Saving Legal Services Corp’s Funding: Inside The Battle

Nathan L. Hecht is the 27th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas.

Nathan Hecht, Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, was in Washington, D.C. last week to support funding for Legal Services Corp.

For Jim Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corp., the narrowly averted government shutdown last week was both a relief and a call to action.

Congress passed a resolution that maintained funding for most federal agencies and recipients including his organization, which is the primary funder for Legal Aid and civil legal assistance organizations around the country.

But there’s no question that Sandman has scaled back his hopes since President Donald J. Trump proposed completely defunding the organization earlier this year. In fact, since more than 150 leaders from the country’s largest law firms signed a letter decrying the proposed cuts to the LSC in March, Sandman said he was glad Congress didn’t cut his organization’s funding in the latest budget negotiations.

“There had been some talk about across the board cuts,” he said. “We thought there was a possibility that might be some kind of cut.”

The situation has put Sandman on a semi-permanent high alert and lead him to call judges, law firm leaders and corporate counsel from around the country to the capital to meet with legislators and impress upon them the importance of civil legal aid organizations.

Last week, Microsoft’s Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith, Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s General Counsel John F. Schultz and Home Depot’s General Counsel Teresa Wynn Roseborough all attended Legal Services Corp.’s board meeting in a show of support for its role in the legal system.

“It is critical that the LSC continues to receive significant government funding in order to protect legal services for the poor and underrepresented,” Larren Nashelsky, chair of Morrison & Foerster, who signed the letter in March, which was addressed to the Office of Management and Budget, wrote by email.

If you’re talking to a person who’s not a lawyer, they oftentimes don’t realize there’s no right to a lawyer in a civil case.

Sandman said part of his organization’s strategy has been targeting Republicans: A few years ago, he met a Harvard Law scholar who helped analyze legislators’ voting records. They found Democrats tend to uniformly support the LSC while Republicans are much more likely to support it if they are lawyers.

Lawyers get it right away, they know what it means,” said Sandman. “If you’re talking to a person who’s not a lawyer, they oftentimes don’t realize there’s no right to a lawyer in a civil case.”

So he said, “Part of our strategy has been reaching out to Republicans in Congress and asking them to talk peer to peer, and explain what the situation is.”

That’s partially how Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht wound up padding around Washington, D.C. last week, meeting with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, among others to reiterate why the country needs to fund civil legal assistance organizations.

“It’s just good government,” said Hecht. “It’s about something we need to do. It’s about justice. It’s about the rule of law. This isn’t an entitlements program, it’s a way to get legal services to the people that need them.”

Hecht said Cornyn, a lawyer who served on the Texas Supreme Court for seven years in the 1990s, understood and is supportive. Other lawyers from Texas joined who Hecht on the trip fanned out to talk to the other members of Congress from Texas, which includes 25 Republicans and 11 Democrats.

According to Hecht, in Texas, legal aid providers handled an estimated 110,000 cases last year, which accounted for only 10 or 15 percent of the people who needed assistance. But there simply weren’t enough resources to help others who were losing their house, being evicted, wrongfully terminated or in need of civil counsel for some other reason but could not afford to pay a lawyer, he said.

For the moment, the organization appears to be on track to keep its funding through the end of the fiscal year, which runs until Sept. 30. But President Trump is expected to release his budget for the next fiscal year in late May, and then Congress will have an appropriations process and during which time LSC’s funding level will be determined.

“This will play out for several months and through the summer,” said Sandman. “This is a marathon not a sprint.”

UPDATED: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that LSC had scaled back its budgetary request, which it has not.

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