Frank Strickland
Frank Strickland ()

Among those decrying the Trump administration’s proposal to eliminate funding for the Legal Services Corp. is a Republican stalwart who takes issue with conservative arguments for targeting federally-funded legal services. Frank Strickland has fought for funding for LSC before, and he sounds ready to do it again.

On Thursday, the Trump administration revealed a budget proposal eliminating the LSC, the key funding source for state and local groups that provide lawyers for indigent people in domestic violence situations, evictions, consumer problems and other matters.

“The concept of civil legal aid is woven into the fabric of our society,” said Strickland, who was appointed to the LSC board in 2003 by President George W. Bush and chaired the organization for the next seven years.

Strickland, of Atlanta’s Strickland Brockington Lewis, served as the state GOP’s general counsel and won a U.S. Supreme Court decision against a Democratic-drawn redistricting plan.

But he takes issue with conservative arguments for targeting federally-funded legal services.

The Heritage Foundation in February urged the elimination of the LSC, claiming that LSC-funded attorneys “have tended to engage in the political hot-button issues from which they are specifically barred by the annual appropriations language.”

“That’s not true,” said Strickland. He acknowledged that some legal aid groups “push the envelope” on rules against impact litigation—but vigorous enforcement keeps them in line, especially because going too far risks millions in grants from LSC. As chairman, he defunded one state legal services program that had broken the rules.

LSC has an inspector general, he added, and staff on the compliance and grant-making sides of the organization are some of “the most extraordinarily dedicated group of people I have ever encountered.”

The Heritage Foundation also argued that LSC should be eliminated because, “Many state and local governments already provide funding for indigent legal defense.”

“That’s easier said than done,” Strickland replied.

He noted that some state governments provide funds, and legal aid groups in big cities can rely on local donations to limit the need for federal funds. The Atlanta Legal Aid Society, for example, enjoys generous donations from Atlanta-area law firms, so LSC funds amount to only 40 percent of its budget.

In rural areas with small-to-nonexistent legal communities, he said, LSC funds can make up to 90 percent of a legal aid group’s budget.

Strickland recalled going to Washington in 1995 with state bar leaders to persuade the Georgia congressional delegation to save the LSC from vows by the Republican-controlled Congress to eliminate the LSC. A compromise was reached in which LSC funding was saved in return for rules barring LSC-funded groups from representing clients in class actions and other types of cases.

Strickland expects a similar campaign in the wake of the Trump budget. “I think there will be a major effort … to prevent this from happening.”

How that effort will be received on Capitol Hill remains to be seen. Requests for comment by Georgia U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, both Republicans, were not returned.

“No Congress has killed it off completely,” said former U.S. Rep. John Barrow, a Democratic lawyer from Athens who is in the midst of a six-month pro bono engagement with Atlanta Legal Aid.

He said many lawmakers may not realize how much they rely on legal aid groups. Staffers often field calls from constituents with problems that can be resolved only in courts, not by Congress. When that happens, the staffers refer indigent callers to local legal aid societies.

Steve Gottlieb, Atlanta Legal Aid’s longtime chief, said that in 2016 the group represented clients in more than 20,000 cases involving, among other things, protection against domestic violence, access to medical care and protection against eviction.

“In just one year, we got our clients over $20 million in direct benefits—child support, Social Security benefits, protection of home equity,” said Gottlieb. “Much of this work would be threatened if LSC’s support were eliminated,” he said.

The LSC was appropriated $385 million in the last fiscal year, and it sought $502 million in fiscal year 2017.

Mack Mulvaney, the Trump budget director, told reporters on Wednesday that the president wanted to increase defense spending by $54 billion without increasing the deficit.

Accordingly, Mulvaney said, “you’ll see reductions in many agencies as he tries to shrink the role of government, drive efficiencies, go after waste, duplicative programs, those types of things.”

Strickland noted that the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative legal icon, was a fan of LSC. He recalled Scalia’s appearance at LSC’s 40th anniversary conference in 2014.

“I’m here principally to show the flag, to represent the support of the Supreme Court and I’m sure all of my colleagues for the LSC,” Scalia said.

The justice said the LSC “pursues the most fundamental of American ideals and it pursues equal justice in those areas of life most important to the lives of our citizens.”

