Kenneth Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center in Falls Church, Va., was once a senior official of the Legal Services Corp., serving as counsel to its board of directors from 1991 to 1994.
Since then, Boehm has been one of the LSC’s most persistent critics, urging reform and even elimination of the agency. Last year he testified before the House Judiciary Committee, asking members to reject a bill that would have, in his view, eliminated many of the beneficial reforms Congress enacted in 1996. He warned that if the bill passed, “once again Legal Services will be known as a federal program plagued with unaccountability and controversy.” The bill died.
Earlier this month Boehm spoke with the The National Law Journal to discuss LSC and proposals to cut its budget.
Q: What is your current assessment of the Legal Services Corp.?
Boehm: The more they stick to traditional legal services, the less controversial they are. It was when they were giving legal assistance to illegal aliens, getting involved in redistricting cases, prison litigation and drug-related evictions, that they got in trouble. I’m a fairly regular critic, but if they stuck with what Congress wants them to be, they would be home free.
Q: When you worked at LSC, what turned you against it?
Boehm: After Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Law of 1988 requiring public housing authorities to force eviction for drug use and trafficking, Legal Services programs became the major force trying to stop those evictions. LSC and Congress received a wave of complaints from poor public housing tenants and public housing authorities about Legal Services lawyers using the courts to try to keep drug users and dealers in public housing. It was appalling judgment for these lawyers — and it alienated both Congress and public housing tenants.
Q: You pushed for the reforms that passed in 1996. Briefly, what did those reforms do and how do you think they changed the LSC?
Boehm: The reforms, which were structured as appropriations riders on LSC’s federal funding, sought to restrict some of the more controversial activities by Legal Services lawyers. These reforms included restrictions on congressional redistricting litigation, prisoner lawsuits, class actions, lobbying, representing illegal aliens and involvement in drug-related public housing evictions.
While the reforms did have a beneficial effect, Congress soon complained that LSC did a poor job of enforcing the restrictions. In one celebrated case, a program was caught lobbying, and LSC refused to take any action. A complainant sought judicial review of LSC’s decision not to enforce the reform, only to have a federal court rule that LSC’s status as a nonprofit, not a federal agency, meant it was not subject to judicial review.
Q: Legal services advocates are mobilizing against proposed budget cuts, asserting that their work for the underserved would be gutted if the budget proposed by House Republicans passed. What do you think the impact would be?
Boehm: They are less vulnerable to the cuts than they used to be. The big difference between the early days and now is that the amount of support for these programs that comes from non-LSC sources has risen dramatically, to about 65% of their funding. Much of their funding comes from IOLTA [Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts], other federal programs like the Violence Against Women Act and state funding. Because of all these sources, they would continue even if Congress cut all LSC funding.
Q: But the cuts would still be significant in many LSC-funded programs, especially since some of those other sources, like IOLTA, have also shrunk during the recession. What would the cuts mean for the poor?
Boehm: Less than 10% of the legal services that go to the poor come from LSC programs (according to a 1996 Capital Research Center report.). The rest comes from attorneys in private practice providing pro bono service, private nonprofits which provide legal services to the poor and a host of other sources. Now, virtually every law school in the country has a legal clinic that provides these services. There is a whole lot more legal assistance than there was 15 years ago.
Q: What do you think should happen with LSC at this point?
Boehm: I think LSC funding should be phased out. Block grants to states to promote pro bono activity, tax breaks for attorneys and law firms providing significant pro bono services and increased use of mediation and arbitration services would do far more to help the poor with their legal problems.
Tony Mauro can be contacted at email@example.com.