The chairman of a House appropriations subcommittee said today that private-sector lawyers aren't doing enough to help the nation's poor with legal problems, warning that they might need to make up for expected cuts in federal funding.
U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) is a longtime supporter of funding for civil legal aid, but he said the largest source of such money, the Legal Services Corp., still faces proposed cuts from the House’s new Republican majority. LSC and its local partners should turn to resources from large law firms, state bar dues and law schools, he said.
Speaking during a budget hearing, Wolf singled out for criticism the lawyers who represent Guantánamo Bay detainees such as accused 9/11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
“That’s the pro bono work? The pro bono work should be helping poor people here in the United States,” said Wolf, the chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice, science and related agencies. “Some of these people who represent Khalid Sheikh Mohammed ought to consider going into the inner city.”
The Legal Services Corp. is facing a potential budget cut of $70 million for the current fiscal year, and Wolf’s subcommittee is considering what its budget should be for the 2012 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
In a response to Wolf, who raised the subject of new funding ideas in January, the Legal Services Corp.’s board of directors is organizing a task force on increasing pro bono work. Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow and Davis Wright Tremaine partner Harry Korrell III are the task force’s co-chairs.
LSC President James Sandman, pictured above, said during today’s hearing that many ideas for supplementing the agency’s work are being tried — for example, many law schools encourage pro bono work. As for involving more lawyers from major law firms, Sandman, a former Arnold & Porter managing partner, said they represent only 15% of lawyers.
There are other challenges, too, said Hunton & Williams partner Robert Grey Jr., a member of the Legal Services Corp. board who testified with Sandman. For example, Grey said, many of the people served by civil legal aid programs live in rural areas, where there are relatively few lawyers to take pro bono work.
Private-bar lawyers handle about 12% of cases for LSC-funded programs, Grey said.
Separately, Wolf said the Legal Services Corp. risks losing support in Congress if the agency’s work is seen as political. He criticized a recent “Know Your Rights” booklet produced by Legal Aid of North Carolina for farm workers because it contained a cartoon of President George W. Bush digging a grave for the workers’ wages. “You’ve gotta get rid of this political stuff,” Wolf said.
Sandman and Grey said political statements by grantees would be inappropriate. “What we want to try to do is focus people on what they do best, which is represent the poor,” said Grey, pictured above.
George Hausen Jr., executive director of Legal Aid of North Carolina, said in a telephone interview that he heard about the cartoon from an LSC official after today’s hearing. The booklet was used a year ago to educate farm-workers about their rights, and including the cartoon was a mistake, Hausen said. He said he didn’t know where the cartoon came from.
“We have some enthusiastic and zealous people who work in our program, and I don’t know that they thought through this entirely,” Hausen said. The purpose of the booklet, he added, was not to demean Bush, and the cartoon related to changes Bush proposed to the H-2A visa program.
Click here (PDF) for the booklet.
Updated at 3:18 p.m. with Hausen's comments. National Law Journal photos by Diego M. Radzinschi.