Trump again proposes elimination of Legal Services Corp.

Proponents of providing Americans equal access to justice through civil legal aid have once again found themselves defending that cause against the Trump administration.

A returning provision that would eliminate the Legal Services Corporation was tucked within President Donald Trump’s 2020 budget proposal released Monday, prompting civil legal aid supporters to voice their concerns. The budget requests $18.2 million be provided to conduct an orderly closeout of LSC in 2020. However, Congress writes the budget and is not obligated to follow any of Trump’s suggested budget cuts.

American Bar Association President Bob Carlson released a statement Monday condemning the proposed elimination, arguing that the American justice system depends on equal access for all — especially those who cannot afford legal representation.

“That’s why there is broad bipartisan support in Congress to provide federal funding of the Legal Services Corporation, which supports civil legal aid offices that serve every congressional district in the country,” Carlson said in a statement. “Without this funding, thousands of veterans, seniors, domestic assault survivors, victims of natural disasters and others who are seeking justice would be effectively barred from the courthouse.  

“Today, for the third time in three years, the White House has proposed eliminating all federal funding for LSC. We are confident that both Republicans and Democrats will reject this proposal. We urge Congress to increase funding to LSC, to ensure that more individuals can access our justice system.”

Similar moves to eliminate the nation’s largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans failed in 2017 and 2018. Last year, Capitol Hill ultimately awarded LSC $410 million — more funding than it had received since 2010. For the 2020 fiscal year, LSC is requesting $539 million to be distributed across 132 independent legal aid organizations serving every county in every state and the territories. Its funding is used to support legal aid agencies across the country, including Indiana Legal Services Inc., which has nine offices statewide.

Jon Laramore, ILS executive director, said the nonprofit law firm depends on LSC’s federal dollars to fund more than 60 percent of its operations. Although he says it’s too soon to tell, Laramore noted if that funding is cut, ILS might be forced to curtail some of its services.

But because the threat of elimination has hung over the LSC’s head before, Laramore said he expects advocates of the corporation to continue fighting back.

“It’s really no different from the way it has been for the past two years,” he said. “There remains strong bipartisan support in Congress for civil legal aid and I would say I’m optimistic that we’ll continue to receive substantial federal support from the Legal Services Corporation.”

Longtime civil legal aid advocate and Republican Indiana congresswoman Susan Brooks declared she would be such a fighter, saying she will remain committed to defending funding for civil legal aid on Capitol Hill, despite the administration’s opposition.

“As founding co-chair of the bipartisan Access to Legal Aid Caucus, it is very disappointing funding for the Legal Services Corporation was eliminated in the President’s FY20 budget request,” Brooks told Indiana Lawyer. “As we move forward with the FY20 appropriations process, I will work closely with the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee to ensure we continue appropriating federal funding for LSC.”

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