Our democracy can’t afford to cut legal aid services from the budget
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When I was in Congress I was able to help a lot of folks get their Social Security or Veterans Affairs benefits, and I got a lot of hugs from those I was able to help. Now I’m working as a volunteer in a legal aid office supported by the Legal Services Corporation. And just the other day I got a hug from a victim of domestic violence I’d helped get a protective order.

That hug was special because, even though members of Congress can do a lot of things for their constituents, they can’t represent their constituents in court.

That’s where the Legal Services Corporation comes in. And that’s why I’m concerned over the news that the White House wants to kill it.

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The LSC is the nation’s largest funder of civil legal aid lawyers. LSC funds 133 legal aid organizations that operate in all 435 Congressional districts. LSC-supported lawyers provide legal representation in a wide variety of cases, including domestic violence, child custody disputes, unlawful foreclosures and evictions, predatory lending, wage claims, and denial of essential benefits.

 

The vast majority of those helped by LSC-funded lawyers are single mothers, seniors, veterans, and people with disabilities, all of whom make less than 125 percent of the federal poverty level.

I know what some of you are thinking: “We the People” pay most of the taxes, and we don’t get free lawyers – so why should we pay for lawyers for those who are worse off than we are?

We don’t – not even close. One in five Americans earn so little that they qualify for legal aid, but the number of lawyers we provide them is ridiculously small.

The Atlanta Legal Aid Society where I volunteer, and other LSC-funded organizations across the country, have to turn away as many people who seek our help as we are able to serve. In some places, the ratio is even higher. 

All of these folks need our assistance, but we have so few lawyers that we can only help those who are in the most desperate need.

That means the vast majority of people who need a lawyer don’t get one.

I was a member of Congress who voted to amend the Constitution to require a balanced budget, so I believe in fiscal responsibility, and I know we have to set priorities.

But I believe that killing the LSC would not only be a sin – it’d be a mistake.

It’d be a sin because it would violate the spirit of our Constitution if we were to completely close the courthouse door to the poor.

It’s already effectively closed to most of the poor, and this would just finish the job.

We all know that’s wrong. We might as well amend the Constitution to provide that everyone is entitled to “due process of law, except those who cannot afford a lawyer.”

It’s not only wrong – it’s dumb. It makes no sense to subsidize those who use the law to prey on the weak and not provide any support for those who try to use the law to protect the weak.

It’s dumb because killing the LSC will do next to nothing to balance the budget. 

LSC’s current funding of $385 million is one hundredth of one percent of federal spending. Americans spend about the same on LSC as we do on Halloween costumes for our pets.

Some will say, “If this is so important, how about making others help out?”

We’re already doing that.

In fact, LSC provides less than 40 percent of the total support on average for legal aid clinics in the country – proof that we’re already using our federal dollars to leverage as much outside support as possible.

“Yeah, but everybody has to cut back some.”

The good news (if you can call it that) is that we’ve been cutting back on this program ever since President Reagan. LSC’s current funding is less than half of what it was in the 1970s in inflation-adjusted dollars. And yet no Congress has seen fit to kill it off, and that is the White House proposal before the current Congress now.

To my former colleagues I say, don’t take my word for it. Justice Antonin Scalia supported the LSC. We should all take to heart what he said just a couple of years ago, on the 40th anniversary of LSC:

“The American ideal is not for some justice, it is as the Pledge of Allegiance says, ‘Liberty and justice for all,’ or as the Supreme Court pediment has it, ‘equal justice.’ I’ve always thought that’s somewhat redundant. 

Can there be justice if it is not equal?

Can there be a just society when some do not have justice? 

Equality, equal treatment is perhaps the most fundamental element of justice.”

Every day, legal aid attorneys across our nation can be counted on to pursue this ideal, and We the People are better off because of it.

John BarrowJohn BarrowOur democracy can’t afford to cut legal aid services from the budget Dem files Ethics complaint on Benghazi panel Barrow thanks staff in farewell speech MORE represented Georgia's 12th congressional district from 2005 to 2015.


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