The Administration has recently issued its first budget plan. In seeking to reduce discretionary domestic spending, it calls for the elimination of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). The LSC was established in 1974 to grant federal funds to provide civil legal services to the poor. Funding LSC helps to foster the principle that access to the courts is an essential element of the rule of law, the bedrock of our Republic. So why eliminate it?
I do not believe it is because the Administration “hates the poor,” or other such overheated rhetoric. Instead, I think it has been given some out-of-date information. In 2010, I was appointed as one of the Republican members of the LSC Board of Directors. At the time, I believed the program to be a typically well-intentioned government program, but which had been co-opted by leftist ideology to serve not the poor, but a political agenda. But I was wrong, and the LSC that I was tasked to oversee was very different from the LSC that I had heard about. I believe the administration operates from the same faulty premise.
Distrust of LSC among Republicans goes back at least to the early 1980s. In 1985, a book was printed with the provocative title, Legal Services Corporation: The Robber Barons of the Poor? The primary conclusion of the book’s various authors was that grassroots lobbying had been “the heart” of LSC’s work for many years and that the organization had systematically wasted Congressional funds without providing substantive legal aid to poor people. The methodology and conclusions are debatable. What is not debatable is that LSC today bears little resemblance to the LSC described in that book.
The primary reason is that in 1996 the Republican Congress passed into law a number of restrictions on LSC activities. The law sought to address the problems of lobbying, politicized class action lawsuits, and inequitable funding. In fact, virtually all of the objections raised in the 1985 book were dealt with in those restrictions. I believe that those 1996 changes helped better focus the LSC’s work on individuals in need of legal assistance, and the last 20 years of data bear that out.
In addition, over the last seven years the current LSC Board has, in bipartisan fashion, committed to significantly improving LSC’s oversight. We restructured the LSC to provide greater communication among its various oversight functions. We required more thorough financial accountability and transparency both in the grant application process and throughout the grant period. We also increased significantly the tools available to LSC’s management to respond to grantees who misuse or misappropriate federal funds.
Most importantly, we have seen increased cooperation between LSC and its Office of Inspector General. In fact, I would put the effectiveness of LSC’s oversight up against any federal agency. LSC can say today, better than it ever has, that its funds are being spent according to the will of Congress.
Some argue that the LSC should be eliminated not because it is ineffective or ideological, but because legal services ought to be a state issue. I am very sympathetic to this argument, as I believe strongly in the principle of subsidiarity and its American expression in federalism. The problem is that we are not dealing with a clean slate. The LSC is the largest national funder of civil legal services to the poor. In 2015 alone, LSC’s grantees closed more than 750,000 cases. LSC’s elimination would leave an immense gap, which would have a pronounced impact on an already overloaded court system as it would be swamped with self-represented litigants. More than that, LSC’s grant structure is a model of cooperation between the federal and state funding providers. LSC’s involvement in civil legal aid has promoted, not lessened, state involvement.
In my tenure on the LSC Board, I have tried always to emphasize that the primary goal of LSC is to help the poor—not federal bureaucrats and not ideologues. If the LSC were truly a Robber Baron of the Poor, I would be among the loudest clamoring for its elimination. The poor have too often been used as pawns in ideological games. My fellow board members and I have worked hard these last seven years to make sure that this is not true of LSC. I am proud of the work we have done and am convinced that LSC has proved itself worthy of more funds, not less. The commitment to equal justice, to equal access to the courts, is a fundamentally American principle, and deserves bipartisan support. LSC is one of the best tools we have to do that.
Father Pius is a former corporate attorney who is now a Dominican priest as well as one of the Republican members of the Legal Service Corporation’s bipartisan board.