24 April 2013

Supporting Legal Services

This past week I was in Washington for the most recent meeting of the Board of Directors of the Legal Services Corporation.  As I have mentioned before, the LSC is a corporation established by the government to oversee a program of providing civil legal services to poor Americans.  I have been a member of the Board of Directors since 2010.

VP Joseph Biden
As part of our April meeting, the White House kindly hosted a forum on issues related to legal services.  The forum discussed two issues: the use of technology and the use of pro bono in providing civil legal services.  Both of these are important issued for the LSC Board in its strategic plan.  In addition to the various presenters, we heard brief talks by Valerie Jarrett, special assistant to the President; Attorney General Eric Holder; and Vice-President Joe Biden.

Whatever one may say about the means, I think most can agree on the benefit of the ends of legal aid.  I believe strongly that what defines America most, one of its greatest virtues, is its historical commitment to the rule of law.  The country was founded on a classical notion of the importance of justice to a civilized society.  For the American revolutionaries, that meant access to an unbiased decision-maker, namely the court system.  A vague sense of the goodness of justice is simply insufficient; society must have a means by which their rights can be vindicated.  Any nation committed to justice must have a well-functioning and open system of courts and judges, with a strong ethical bent.

AG Eric Holder
While it is a bit of a clich√©, one ought to recognize that this value is not a Republican or Democrat value, it is an American one.  As a corollary, finding ways to ensure that all people—rich and poor—have access to the courts should also be an important American ideal.  Now, one can argue about whether the primary responsibility should be that of the Federal Government, the States, the Bar, or private charity.  Today, it really is a mix of all three.  A few decades ago, the primary funder of legal services was the federal government, largely through the LSC.  That is no more—with regard to most of its grantees, LSC is a minority funder.  States are increasingly taking a larger role in ensuring that lawyers are available for the poor with regards civil legal issues.

With all of this, one would think that the issue would be a bi-partisan one.  But the truth is, it is not.  At least some of the blame for this, I think, must fall on those politicians that claim they support legal services, and their attempts to make it an ideological battle, rather than an issue of justice.

The forum at the White House provides a good example.  One of the States in the forefront of access to justice is the State of Texas—no liberal bastion, that.  The forum at the White House included Wallace Jefferson, Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court.  He argued—quite forcefully and well—as to the party-transcending nature of the issue of civil legal services to the poor.  The Chief Justice indicated that he specifically chose one of the most conservative members of his court to work on their State Access to Justice Commission, and how very effective he was on this issue.  It’s a pity that the Vice President did not hear him.

The Vice President earlier gave a speech that was all too typical.  He used his time not to build the bi-partisan case for civil legal services, but to tear down his opponents in rather inflammatory and unfair ways.  People who opposed legal aid were “greedy” and more interested in a pure ideology than in helping the poor and oppressed.  (I wondered at the time what he thought of LBJ, who originally opposed the LSC's predecessor organization.)  They were stingy opportunists, out for themselves and heartlessly opposed to helping the downtrodden.  It’s a story that plays well with the New York Times but not one that wins friends.

The President has not been much better.  In a similar event last year, I was struck by how bi-partisan it was.  In that event, we had the company of both former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh as well as Jess H. Dickinson, of the Mississippi Supreme Court.  At that event it was Justice Dickinson—himself a Republican—who offered a much appreciated comment on the bi-partisan nature of civil legal aid.  That is probably why the President’s deliberately partisan rhetoric sounded so strange to me at the time.  In a conference that had gone out of its way to be non-ideological, it was President Obama who deliberately inserted ideology, solely so he could beat his political enemies over the head with it.

I strongly believe in the moral duty that individuals and communities have to the poor.  I believe just as strongly in the vital role that courts, and access to them, play in maintaining justice in a society.  While I do not believe that the LSC is the only way to provide access for the poor to the courts (and one can legitimately quibble with the details of its structure and scope), it is an important part of the currently existing system.  There should be no question that there ought to be some mechanism through which the poor who have had an injustice committed against them have the real opportunity to vindicate their rights.

That is why I find it so infuriating that the supposed friends of civil legal aid seem to constantly go out of their way to make enemies.  Our politicians constantly speak of acting in a bi-partisan matter, of rising above “party politics” for important national issues.  Calling other people names when they do not agree with you is not consistent with this stated end.  If you support civil legal aid to the poor, explain to others why they should be, too, because just calling them evil, money-grubbing, poor-hating, ideologues is not going to win them over.

UPDATE:  Richard Zorza, who has been one of the great cheerleaders on the use of technology in civil legal aid, has a short blog entry with his own reflections on the White House forum, which you can see at his Access to Justice Blog.