Senate Democrats are hoping this is the year to revitalize the Legal Services Corporation, the federally funded organization that provides legal assistance to the poor.
Legislation introduced Thursday by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) would lift some restrictions on the kinds of cases the organization’s lawyers can bring, and it would almost double their budget after a decade of drooping support. Harkin was a Legal Aid Society lawyer in the early 1970s, before he won election to Congress.
“Unfortunately, limited resources and severe restrictions on LSC-funded attorneys impede the ability of legal aid attorneys to provide the most meaningful representation,” he said in a statement. “Everyone in this country — regardless of income — deserves access to justice and quality legal representation.”
The omnibus spending bill approved earlier this month — to pay for the federal government’s operations through September — gave the Legal Services Corporation a boost from $350 million last fiscal year to $390 million this fiscal year. Harkin’s bill would increase the budget to $750 million, or what Harkin’s office says the organization received in 1981 adjusted for inflation. The bill has nine co-sponsors, all Democrats.
President Barack Obama could signal whether he supports a similar increase next month, when he is expected to release details of his proposed budget for the 2010 fiscal year
Legal Services said in a report last year that funding shortages had forced its legal aid programs to turn away half of eligible applicants. The foreclosure crisis only exacerbated the needs, and the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the issue in May.
Harkin’s bill would also allow the organization’s lawyers to file class action lawsuits, which are currently prohibited, and allow the agency to lobby with non-federal funds. In what Harkin’s office says is an attempt at compromise, the bill would not affect bans on abortion-related litigation or on representing certain clients, including most illegal immigrants and inmates challenging their prison conditions.
H. Thomas Wells Jr., president of the American Bar Association, released a statement praising the legislation. “The promise of America is justice for all. But millions of people are denied justice because they don’t have access to the legal system. That’s why we need a strong Legal Services Corporation,” he said.