The Poor Need Lawyers
Gaffney, Edward McGlynn, Jr., Commonweal
An occupational hazard of being a law school dean is that I have to put up with a lot of lawyer jokes. The latest one I heard asks how many lawyers it takes to change a light bulb. Answer: How many lawyers can you afford? Lawyer jokes aside, is any of us so cynical that we are willing to cast aside our society's aspiration to "equal justice under law" (to use the words over the front door of the Supreme Court)? To put flesh on the question, if a landlord who has abused the law is going to evict a poor person improperly, should not that poor person have a champion to protect his or her rights? In short, who of us really wants legal services to be cut off for poor people?
Not long ago there was a renaissance of interest in what historians refer to as "republican virtue." The term refers to the commitment to the commonweal, manifested by our extraordinary leaders in the formative years of the republic. A generous critic of the present 104th Congress might concede that its intentions with respect to the republic are honorable, but the public virtue of the reigning Republicans is coming clearer as its members exercise the power of the purse, putting our money where their mouth is. Last July, for example, Congress held hearings on whether to continue public funding for the Legal Services Corporation, the federal agency that provides attorneys for poor people in civil cases. Congressman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, pledged to support a bill to dissolve the agency and end funding in two years. On the day after the House voted to cut LSC funding by nearly .35 percent, Hyde suggested that economics, not politics, drove the decision. "In an ideal world," Hyde said, "Legal Services could, and should, continue getting federal funds. But, unfortunately, we are confronted with a mind-boggling task of cutting spending to move toward a balanced budget." Or, in the words of Don Corleone, "Nothing personal, just business."
The Senate should not accept this portion of the contract on America. And if the Congress agrees to kill LSC, the president should veto the legislation. For the business of cutting federal funds to LSC is a matter of public justice. When we negate the public commitment of the past thirty years to provide access to the justice system for the poor, it goes to the core of our self-understanding as a community.
The principles that were urged in favor of government funding for lawyers for poor people back in the 1960s need rearticulation and clarification, lest they be cast aside with the dismissive words of Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga. …