the country's richest firms averaged eight minutes a day on pro bono cases in 1999, or 36 hours a year. In 1992, when the magazine first tracked free legal work, the same caliber of lawyers averaged 56 hours annually.

    Why the sharp drop? More business -- more billable hours -- resulting from the booming economy, most argue. In other words, today's lawyers are so busy making money, they have little time to serve the poor.

    "The dollars are so astronomical that they're blinding people to public service," Teveia Barnes, executive director of Lawyers for One America, told the New York Times. "It does a disservice to the legal profession and our reputation."

    Between the decimation of Legal Services and the drastic plunge in pro bono hours, the nation's poor are squeezed, continuing to miss their day in court.

    Given our national, institutional and individual wealth, we should be ashamed.

    Listen to Talbot D'Alemberte, president of Florida State University and president of the American Bar Association from 1991-92: "When we compare the record of the United States in providing legal services to the poor to that of other countries, despite our elaborate public rhetoric laced with sentiments of "liberty and justice for all,' we lag behind in providing financial support for legal services."

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