ALBANY – Lacking a Gideon-like mandate that would require government funding for one of his signature issues—civil legal services—Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman has only the power of the pulpit to bolster his annual hat-in-hand approach to the Legislature.
On Tuesday, Lippman began the yearly process of seeking funding to address unmet civil legal needs by holding the first of four hearings aimed at garnering the evidence necessary "to get the legal services funding we need to continue the progress we have made in New York." Later this fall, he will issue a report to the Legislature, outlining a funding request.
The government is not obligated to devote funds for civil legal services for the poor, as it is for criminal legal services under the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), so every year Lippman holds hearings demonstrating the need for funding and takes his case to the Legislature.
Under Lippman, funding for civil legal services has grown substantially. This year, $55 million—$40 million from court appropriations and $15 million from IOLA funding—was devoted to the cause, but every year is a new challenge.
"There are plenty of inadequacies in terms of criminal representation," Lippman said in an interview after the Albany hearing. "But, at the very least, there is a law that says everybody gets represented. That's the law. On the civil side, there is no such requirement."
Lippman said until there is a "civil Gideon," his mission is to figure out "what we can do, without that constitutional mandate" to secure as much funding as possible for civil legal services.
Statewide, Lippman said only 20 percent of the need is being met. The Legal Aid Society in New York City, which provided assistance to about 100,000 needy clients, is turning away 89 percent of the people who seek help, according to attorney-in-chief Steven Banks.
"It is my special responsibility as chief judge, and our responsibility as the judiciary, to take this head on," Lippman said. "If we are not going to do it, no one else will. Without equal justice, without access to justice for all, we might as well close the courthouse doors. There is no reason for them to be open if inside they are not going to have a level playing field."
Lippman said he does not know how much money he will request for civil legal services in the next fiscal year, which begins on April 1. He said the request in the budget he submits Dec. 1 will be based partially on what comes out of the four hearings.
At the first hearing, witnesses including state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, Albany Law School Dean Penelope Andrews, Rensselaer City Judge Carmelo Laquidara, Albany Family Court Judge Margaret Walsh, business leaders, veteran advocates and clients brought a perspective different from that of providers who have a financial stake in securing funding.
"The idea of these hearings is to focus some attention on this and have not only providers saying, 'We need funding'—which is obvious—but also to show the effect of the lack of funding not only on human beings but on our communities, our businesses, the major institutions in our state and the financial well-being of the state," Lippman said. "We know that for every dollar invested in civil legal services, $6 is returned to New York, whether it is increased federal dollars, whether it is decreased cost of incarceration or social services. When you save people from falling off the cliff, New York benefits."
DiNapoli said "an investment in civil legal services is a smart investment" with a clear "payback" for the state and its citizens.
"Representation in foreclosure proceedings ensures that low income homeowners have a fair chance at retaining their homes, thereby stabilizing a still-troubled housing market," DiNapoli told a panel that consisted of Lippman, Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti, Presiding Justice Karen Peters of the Appellate Division, Third Department, and New York State Bar Association President David Schraver of Nixon Peabody in Rochester.
"Representation of the custodial parent in child support proceedings not only allows parent and child to live with food, shelter and dignity, but protects taxpayers who otherwise would have to pick up the bill," DiNapoli said.
Denise Gonick, president and chief executive officer of MVP Health Care, said legal issues often affect an individual's health.
"We have seen more and more studies showing that the environment people live in has arguably more impact on health conditions than the things we focus on in health care," Gonick said.
She said that when children live in poverty for lack of legal services or workers are distracted by an unresolved legal issue, their health, and the health of the community, suffers. Gonick said civil legal services are crucial to the health of the community.
Mark Eagan, president and CEO of the Albany-Colonie Regional Chamber of Commerce, said unmet legal needs adversely affect employees and employers.
"People who need legal services are carrying a stress and burden they don't know how to deal with or don't have the resources to deal with," Eagan said. "They are not productive at work and they are missing a lot of days of work. I think it is important for organizations like ours, that do understand, are willing to be out front on this."
Among the clients who spoke at the hearing was Michael O'Donnell, a client of the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York. O'Donnell spent months traveling by bus to a court in a rural upstate county attempting to obtain custody of his son, who has been placed in a series of foster, group and residential homes.
"I was known as the 'interested party,'" said O'Donnell, who appeared repeatedly pro se. "After six months of banging my head against the wall and getting nowhere, I had no faith in the justice system. I was just getting the run-around."
But O'Donnell said all that changed when a volunteer lawyer with the Legal Aid Society, Michael O'Brien, took the case. He said that having a lawyer made all the difference in his securing custody, and putting an end to what seemed an endless, time-consuming and frustrating legal battle.
Deanne Grimaldi, director of development for the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, said organizations and individuals need to be vocal in articulating the need for, and benefits of, civil legal assistance.
"We need to be diligent in making people understand why it should be a public funding priority," Grimaldi said. "This is the chief judge's legacy and his passion is making sure that civil legal services are a priority, that access to justice is a priority in New York."
Hearings are also slated for: Thursday at the Appellate Division, First Department; Oct. 1 at Queens Supreme Court; and Oct. 3 at the State University of New York at Buffalo Law School. The sessions all will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Oral testimony is by invitation only. Written testimony may be submitted to the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services, c/o Jessica Klein, Sullivan & Cromwell, 125 Broad St., New York, N.Y., 10004-2498 or by email to CivilLegalServices@nycourts.gov.
@|John Caher can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.