President Donald Trump’s proposed budget calls for the elimination of all funding for the Legal Services Corporation, the nation’s single largest funder of civil legal aid to low-income people. The proposed cut would hurt the poor, rural voters who helped elect him.
Legal Services Corporation works to ensure that low-income Americans have access to much-needed legal assistance. It is often the sole lifeline for vulnerable people with legal problems that affect their health, housing, safety and economic security.
With broad bipartisan support, Congress in 1974 created the LSC, an independent nonprofit organization. President Richard Nixon signed the bill into law. And for more than 40 years, Congress has annually funded the organization so that low-income Americans might realize some semblance of the nation’s promise of equal justice for all.
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With the economic recession of 2008, the workload of LSC-funded organizations increased dramatically. In the last three fiscal years, bipartisan majorities in Congress have increased its funding by $10 million per year.
As the late Justice Antonin Scalia emphasized in a speech at the Legal Services Corporation’s 40th anniversary conference in 2014, it “pursues the most fundamental of American ideals, and it pursues equal justice in those areas of life most important to the lives of our citizens.”
Put simply, Legal Services Corporation is the backbone of the modern legal aid system in the United States. It is especially important in rural areas where there are few lawyers and many poor people. Federal funding for civil legal services provides crucial assistance to hundreds of thousands of Americans each year.
The 133 LSC-funded programs serve every county in every state. They help veterans secure benefits, assist domestic violence victims in obtaining protection orders against abusers, protect seniors from consumer scams and to obtain health care, and assist disaster survivors.
One in five Americans is eligible for civil legal aid. LSC-funded offices provide services to nearly 2 million people each year. The simple premise of LSC and civil legal aid is that a person’s economic status should not determine the quality of the justice they receive.
“The Legal Services Corporation is as American as apple pie,” said John Levi, chair of the LSC board. “We promote what Thomas Jefferson described as ‘the most sacred of the duties of government,’ which is ‘to provide equal and impartial justice to all its citizens.’ And we do it at a cost that amounts to less than one one-hundredth of 1 percent of the federal budget.”
Continued funding makes basic fiscal sense: LSC delivers far more economic benefits to the country than what it costs to support the program.
I am proud to have served for many years as president of the board of directors of Legal Services of Northern California, which helps poor and working people from south of Sacramento to California’s northern border. In most of the region, Legal Services of Northern California is the only legal voice for poor and vulnerable populations. It protects the rights of thousands of people every year. Tens of thousands more in these rural areas benefit from Legal Services of Northern California’s community education materials, informational sessions and legal clinics.
Trump wants to change the nation as we know it. In the campaign, he promised to be the voice for the voiceless. Legal aid organizations across the country, especially in the nation’s rural expanses funded for decades by the Legal Services Corporations, provide the critical voice for the poorest and most vulnerable of our neighbors.
Kevin R. Johnson is dean of the UC Davis School of Law. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.