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President Bush’s proposed budget would make no cuts to legal aid for the poor, making its advocates optimistic about an assured future for federal support. In 1995, newly empowered Republicans in Congress swore to abolish the Legal Services Corp. (LSC). Fierce battles at budget time since then have left lawyers for the poor uncertain every year about the future of their federal funding. But on April 9, the president recommended funding at the same level as this year and said that the program is important. “We feel the president’s support of our current funding is a symbol that we are not a partisan issue and should have and enjoy the support of both parties,” says Mauricio Vivero, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Legal Services Corp. At the same time, lawyers for the poor say that the proposed budget amount, $329 million, or $29 million above its level of 20 years ago, does not come close to meeting the need. State and national bar surveys show that only about one-fifth of low-income Americans get the free help for which they are eligible. A Legal Services survey of a sampling of offices showed that lawyers are turning away more than half of those with legal problems. The Legal Services Corp. was established in 1974 to provide lawyers in civil matters to people earning up to 125 percent of the federal poverty level — $22,063 a year for a family of four this year. The organization provides funds to 216 offices nationwide. Lawyers assist clients with problems arising from such things as domestic violence, divorces, evictions and Social Security problems. ACTION SINCE ’95 In 1995, when Republicans became a majority in the house, a group of conservative lawmakers called for Legal Services to be abolished, asserting that the lawyers were practicing left-wing politics. Conservatives objected to the free representation of migrant farm workers, prisoners, those accused of drug crimes in public housing and class actions against government offices and programs. A budget resolution would have eliminated the program’s funding over a three-year period. Separate legislation would have had the money going to the states as block grants. Congress eventually passed a bill permitting the program to continue, but cutting its funds to $278 million from $400 million. The following year, Congress attached restrictions to the kind of work those taking federal funds could do. The 1996 restrictions banned offices receiving federal funding from doing litigation involving welfare reform (a restriction overturned by the Supreme Court), class actions, prisoners and redistricting and from collecting attorneys’ fees from adversaries. For five years, the House Appropriations Committee has been chaired by Harold Rogers, R-Ky., who each year has proposed halving the Legal Service Corp.’s money. But each year the funding has been kept level or raised slightly when the bill has gone to the floor. The budget probably won’t be voted on until September. Meanwhile, Legal Service’s supporters say they are optimistic about congressional support. Last year, for the first time since before 1995, the House passed the funding bill on a voice vote, a critical turning point according to its officials and their advocates. Julie Clark, a lobbyist with the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, says that last year, “There was a critical mass of Republican support for adequate funding. I see no reason why that should change markedly this year.” The presidential budget commentary said of Legal Services, “The Federal Government, through LSC, ensures equal access to our nation’s legal system by providing funding for civil legal assistance to low-income persons. For millions of Americans, LSC-funded legal services is the only resource available to access the justice system.” The Legal Service president, John McKay, a Republican who is being considered by the Bush administration for the position of U.S. Attorney in Seattle, hailed the president’s statement, saying it was clear that Legal Services now has “a partner” in the White House. But groups critical of the Legal Services Corp. say the fight isn’t over. Kenneth Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, which advocates abolition of the Legal Services Corp., says Republicans are unhappy because they feel the restrictions haven’t been enforced. He notes that the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Frank Wolf, R-Va., has been an outspoken critic of the program, and that Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., another past critic, chairs the subcommittee on commercial and administrative law, which would oversee a reauthorization of the program. Boehm says a better gauge of the president’s attitude will come when he appoints a new board of directors later in the year. He suggests the status quo funding recommendation was made for practical reasons. “The president wants to focus on his tax cut and doesn’t want a lot of distracting fights,” he says. A spokesman for House Majority Leader Richard Armey, R-Texas, an outspoken critic of Legal Services in the past, expresses caution. “We’re going to let the appropriations process take its course,” he says. “But we’re going to take a look at how we can improve with the money we have maximizing help for those who truly need the representation.” Rep. Wolf could not be reached for comment. But Rep. George Gekas, R-Pa., an old foe of Legal Services who recommended eliminating its funding and converting the money into block grants to the states, told National Public Radio in February that he doubted that the Legal Services Corp. was going to be abolished. “I do not believe that there is the capability of rounding up votes for those who oppose Legal Services to ever, ever come close to extinguishing it,” he said. CRITICISM CONTINUES Conservative organizations are still critical, as are critics of the critics. The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law says that institutional opponents like the Farm Bureau and the National Legal and Policy Center, as well as the religious right, are motivated by a financial self-interest and a view that attacks lawyers for serving clients who are immigrants, welfare recipients and homosexuals. The real quarrel “is with the content of the laws, not with the lawyers who enforce those laws,” the center says in a publication. Lawyers in the field say that the prospect of bipartisan support of their funding is a relief, but only a partial one. Andrew Scherer, acting executive director of legal services for New York City, says that his offices began to diversify their funding as a result of the instability of future federal funding and now receive about 40 percent of their money from the Legal Services Corp. “The threat to federal funding is not our only problem,” he says. Others include lack of state funding and what Scherer calls “endless struggles” with the administration of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Scherer says that his 15 offices meet only about 14 percent of the need in New York City. “I wish I could say peace and harmony will reign … but most people are going unrepresented,” he says.

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