Letters to the Editor

Author’s Response: Legal Services Corporation


Editor’s note: CRC recently received a letter to the editor about its series on the Legal Services Corporation. This is the response from Robert Stilson, the series’ author:

 

I appreciate the letter from the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) in response to the Capital Research Center (CRC) series on the LSC. Important public issues benefit from respectful discourse from all viewpoints, and I genuinely value your feedback. Your letter does not appear to allege any factual errors or misrepresentations, though CRC would of course quickly correct any that are brought to our attention. I am responding to your letter to highlight a number of our shared values, but also to point out some apparent misunderstandings arising from the series.

Apparently, on many issues we are in considerable agreement. As the series recognizes, the LSC helps “to address a genuine problem faced by the poorest members of society,” and its “impressive” annual case load “undoubtedly represents a considerable number of people whose lives were positively impacted.” I do not have the slightest objection to civil legal aid and consider the pride that the LSC takes in such work to be well deserved.

The series focused instead on ways in which some LSC grantees have engaged in activities that are, in my opinion, more aptly described as advocacy than as aid. Nowhere in the series do I allege any malfeasance, wrongdoing, or legal noncompliance by the LSC or its grantees. I tried to make this clear in the final paragraph of the fourth part of the series.

I scrutinized the LSC as a federally funded program—paid for with money taxed from all Americans—in the same way I would any other congressional appropriation, with a particular emphasis on the ideological leanings of the groups that receive the public money. The entire series should be read through this specific taxpayer-centric prism, a distinction I explicitly made in the series’ very first paragraph, and again at the end. With that in mind, I briefly respond to the specific issues raised in your letter:

First, your letter mentions “decades-old allegations” and a case brought by a former LSC grantee “that LSC has not funded for over 20 years.” I included these examples in the history section of the series, which provides the reader a context for the issue. I corroborated these examples from multiple sources during my research, but to the extent any are materially misrepresented in the text, I would welcome further information in order to present them in the most accurate light possible.

Second, your letter refers to “at least seven . . . organizations that do not receive any funding from LSC.” Presumably, this refers to those nonprofits that have received funding from LSC grantees in recent years, but are not LSC grantees themselves. While you are correct to point out that these organizations “are therefore not subject to [LSC restrictions],” I never claimed that they were. Grant information is a critical indicator of organizational priorities and values—perhaps the best one that exists—and a publicly funded LSC grantee that in turn funds a partisan activist group is certainly an item of public concern. This is especially true when these activist groups take positions that I suspect do not comport with the views of the average American taxpayer.

Third, your letter mentions two specific lawsuits in which LSC grantees were recently involved and which I referenced in the series. Respectfully, we differ in our characterizations of those suits.

The first, brought by Indiana Legal Services over Medicaid work requirements and other changes, was not filed simply to assist plaintiffs “who completed work requirements but were nonetheless wrongfully terminated from critical Medicaid health care.” Indeed, as I read pages 37–44 of the complaint, all four plaintiffs were covered by Medicaid at the time of the filing, and Indiana was not due to begin suspending coverage for another three months. In any event, the filing sought to invalidate the entire Medicaid work-requirements framework at the federal level. The purpose in using this example was not to weigh in on the merits of the case, or even the merits of Medicaid work requirements in general, but to question whether taxpayers would want legal aid funded with their tax dollars to support attempts to strike down policies promulgated by their elected officials.

The same issue arises in the second case identified in your letter, which dealt with Legal Services NYC’s intervention in support of New York’s rent control laws. Again, the issue here was not so much the merits of the case, or even the merits of rent control as policy. Rather, I cited this example to make the broader point that taxpayers may not exactly see this as legal aid activity from an organization that their tax dollars subsidize. I explained that rent control is particularly controversial in order to support this argument.

The LSC is understandably proud of the legal aid work its grantees do and all the people that LSC grantees help on a daily basis. And of course, litigation attacking or defending laws that a LSC grantee sees as harmful or helpful to the needs of its clients can be an effective way of advocating for those clients. The same goes for other, out-of-court activities.

That said, as a federally funded operation, another party with legitimate interests in the LSC’s activities is often overlooked: the American taxpayer. Were the LSC privately funded, virtually everything I wrote in the series would become a non-issue. But I doubt that the ordinary American would point to the examples given in the series when they conceptualize publicly funded legal aid to the poor. And I have deep concerns with any federal grantee that evidences ideological or partisan leanings through its activities or its grantmaking, because I see that as compelled financial support by the taxpayer for views he or she may strongly oppose.

Finally, on a personal note, I sincerely thank the LSC for its feedback and for presenting a valuable counterargument. I hold no illusions that my points are the only valid ones, much less the objectively “correct” ones, and readers will always make better judgments on public issues when they have heard from both sides.

Robert Stilson

Robert runs several of CRC’s specialized projects. Originally from Indiana, he has a B.A. from Hanover College and a J.D. from University of Richmond School of Law, where he graduated…
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