Senate Debates 2009 Omnibus Bill
The U.S. House of Representatives approved a $40 million budget increase for the Legal Services Corporation on Feb. 25 as part of the fiscal 2009 omnibus appropriations bill (H.R. 1105).
The 11 percent increase would bring funding for the Corporation to a total of $390 million, most of which-$365.8 million-would be awarded as competitive grants to 137 nonprofit legal aid programs across the nation. Three million dollars would go to LSC's Technology Initiative Grants program and $1 million would provide loan repayment assistance to attorneys at LSC grantees. The remainder would fund LSC management and grants oversight, at $16 million, and the Office of Inspector General, at $4.2 million. See the chart for a comparison of these figures with fiscal 2008 levels.
Regarding the House's approval of the increase, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees LSC, said the Corporation "is an important, significant program that provides legal assistance to people who are unable to afford it. We know that the poor are hit hard during economic downturns, and this funding will help more low-income Americans faced with unlawful evictions, domestic violence and other serious legal problems."
The Senate began debating the bill on March 2, but has not approved it as of this writing. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced late on Thursday, March 5, that debate will continue through Friday and into Monday, with votes scheduled for additional amendments on Monday evening. The majority of federal programs, including LSC, have been operating at fiscal 2008 levels under a continuing appropriations resolution, which expires at midnight on March 6. Congress is currently working on an additional resolution to keep the government running pending final passage of the bill.
While this increase, if passed by Congress and enacted by the President, will provide much needed relief to legal aid programs struggling to serve their increasingly embattled clients, it will not be enough to compensate for the shortfalls in other sources of funding that are crippling programs across the country. Revenue from Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts, the second largest source of funding for legal aid after LSC, is in freefall following the Federal Reserve's interest-rate cuts, and funding from state legislatures is in jeopardy due to massive budget deficits in many states.
LSC President Helaine M. Barnett participated in a panel discussion on the relationship between law schools and legal services programs as part of Yale Law School's 2009 Liman Colloquium, held March 5-6. The annual event, now in its twelfth year, brings together academics and legal experts from around the country to explore important issues related to public interest law.
The program is named after Arthur Liman, a 1957 Yale Law School graduate who made public service an integral part of his legal career, which included a stint as president of the Legal Aid Society of New York. Barnett notes that the Colloquium has special meaning for her, as she knew and worked with Liman at the Legal Aid Society, where she worked for 37 years. "In many ways, Arthur Liman set the standard when we talk about serving the public interest," says Barnett.
This year's program, "Forty Years of Clinical Education at Yale: Generating New Rights, Remedies, and Legal Services," focused on the school's extensive clinical program, which gives law students real-world experience in more than 20 clinics focusing on areas of law ranging from domestic violence and landlord-tenant law to international human rights.
Barnett will join two of Yale's clinical professors-J.L. Pottenger, Jr., and Stephen Wizner-and a law professor from Israel's Tel-Aviv University, Kenneth Mann, on a panel entitled, "Legal Services: Invention, Retrenchment, Reconfiguration, and Collaboration." The discussion will focus on the contributions that law schools and legal academics have made to legal services, how to best create equal justice as an underlying value and responsibility of the legal profession, and whether law schools and legal services programs are doing enough to instill a public-interest ethic in students
"[This] discussion will let us reflect and assess how we can continue to ensure that future generations of attorneys have meaningful law school experiences that instill and nurture their public service ethic so that no matter how they choose to pursue their career, they carry that public interest ethic as a seminal part of their legal training throughout their professional life," says Barnett.
The Honorable Robert M. Bell, Chief Judge of Maryland's Court of Appeals-the state's highest court-delivered the keynote address at the Legal Services Corporation's Black History Month program on Feb. 24. The theme of this year's event, "A Celebration of the Power to Change," reflects the historical significance of Barack Obama's election as the first African-American President of the United States.
In his speech, Judge Bell suggested that this historical "first" is less a change than it is the next step in fulfilling the promise of equality made at the inception of our nation. We have given voice to, effect to, those promises made way back when, said Bell. Still, he noted, the country has not yet arrived at the point where it should be, especially as the deteriorating economy continues to threaten those who cannot afford legal services and thus have unequal access to justice. But there is hope, he said, and that hope lies in the legal profession. "Lawyers have been critical in giving substance to the idea of equal justice," said Bell. "Without lawyers, the words of the Constitution would be dry and lifeless."