Among those decrying the Trump administration’s proposal to eliminate funding for the Legal Services Corp. is a Republican stalwart who takes issue with conservative arguments for targeting federally-funded legal services. Frank Strickland has fought for funding for LSC before, and he sounds ready to do it again.

On Thursday, the Trump administration revealed a budget proposal eliminating the LSC, the key funding source for state and local groups that provide lawyers for indigent people in domestic violence situations, evictions, consumer problems and other matters.

“The concept of civil legal aid is woven into the fabric of our society,” said Strickland, who was appointed to the LSC board in 2003 by President George W. Bush and chaired the organization for the next seven years.

Strickland, of Atlanta’s Strickland Brockington Lewis , served as the state GOP’s general counsel and won a U.S. Supreme Court decision against a Democratic-drawn redistricting plan.

But he takes issue with conservative arguments for targeting federally-funded legal services.

The Heritage Foundation in February urged the elimination of the LSC, claiming that LSC-funded attorneys “have tended to engage in the political hot-button issues from which they are specifically barred by the annual appropriations language.”

“That’s not true,” said Strickland. He acknowledged that some legal aid groups “push the envelope” on rules against impact litigation—but vigorous enforcement keeps them in line, especially because going too far risks millions in grants from LSC. As chairman, he defunded one state legal services program that had broken the rules.

LSC has an inspector general, he added, and staff on the compliance and grant-making sides of the organization are some of “the most extraordinarily dedicated group of people I have ever encountered.”

The Heritage Foundation also argued that LSC should be eliminated because, “Many state and local governments already provide funding for indigent legal defense.”

“That’s easier said than done,” Strickland replied.

He noted that some state governments provide funds, and legal aid groups in big cities can rely on local donations to limit the need for federal funds. The Atlanta Legal Aid Society, for example, enjoys generous donations from Atlanta-area law firms, so LSC funds amount to only 40 percent of its budget.

In rural areas with small-to-nonexistent legal communities, he said, LSC funds can make up to 90 percent of a legal aid group’s budget.

Strickland recalled going to Washington in 1995 with state bar leaders to persuade the Georgia congressional delegation to save the LSC from vows by the Republican-controlled Congress to eliminate the LSC. A compromise was reached in which LSC funding was saved in return for rules barring LSC-funded groups from representing clients in class actions and other types of cases.

Strickland expects a similar campaign in the wake of the Trump budget. “I think there will be a major effort … to prevent this from happening.”

How that effort will be received on Capitol Hill remains to be seen. Requests for comment by Georgia U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, both Republicans, were not returned.

“No Congress has killed it off completely,” said former U.S. Rep. John Barrow, a Democratic lawyer from Athens who is in the midst of a six-month pro bono engagement with Atlanta Legal Aid.

He said many lawmakers may not realize how much they rely on legal aid groups. Staffers often field calls from constituents with problems that can be resolved only in courts, not by Congress. When that happens, the staffers refer indigent callers to local legal aid societies.

Steve Gottlieb, Atlanta Legal Aid’s longtime chief, said that in 2016 the group represented clients in more than 20,000 cases involving, among other things, protection against domestic violence, access to medical care and protection against eviction.

“In just one year, we got our clients over $20 million in direct benefits—child support, Social Security benefits, protection of home equity,” said Gottlieb. “Much of this work would be threatened if LSC’s support were eliminated,” he said.

The LSC was appropriated $385 million in the last fiscal year, and it sought $502 million in fiscal year 2017.

Mack Mulvaney, the Trump budget director, told reporters on Wednesday that the president wanted to increase defense spending by $54 billion without increasing the deficit.

Accordingly, Mulvaney said, “you’ll see reductions in many agencies as he tries to shrink the role of government, drive efficiencies, go after waste, duplicative programs, those types of things.”

Strickland noted that the late Justice Antonin Scalia , a conservative legal icon, was a fan of LSC. He recalled Scalia’s appearance at LSC’s 40th anniversary conference in 2014.

“I’m here principally to show the flag, to represent the support of the Supreme Court and I’m sure all of my colleagues for the LSC,” Scalia said.

The justice said the LSC “pursues the most fundamental of American ideals and it pursues equal justice in those areas of life most important to the lives of our citizens.”