From "Renegade" Agency to Institution of Justice: The Transformation of Legal Services Corporation
Vivero, Mauricio, Fordham Urban Law Journal
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. THE LONG ROAD TO BIPARTISAN SUPPORT
The 1990s began with partisanship in the House over federally funded legal services. (18) When the House Judiciary Committee passed legislation reauthorizing LSC in 1991, several attempts were made by supporters of a bipartisan "reform" bill to limit the scope of LSC-funded lawyers. (19) Most of the amendments were defeated along party lines in committee. (20) On May 12, 1992, Democrat Charlie Stenholm of Texas and Republican Bill McCollum of Florida proposed the same restrictions when the full House took up the Legal Services Reauthorization Act of 1991. (21) The legislators introduced a series of seven amendments that constituted the most sweeping contemplated congressional overhaul of LSC to date. Speaking on the House floor, Rep. McCollum accused LSC of attempting to "socially engineer change in our laws and rules." (22) McCollum cited "extensive abuses within the Legal Services Corporation by lawyers with their own political agendas actively recruiting clients, creating claims, and advancing their own social causes." (23) He and Rep. Stenholm introduced measures to limit class action lawsuits and prohibit involvement in fee-generating cases and cases involving abortion, political redistricting, and drug-related public housing evictions. (24) The amendments sought to proscribe most lobbying and rule-making activities, collection of attorneys' fees, training for political purposes, and solicitation of clients. (25) The measures also sought to implement competitive bidding for LSC service area contracts and apply federal waste, fraud, and abuse laws to LSC. (26) Seven recorded votes were taken by the full House of Representatives on a range of proposed restrictions. (27)
The votes were all close, but only two amendments passed: the ban on political redistricting cases and some restrictions on LSC-funded lobbying and rule-making. (28)
Neither amendment became law because the Senate chose not to debate these issues in 1992. (29) Signs of discontent, however, were evident in the upper chamber. During the Senate appropriations debate for fiscal year 1992, Senator Gramm offered an amendment to reduce LSC's funding by $48.1 million and transfer the money to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Led by longtime legal services supporter Senator Warren Rudman (R-NH), (30) seventeen Republican senators coalesced to combat the proposed reduction and tabled Gramm's amendment. (31) The fight in the House, coupled with the floor vote in the Senate, indicated growing momentum for change.
Republican gains in the 1994 mid-term elections put strident opponents of legal services in leadership positions in both the House and Senate. (32) Republicans in both chambers were able to move towards eliminating several federal entities long despised by the conservative wing of the party, LSC among them.
Initial opposition came from special interest groups who saw the Republican takeover as a golden opportunity to fulfill long-standing policy objectives. The Christian Coalition's Contract with the American Family called for the end of federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Lac. (33) The arguments used by the Christian Coalition illustrated the old, and now largely irrelevant, debate about legal services. These arguments criticized LSC's effectiveness as a federal poverty program. (34) Further, they argued that federal funding to help poor people obtain divorces was harmful to society because "divorce is not helping our nation's poor break out of poverty." (35) That rhetorical approach completely backfired when Congress made clear in 1996 that fighting poverty was not LSC's mission. Rather, its purpose was to serve individuals with critical legal needs and ensure that the poor have access to our nation's system of justice.
Almost immediately after taking control of Congress, some Republicans, with an eye toward cutting the budget, focused on LSC. (36) On March 16, 1995, the House Budget Committee, chaired by John Kasich of Ohio, passed a resolution recommending the phase-out of all LSC funding. (37) The adoption of a phase-out plan by a congressional panel, although not binding on the House Appropriations Committee, sent a clear warning that the program would have to fight for its survival. (38) The committee action set the stage for a five-year battle in the House of Representatives over Legal Services funding. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) encapsulated conservative opposition to LSC in a speech on the Senate floor:
[I] really believe the Legal Services Corporation was conceived as a part of the Great Society program, understandably, perhaps, at the time, to offer legal services to the poor. However, over a period of years it has turned into an agency that is trying to reshape the political and legal and social fabric of America. (39)
Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) went a step further, contending that LSC had "become ... the instrument for bullying ordinary Americans to satisfy a liberal agenda that has been repeatedly rejected by the voters.... The impoverished individual who has run-of-the-mill, but important, legal needs is shunted aside by Legal Services lawyers in search of sexy issues and deep pockets." (40) In its March 1995 budget plan, the House Budget committee wrote, "[T]oo often, lawyers funded through LSC grants have focused on political causes and class action lawsuits rather than helping poor Americans solve their legal problems." (41) While LSC statistics on annual caseloads contradict this view, (42) the congressional opposition awakened legal services to a long-neglected image problem. LSC's depiction as a crusading liberal entity put the national legal services program in a tenuous political position. Responding to the Budget Committee's de-funding plan, LSC Board Chairman Douglas Eakeley declared, "This will probably be the greatest struggle the program has ever faced." (43)
Appropriators in the House also moved quickly to cut LSC's funding. Rep. Harold Rogers (R-KY), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee, the subcommittee that funded legal services, told LSC officials on May 24, 1995, that his committee would not be able to fund all the agencies within its jurisdiction given the "current political climate." (44) Chairman Rogers embraced the House Budget Committee proposal for the elimination of LSC. (45) On July 19, 1995, the House Appropriations Committee voted to cut LSC's budget from $400 million in the 1995 fiscal year to $278 million in 1996. (46)
On July 25, 1995, the House approved the $278 million LSC committee figure for the 1996 fiscal year and simultaneously passed most of the restrictions on LSC-funded programs that had been proposed by Stenholm, McCollum, and others. (47) Chairman Rogers summarized the House action …
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Publication information: Article title: From "Renegade" Agency to Institution of Justice: The Transformation of Legal Services Corporation. Contributors: Vivero, Mauricio - Author. Journal title: Fordham Urban Law Journal. Volume: 29. Issue: 3 Publication date: February 2002. Page number: 1323+. © 2009 Fordham Urban Law Journal. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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