From "Renegade" Agency to Institution of Justice: The Transformation of Legal Services Corporation

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INTRODUCTION

At no time in recent history has the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and the national legal services community been in a stronger political position. Today, LSC enjoys broad bipartisan support. Federally-funded legal services programs are part of civil justice coalitions in nearly every state. (1) Federal and state funding for legal services is rising again after many years of decline. (2) President Bush's decision to support LSC's budget request of $329.3 million for Fiscal Year 2002 is a vivid example of how LSC has dispelled old myths about the work of local legal aid offices and has solidified support for the core mission of the national legal services program. (3)

The national legal services community is comprised of dedicated advocates for equal justice on behalf of the underserved. These public servants have invested considerable time, resources, and passion in advocating for more resources to carry on their work and opposing efforts to narrow the scope of their activities. They have done so despite being among the lowest-paid members of the legal profession. (4) These efforts are an invaluable contribution to the preservation of federally funded legal services. This was especially true in the 1980s when President Reagan appointed an LSC Board of Directors whose stated mission was to eliminate the Legal Services Corporation. (5)

The election of the conservative Ronald Reagan catalyzed opponents of legal aid. They seized a handful of politically charged cases and argued that the corporation should be dissolved for promoting a "radical" political agenda. (6) At the same time, Congress attempted to reduce LSC's funding and restrict the scope of its grantees' activities. (7) These efforts were unsuccessful, but the partisan, often heated battles accompanying each congressional vote (8) left their mark and foreshadowed an even greater fight ahead. (9)

In May 1992, the most serious effort to reform LSC took hold as members of the House debated bipartisan legislation reauthorizing the corporation. (10) Numerous measures sought to restrict the scope of permissible activities engaged in by LSC-funded programs. (11)

By the time of the Republican takeover of Congress in 1995, (12) it had become clear that LSC's very existence was threatened. In order to survive, its leaders would have to learn to work in a new political climate. In September 1995, Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX) summed up the core criticism of the legal services corporation on the Senate floor: "The Legal Services Corporation is a renegade agency which has spent a tremendous amount of resources promoting a political agenda." (13)

The 1996 LSC appropriations bill cut LSC's annual budget by $122 million and imposed new restrictions on LSC funded programs. (14) The 1996 changes mirrored the House proposals that had been defeated in 1992. (15) This time, however, many legal services supporters accepted the restrictions as preferable to the alternative: the elimination of LSC. Compromise was seen as a necessary sacrifice to quell the intense conservative opposition fomented through years of partisan battles. Although the sacrifice came at a steep price for national equal justice efforts, LSC today is a stronger, more politically stable organization capable of helping more low-income people. This good standing is critical since federal dollars allocated by LSC constitute the largest single funding source for legal aid nationally. (16) Indeed, current resources are only helping one in four eligible poor people with civil legal problems. (17)

Since 1995, the Legal Services Corporation has experienced near-death, a significant transformation, and a re-birth. The road from virtual extinction to bipartisan renewal is filled with lessons about LSC's reformed focus on more effective advocacy for the civil legal rights of poor Americans.

I. …