MAXWELL:  The unfair rationing of justice

1/14/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Dominador Martinez, his wife and three young children are farm workers. They live a few miles from the area depicted in Angel City, Patrick Smith’s 1974 novel about the horrors of a migrant labor camp in the shadows of Miami’s glittering skyline.

Martinez and his family soon may be homeless because they have not paid rent for two months on their one-bedroom trailer. “Too many pickers for the crops,” Martinez said. “We cannot pay right now. Nobody can help us _ even the lawyers.”

Until recently, Martinez could have received free advice, and perhaps temporary relief from Rural Legal Services, an affiliate of the non-profit Legal Services Corporation, funded by the federal government and established in 1974 by President Richard Nixon, a Republican. For more than 30 years, Legal Services has served as the legal “safety net” for poor people, many of them migrant farm workers like Martinez.

But this honeymoon between Washington and the poor ended after the GOP took over Capitol Hill.

“The only thing less popular than a poor person these days is a poor person with a lawyer,” said Jonathan E. Asher, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Denver. Like thousands of other lawyers in the hundreds of legal services offices nationwide that represent the poor, Asher is reacting to the GOP plan to destroy Legal Services.

The Republican proposal, which President Clinton wisely vetoed, is part of the Commerce, Justice, State conference appropriations bill. It would slash the 1996 Legal Services budget by one-third, from an already reduced 1995 level of $400-million to $278-million for the coming fiscal year.

“To the extent that legal service programs can preserve employment or facilitate access to insured medical treatment or prevent eviction, we can make the difference between people remaining productive and independent or joining the ranks of the dependent poor,” Legal Services president Alexander D. Forger said. “Without sufficient funding, these families, especially children, could literally be left out in the cold.”

Even in good times, cuts like those Republicans want would be harsh. Such cuts are especially cruel now because of drastic changes in welfare, immigration laws, housing and Medicaid. These changes, paradoxically, are forcing the nation’s 39-million poor people to rely on free legal assistance _ now more than ever.

House Republicans justify the measures in the name of balancing the budget. But their real motivation is the wrong-headed belief that legal aid lawyers are leftist radicals representing people _ the unemployed, the working poor and the infirm _ who cause their own problems. Typical of this camp is California Republican Rep. Ron Packard: “The Legal Services Corporation is more focused on advancing grand social causes than on helping the poor with ordinary legal problems.”

Packard and other right-wingers are wrong. In 1994, for example, legal services lawyers handled 1.7-million cases. Thirty-three percent involved family issues such as divorce, spouse abuse and child support. Another 22 percent involved housing; 16 percent welfare and other benefits; 11 percent consumer issues. Still others dealt with individual rights, education, health care, employment, saving small family farms from bankruptcy, aiding disaster victims, settling child custody matters. These hardly are the subversive activities of what some Republicans call a “rogue agency, beyond accountability and possibly reform.”

The GOP proposal also includes many limits on the types of cases legal aid programs could handle. All class action suits would be outlawed. Lawyers, therefore, would be unable to sue on behalf of a group of indigent clients, for instance, wanting to challenge unfair housing practices or consumer fraud.

Further, legal services lawyers would be barred from cases involving congressional redistricting, welfare reform and abortion. Neither could they participate in solicitation or public policy training to benefit the poor or represent illegal aliens or prisoners. Even if lawmakers request them to do so, legal aid lawyers could not engage in administrative or legislative advocacy.

They could not, moreover, collect any fees, a crippling blow to the rights of the poor because fees often are awarded in housing, family relations, civil rights, job discrimination and Social Security cases.

“With these new restrictions and funding cuts, the poor essentially are deprived of equal protection under the law as well as the same level of representation as people who can afford to hire a private attorney,” Forger said. “This is exactly the kind of inequitable rationing of justice the Constitution seeks to avoid.”

Florida Rural Legal Services, the agency that, until now, would have counseled Dominador Martinez and his family, has laid off 13 lawyers and 15 other staff members, executive director Peter Helwig said. The agency is not accepting new clients, as it struggles to handle current cases with the help of private lawyers willing to work pro bono.

The GOP’s contempt for the poor and the party’s zeal to meet arbitrary budget demands, which includes dismantling Legal Services, are an underhanded, unforgivable attack on the nation’s most vulnerable population.

“Poor people have certain legal rights,” Jonathan Asher said. “Rather than take away those rights by statute, its easier for Congress to take away the lawyers, and thus take away the ability of the poor to enforce their rights.”

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.