Despite the fact that President Donald J. Trump released his draft federal budget on Thursday and called for a complete defunding of the Legal Services Corp. — the country’s primary funder of civil legal assistance for low-income people — leaders at the organization remain optimistic about the future.
In an interview with Big Law Business, Jim Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corp., said he expects Congress will ignore Trump’s budget and grant his organization’s full request for $502.7 million.
“We represent a fundamental American value — equal justice,” said Sandman. “That’s a value as old as the republic itself. Congress understands that.”
He added, “This isn’t some nice-to-have program. It’s a must-have if we believe we are a nation with justice for all.”
Since 1974, the organization, which is set up as an independent corporation, has been funded by Congress to provide low-income people across the country with lawyers. Every year, its staff works on domestic abuse and child custody cases, elder abuse, foreclosure and eviction, consumer fraud and other cases.
In 2014, the organization helped an estimated 1.9 million people, with most of those cases never making the national headlines. For example, in New York, its lawyers helped a 74-year old woman who only spoke Spanish challenge her eviction from Section 8 housing. In Virginia, it helped an elderly disabled veteran who was being discharged from a nursing home to find new housing.
Within the legal profession, its role is viewed as sacrosanct by many of the country’s top lawyers, and rumors that Trump planned to not only cut, but defund its budget, has drawn protests from everyone including former NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh and the leaders of more than 150 of the country’s top law firms, who signed a letter decrying the cuts.
“This is a serious moment and we have to take it seriously,” said John Levi, chair of LSC and a Sidley Austin partner. “I’m not going to leave any stone unturned to make sure we are fully funded because the American people are counting on us.”
Levi said the organization differs from many federal agencies in that it was established by Congress as an independent corporation in 1974. As a result, Congress can elect to fund it without support from the President’s proposed budget, he said. Both Levi and Sandman said they were “optimistic” that their support in both parties would translate into full funding.
“The fact is we submit directly to Congress,” he said. “And we have had and still enjoy widespread bipartisan support and we expect to have that going into the next budget season.”
The $502.7 million budget request is for the 12-month period beginning October 1, 2017, according to Sandman. It also represents an increase, based on the need for services, from the previous year’s budget of $385 million, he said.
“We have very long track record with Congress, we have great relationships in Congress,” said Sandman. “I have confidence in the future, and my colleagues do too.”
The organization works closely with Big Law on many pro bono projects and Sandman himself is a former chair of Arnold & Porter. Below is the letter signed by law firm leaders in its entirety.LSC Letter