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RBBA President’s Message: Congress needs to keep funding Legal Service Corporation

prezrbbaThere are times in every nation’s development wherein the citizens must assess the values they seek to promote. Joe Biden once said, “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.” In that light President Donald Trump released his preliminary 2018 budget proposal last month to a slew of criticism.

The president’s inaugural budget proposal would increase military spending by $54 billion and eliminate all funding for 19 essential agencies, including but not limited to, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Humanities and Arts, U.S. Counsel on Homelessness, and the Legal Services Corporation.

The United States currently spends over $30 billion more on military than the next seven countries combined. However, the federal funds provided to the Legal Service Corporation account for less than one-ten-thousandth of the federal budget. To provide some perspective, the 59 Tomahawk missiles fired against Syria last week represent nearly 9% of the annual funding for the Legal Service Corporation (“LSC”).

When I look at these dangerous disparities I’m reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he stated, “A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our present policies. … A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

The LSC was established in 1974 to provide non-criminal legal assistance to individuals with an annual income below 125% of the poverty rate. The LSC undergirds low- and moderate-income individuals, veterans, children, and seniors by providing funding for over 320 organizations nationwide that deliver legal representation on matters ranging from housing, domestic violence, child custody, and consumer protection. These basic needs, a roof over their head, safety for themselves and their children, and protection from predatory dealings must be the baseline for a civilized society. As many of you know, legal services funding is essential as lay individuals oftentimes find maneuvering through statutes and common law impossible.

The aforementioned values are not monopolized by one political party as both Republican and Democratic leaders have spoken out against cutting LSC funding. Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, who was awarded the ABA Justice Award in 2017, has proposed an increase in the LSC funding and stated that he was “disappointed” in the proposed budget elimination of the program, while also asserting that “we really think Congress can and will stand up to this challenge.” Likewise, Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, stated that she is deeply troubled by the proposal to eliminate the funding to LSC and seeks to have Congress understand the vital role LSC plays.

In that vein, I appeal to your compassion and implore you to urge our representatives to maintain the funding for the LSC because, as LSC President Jim Sandman stated, “people need to understand that what the Legal Services Corporation is about is fairness in the justice system, whether we mean it when we say we’re a nation with justice for all.”

We also ask that you join LawNY for a free CLE on April 24 at Nixon Peabody LLP to cover Child Support Arrears, Modifications, and Veteran-Specific Considerations. These are the values we need to stand up for since, as King said, “true compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar.”

Duwaine T. Bascoe, Esq., is president of the Rochester Black Bar Association and an associate in the Litigation Department at Woods Oviatt Gilman LLP.

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