Claire Gutekunst, incoming president of the New York State Bar Association, outside the association's offices near the Court of Appeals in Albany.
Claire Gutekunst, president of the state bar. (Tim Roske)

New York bar groups are joining law firm leaders and the American Bar Association to stop President Donald Trump’s plan to defund the Legal Services Corp.

The agency, known as LSC, is the largest single funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans. New York state currently receives about $21 million in LSC funding.

New York State Bar Association president Claire Gutekunst said eliminating LSC funding would “devastate” the ability of legal service providers to stop evictions and scams targeting the elderly, help women and children escape domestic violence and assist veterans in securing benefits. She said her group would “vigorously oppose” the funding elimination.

“This is just wrong and it’s really going to hurt people,” she said. “Their legal rights are going to be denied. There are real-life consequences to this.”

Legal Services NYC, the state’s largest civil legal services provider, receives nearly $12 million a year in LSC finding—20 percent of its annual budget. If that money were to disappear, executive director Raun Rasmussen said, roughly 20,000 New York City residents would go without civil legal services because of staff downsizing.

Barbara Finkelstein, CEO of Legal Services of the Hudson Valley

Further north, Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, which covers seven counties above New York City, would lose $1.7 million. “That will mean more than 4,000 people facing life-changing situations will go unserved in the Hudson Valley,” CEO Barbara Finkelstein said.

While LSC grants make up only 12 percent of Legal Services of the Hudson Valley’s annual budget, Finkelstein said, the money goes into the general fund and can “plug holes” in areas not covered by restricted dollars, she said.

“We need people to fight for us,” she said.

This is not the first time bar groups have waged battle for legal services funding in Congress.

The LSC has been a budget-cutting target of Republican administrations and members of Congress almost since its inception in 1974. The organization faced perhaps its greatest crisis in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan and his supporters attempted to disband the agency. The Reagan administration viewed LSC lawyers as misusing government funds to advance a liberal agenda through test cases filed as class actions in welfare, immigration, abortion and other areas.

After an all-out effort by the organized bar and others to save the LSC, Congress in 1982 rejected the Reagan attack, and instead imposed budget cuts that forced the layoffs of nearly 1,800 lawyers.

The 1996 Congress, led by Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, cut spending by about 30 percent and imposed restrictions that barred recipients from defending immigrants or bringing class actions that could yield attorney fees to them if they prevailed, according to the New York City Bar Association.

City bar president John Kiernan in a statement Monday said no Congress or president has ever defunded the LSC entirely. LSC’s budget request for the upcoming fiscal year was $502.7 million—1/100th of 1 percent of the federal budget, according to the agency.

John Kiernan, president of the New York City Bar

Kiernan, a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, said the city bar, through its pro bono and legal services committee and other committees, will be coordinating with other bar groups to lobby lawmakers in their home districts and in Washington, D.C. The bar also plans to coordinate large group communications with Congress and the president.

“It seems plainly necessary to treat the proposal as the most serious threat to federal legal services funding in memory,” Kiernan said. “We encourage our members to enlist the support of their employers and to press other bar associations or legal groups to which they belong to communicate their convictions on this important subject to our political leaders.”

Gutekunst cited studies showing that every dollar spent on civil legal services saves $10 in other government spending on emergency shelters and stopgap public services. And even with the current level of funding, she said, more than half the people who qualify for free civil legal services are unable to actually receive it.

“It is an inadequate amount now, but it’s better than nothing,” she said.

The local bar groups are following the lead of the American Bar Association, which said it was “outraged” at Trump’s proposal to gut the LSC.

Linda Klein, president of the American Bar Association

“Without this assistance, courthouse doors will slam in the faces of millions of Americans, denying them equal access to justice,” ABA president Linda Klein said in a statement. “As the budget process proceeds, the ABA will be working to ensure that Congress provides adequate funding for LSC. It is cost-effective, beneficial to millions of Americans and the right thing to do for our country.”

Even before Trump released his budget, leaders of more than 150 U.S. law firms with offices in all 50 states sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget, urging it to continue LSC funding.

“The pro bono activity facilitated by LSC funding is exactly the kind of public-private partnership the government should encourage, not eliminate,” the law firm leaders wrote, according to Law Journal affiliate The American Lawyer. “Our ability to provide pro bono legal services is directly dependent on partnership with legal aid organizations.”

Raun Rasmussen, executive director of Legal Services NYC

Beyond LSC funding, Rasmussen and Finkelstein both said they are concerned that other sources of legal services funding will be cut under the Trump administration—among them Housing and Urban Development funds to fight foreclosure proceedings, Department of Justice funding for domestic violence prevention and IRS funding for low-income tax clinics.

Federal rules prevent groups receiving LSC funding from lobbying the government, but Rasmussen said his group plans to educate New York’s congressional representatives about the impact of the cuts on their constituents.

“We’re confident that at the end of the day, they’ll continue to be strong support for civil legal services,” he said. “These services are part of a decent society we all want to live in.”