Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht
Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht (Margaret Licarione)

Judicial leaders in Texas plan to ask Congress and the White House to save federal funding for civil legal aid to poor Texans.

President Donald Trump in his proposed budget has zeroed out all funding for the federal Legal Services Corp., which asked for $502 million to distribute to states to help fund legal aid services for the poor.

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht said it’s critical to keep funding LSC because it’s the “backbone” of support for access to justice for very poor people. Texas Lawyer interviewed Hecht about the news that LSC would lose funding under Trump’s budget. Here are his answers, edited for brevity and clarity.

How would this affect Texas?

It’s a substantial part of the money Texas gets for access to justice. The LSC money is distributed throughout the country on the basis of the states’ population that lives below the poverty line. Texas has something like 5.6 million people who qualify for legal services, so we get a big piece of the funding. It’s very important, the work that’s done here in Texas.

What would happen in the worst-case scenario?

I don’t want to think about the worst case. We would first go to the Texas Legislature and ask them to make up the difference. The legislature has already been very generous in funding access to justice in Texas. When the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts program, which was a principal funding mechanism for many years—decades—when it went to nearly nothing because of the interest rates, the Legislature helped make up part of what we lost. I’m hopeful they would do that again. It’s very important to the Texas community and the legal profession that LSC continues. I’m hopeful and understand that their budgets are about priorities. LSC needs to be a higher priority.

Why should it be a higher priority?

People just need to understand better what legal services does. There are studies in Texas and other states about the contribution it makes to the economy, by helping people deal with their legal problems and get on their feet and be productive. It’s good for the justice system. You can’t just be for the rich folks. I think people don’t always know the number of domestic violence cases that legal aid handles, the help it provides veterans, and all the work it does. We need to continue to educate the public.

What will you do?

We’re going to try to make our case to the Congress that the support should be continued. In the past, they have been very receptive to supporting LSC, so we are hopeful that will continue.

Will you also reach out to White House directly?

Yes, we’re going to try to make our case to them as well. The president has expressed concern for working people and people with limited means, and I think LSC can contribute and help alleviate those concerns that we share with the president.

How will you go about doing this?

There’s a gathering in Washington in about a month called American Bar Association Days. They have it every year. It’s a time when lawyers go to Washington to talk to congressional representatives about the priorities and issues of the legal profession and the principal one is always legal services. We will do that: have a team up there visiting with every member of our congressional delegation.