As part of the celebration, the Corporation continued its Partnering for the Future Project with the Annapolis Road Academy Alternative High School in Bladensburg, Maryland. The project seeks to encourage and inspire the school's largely African-American students to embrace careers that support the mission of ensuring equal access to justice. For the first time, LSC collaborated with the American Bar Association's Commission on Youth at Risk, which seeks to find ways that the legal community can better identify and support America's at-risk youth. Will Gunn, chairman of the commission, joined Blake Fetrow, Chief Attorney of Maryland's Legal Aid Bureau, and LSC staff to participate in a panel presentation on youth and the law for the school's students on Feb. 19.
LSC's celebration also included the presentation of the Thurgood Marshall Award to Evora Thomas, Program Counsel in LSC's Office of Program Performance. The award recognizes someone whose work at LSC and in their community has increased the inclusion of African Americans in society. Thomas is a former legal services lawyer, former executive director of a legal services program, and at 30 years old, was the youngest person in the country to preside over a municipal court system as chief judge.
More than $70 million in tax refunds and credits have been returned to low-income workers who applied for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) through a free electronic filing system developed by the Legal Aid Society of Orange County.
"We are in record territory," said Robert J. Cohen, executive director of the Orange Country program in California.
EITC refunds and credits topped the $70 million mark in late February, with several weeks to go before the April 15 deadline for filing tax returns. During last year's tax-filing season, the Legal Aid Society reported returning about $34 million in tax refunds, EITC and other credits to low-income workers in 45 states.
The low-income workers applying for the EITC are using the I-CAN! E-File system, developed through funding provided by a Technology Initiative Grant from the Legal Services Corporation.
I-CAN! E-File is available to taxpayers at www.icanefile.org and, for the first time, appears in the listing of Free File Alliance online tax preparation organizations compiled by the Internal Revenue Service on the agency's website, www.irs.gov.
The latest news on the nationwide legal aid funding crisis
The California Bar Journal reports that revenue for legal aid programs from the state's Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program, which has historically provided varied funding levels from year to year, is projected to come to an almost complete halt in 2009.
Hopes were initially high for this year, as an IOLTA comparability law passed in January 2008 promised to drastically increase IOLTA funding for the state's legal aid programs. But that was before the nation's economy started to crumble and the Federal Reserve began slashing interest rates. IOLTA funding is tied to the federal rate, and when it dropped to less than one percent, IOLTA funding fell with it.
That is why Stephanie Choy, who manages the state bar program that distributes the funding, predicts that total IOLTA revenue for 2009 could be no more than $3 million-$17 million less than the program provided in 2007-2008 and $37 million less than the approximate $40 million that was initially predicted for 2009.
The shortfall has real consequences for legal aid programs and their clients. Gary Smith, executive director of Legal Services of Northern California, says that his IOLTA grant could drop by 70 percent this year, which would force staff layoffs that ultimately result in less clients being served. Ramon Arias, who heads Bay Area Legal Aid, thinks he will lose half his IOLTA grant and be forced to lay off three people. Chris Schneider, who heads Central California Legal Services, says that the funding cuts could not come at a worse time, as more and more clients affected by the economic downturn are more in need of legal services than ever.
For previous LSC Updates coverage of the nationwide legal aid funding crisis, read:
The Texas Access to Justice Commission has sponsored an independent study showing that spending on civil legal services provides a "sizeable stimulus to the Texas economy," by creating increases in consumer spending, personal income and gross product output. The study, "The Impact of Legal Aid Services on Economic Activity in Texas: An Analysis of Current Efforts and Expansion Potential," was conducted by the Waco, Texas-based Perryman Group, an economic research and analysis firm, and was released late last month. The study found, among other things, that "[f]or every direct dollar expended in the state for indigent civil legal services, the overall annual gains to the economy are found to be $7.42 in total spending, $3.56 in output (gross product), and $2.20 in personal income."
On March 5, the Tennessee Supreme Court held the latest in its series of public hearings on access to justice for the state's poor residents. This meeting, the fourth of five, took place in Bristol in the northeast corner of the state. The event was scheduled to feature a panel discussion among community members and leaders, including a state representative, judge, court clerk, private attorney and representatives from legal aid programs. Supreme Court Justice Gary Wade hosted the meeting and moderated the discussion. In December, Chief Justice Janice M. Holder announced that the court was making access to justice a priority in the years to come and that these meetings would be the first step towards developing a strategy to better provide for the unmet legal needs of the poor.
"This unmet need is growing greater by the day," said Holder in her announcement. "In our current troubled economy, the need for civil legal services among Tennessee's indigent and working poor families can only be expected to increase as they face more legal problems caused by unemployment, predatory loans, uninsured medical bills, domestic violence, evictions, and foreclosures. The issues confronting low-income people will require new solutions and an increased need for existing services."
