We were disappointed by your recent series on the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) that strings together decades-old allegations that have long been addressed, confuses what LSC grantees are and are not permitted to do by statute, and overlooks the work these dedicated legal aid programs do. We agree with Mr. Stilson that legal aid funds “should help the poorest in society with their personal legal problems.” In fact, LSC grantees do exactly that, working on over 700,000 cases annually involving the day-to-day legal needs of millions of people living in poverty.
The preponderance of LSC grantee cases involve family law matters (such as child custody, child support, and protective orders for victims of domestic violence), housing matters (such as evictions, foreclosures, and housing conditions), and access to health care. These are cases about life-altering issues—safety, subsistence, and family stability.
Since 1996, Congress has placed broad and clear restrictions on LSC grantees’ involvement in political activities, lobbying, class actions, and many other types of advocacy. These restrictions expanded on the ones in place since 1974. All LSC grantees must follow the restrictions regardless of the size of their grant, and the restrictions limit how they can use their federal funds, state funds, other public funds, and funds donated by individuals and foundations. LSC has enforced those restrictions with a comprehensive oversight and enforcement process involving both an Office of Compliance and Enforcement and an independent Office of Inspector General established in 1988. Both offices conduct extensive on-site reviews of LSC grantees followed up with required corrective actions for any violations. Both houses of Congress also do oversight of LSC.
Congress is aware of the critical constituent services provided by LSC grantees. As a result, LSC has strong bipartisan support from Congress. Indeed, Congress just appropriated $50 million for pandemic relief work by LSC grantees, and Congress has steadily increased funding for LSC throughout the last decade.
Mr. Stilson’s articles discuss, often incompletely, cases from over forty years ago. One example involves a 1979 Michigan case brought by a legal aid program that LSC has not funded for over 20 years. Representing students in need of an education, the attorneys in that case succeeded in securing a federal court order that a public school must teach four, five, and six-years old students “how to read standard English.” 473 F. Supp. 1371, 1383 (E.D. Mich. 1979).
Where it cites more recent examples, the series discusses at least seven legal aid and community organizations that do not receive any funding from LSC and are therefore not subject to the restrictions on political activities Congress has created and LSC enforces. Where it does focus on LSC funding recipients, the series labels as “political” representation of individuals and families with dire legal problems. For example, Indiana Legal Services represented people who completed work requirements but were nonetheless wrongfully terminated from critical Medicaid health care. This is exactly the type of non-political cases LSC grantees bring on behalf of individuals every day to ensure that their clients continue to receive the benefits Congress enacted to protect their health and safety and that of their families.
The series also overlooks how LSC grantees protect liberty and justice through equal access to the law. It criticizes advocacy for rental housing tenants living in poverty as “in direct opposition to the interests of property owners seeking new construction, investment, and revitalization.” The rule of law, however, is intended to ensure fairness to all parties and provide a stable foundation for economic growth. LSC grantees enable tenants to settle litigation, saving both time and money for landlords and tenants while ensuring that laws, leases, and health and safety rules are followed. The Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators have consistently recognized the value that legal aid programs bring to the fair, effective, and efficient operations of the courts by repeatedly endorsing robust funding for LSC.
Our grantees are actively pursuing what the articles describe as “civil legal aid to the indigent—something that addresses a genuine and unmet need . . .” LSC would be pleased to provide a briefing to Capital Research Center on the scope of our work and how congressional restrictions are enforced.
Ron Flagg, President, Legal Services Corporation