Last week I had a new advocacy experience. I wore my “bar association” hat as Secretary of the MSBA and visited Washington D.C. with three other bar leaders to “lobby” the Minnesota Congressional Delegation to restore sequestered funding to the federal judiciary, and to approve the President’s proposed increase for the Legal Services Corporation (the entity created by Congress to provide financial support to Legal Aid). It was an eye opening experience.
Hanging around the corridors of Congressional office buildings for two days made me realize how many self-serving supplicants are besieging the place. It almost makes you feel sorry for the members of Congress. With rare exceptions, our little group and the delegations of bar leaders from other states, were among the few that weren’t promoting our own personal economic advantage and seeking some government benefit or protection. One would hope that acting out of altruism might assure us a better reception. I am not so sure. There were moments when I wondered whether the cynicism that we associate with Washington D.C. (by the way, we happened to be there the day the Senate “defeated” background checks for guns because only 54 of 100 senators voted for it) was so deep that some might view selflessness as a sign we were not to be taken seriously.
One thing I learned that may be of interest to Minnesota readers is that two of our Congressmen, Second District Congressman John Kline and Third District Congressman Erik Paulsen, have voted in the past to completely defund the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). LSC, which provides funding to assure there is civil legal assistance available for poor people in every state and county in America, is operating at its lowest level of funding in its history, if you adjust for inflation. At the same time, the number of persons who meet their client eligibility criteria of 125% of federal poverty (i.e., $28,000 or less per year for a family of four) is at its highest level ever. About 60 million people nationwide are so poor as to be “eligible” for LSC funded legal assistance. In Mr. Kline’s district, that amounts to 70,000 people. In Mr. Paulson’s district it is 74,000 people who are eligible to receive legal assistance. This seems like a lot of potential voters, but of course, many of them are children who can’t vote, and the voter participation rate of the poor is historically low.
The level of funding for Legal Aid, even in better times, has never permitted them to give assistance to all low income people who are “eligible”. Their limited funding has meant the need to prioritize their services. They target their services to address problems closely tied to basic needs. Helping prevent homelessness, by fighting illegal evictions or foreclosures. Helping prevent family violence, by obtaining orders for protection. Helping keep families together, by enforcing child support obligations. These are the most salient examples. Voting to defund the Legal Services Corporation would mean these legal interventions would no longer occur. The resulting social costs from failing to prevent trauma, family chaos and homelessness, would be much greater than the amount currently spent to permit Legal Aid to intervene. “Saving” money in this way, leads to spending it, and more of it, in other ways.
Mssrs. Kline and Paulsen are known to be smart and hardworking members of Congress, so maybe if they hear from enough constituents who believe that justice should also be available to those in poverty, they will reconsider their positions. It is important to let them know that people are watching and care. It may sound naïve, but I see no healthy alternative to acting out of hope and optimism in this case. I am no Jefferson Smith. But I do plan to go to Washington again.
Mr. Unger, of Unger Law Office in Minneapolis, is a certified civil trial specialist who represents plaintiffs in personal injury, wrongful death and medical malpractice cases.