Rosemary R. Elbert, executive director of Wisconsin Judicare, has been honored by the Wisconsin Law Journal with a lifetime achievement award. Elbert, a 1961 Marquette University Law School graduate, has been practicing law for nearly 50 years, beginning at a time when few women existed in the profession. She was one of only three women in her graduating law school class, she told the Journal, and was the first woman lawyer employed by the Milwaukee County Corporation Counsel. Since 1998 she has worked at the Wausau-based Wisconsin Judicare, which serves more than 30 counties in northern Wisconsin and nearly a dozen of the state's Native American tribes. In 2004 Elbert became the group's first permanent female executive director. Her work there has focused primarily on serving victims of domestic violence. "Getting people out of that situation has been a very important factor in my practice," she said. "I see people who are in bad, impoverished situations who've been able to obtain an education, and I see them as nurses and counselors today. I'm not the only influence, but I certainly helped them get out of a bad situation and made a real difference in their lives."
Minouche Kandel, staff attorney at the Oakland-based Bay Area Legal Aid, has won two awards for her work representing victims of domestic violence-an attorney of the year award from California Lawyer magazine and a family law award from the Legal Aid Association of California.
California Lawyer recognized Kandel for her victory in a state appellate court ruling that ultimately established the responsibility of judges to provide an explanation when denying requests for temporary restraining orders. Kandel's client in the case had been denied the order, without a hearing, despite evidence showing that she had suffered repeated physical abuse by her husband. The Legal Aid Association honored Kandel for her direct representation of clients. She received the award on Feb. 25 at a Family Law Conference hosted by the association and the state's Administrative Office of the Courts.
Bay Area Legal Aid Executive Director Ramon Arias said, "Minouche exemplifies the best in our profession and is a tribute, not only to Bay Area Legal Aid, but to all legal aid attorneys that work extremely hard for their clients for very little pay and, often, without recognition."
The Legal Services National Technology Assistance Project (LSNTAP) is hosting a free online training session on how document assembly programs at self-help centers facilitate the delivery of legal services. The programs allow self-represented litigants without legal training to fill out properly formatted court forms on routine matters of law. Presenters will include representatives from the Idaho Supreme Court, New York City courts, and the Los Angeles Superior Court. The session will be held on March 11. It is recommended for court clerks, self-help center managers, supervising attorneys, and technology directors, but is available to all legal aid program staff.
The LSC Resource Information (LRI) is an online clearinghouse of best practices, model projects, and other resources for LSC-funded programs.
Kansas Legal Services has developed a procedure to follow when evaluating the program's executive director. The plan includes a list of benchmarks to be reviewed as part of the evaluation and specifies "stress areas"-significant changes in operation, new services or programs, etc.-to focus on during the process.
Legal aid is about helping ordinary people with real-life problems. Client stories illustrate the day-to-day struggles-and victories-of poor Americans seeking justice under law.
For most of their lives, six-year-old "Kwaneese" and her younger brother lived with their grandmother, "Wendy." The children's father had been shot and killed in 2003 and their mother, drug addicted and absent for months at a time, lived with the family off and on. In October 2004, the children's mother went to jail and consented to have Wendy take legal guardianship of them.
After being released from prison, but still using drugs, the mother tried to regain custody of the children. Concerned for the health and safety of her grandkids, Wendy turned to the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago for help. An attorney with the program represented Wendy in court to make sure the children were not returned to their mother without a thorough investigation into her ability to care for them. The mother was eventually granted unsupervised visits with the children in her own home.
After a while, Wendy became alarmed at some dramatic changes in Kwaneese's behavior and took her to see a doctor, who determined that the little girl had contracted a sexually transmitted disease. Wendy and the doctor contacted the Department of Children and Family Services, who discovered that the perpetrator was Kwaneese's mentally disabled 14-year-old cousin, who lived with her mother and was often left alone with Kwaneese. Yet, after learning of the diagnosis, a representative of the court requested that Wendy's guardianship be terminated-faulting Wendy for, among other things, refusing to leave Kwaneese alone with a male investigator.
Wendy's attorneys from the Legal Assistance Foundation argued that terminating Wendy's guardianship would only serve to return the children to their mother's care, which the court had found unacceptable, and that the only other option, foster care, was not in the children's best interests either when there was no evidence that they had ever been mistreated in Wendy's care. While the case took months to settle, Wendy was eventually granted continued guardianship of her grandchildren.
Note: The Legal Assistance Foundation also represented Wendy in a recent case involving the Chicago Public School system's unwillingness to provide transportation for her grandson. Click here to download the full story of how the legal aid program has helped Wendy fight for her grandchildren.