“Most Americans don't really have an idea of what civil legal aid is, but the Legal Services Corporation is absolutely the backbone of our nation's commitment to justice for all,” Bergmark said. “It's just a devastating prospect to think that after such a long history of bipartisan support and commitment, that we would be at this stage.”
The services those organizations provide can be life-changing. Legal-aid lawyers in multiple states told me their offices help low-income Americans fight foreclosures and avoid evictions, protect domestic-violence survivors by filing restraining orders and navigating the family-court system, work with veterans and families to obtain public benefits, represent victims of consumer scams, and provide a variety of other services. Their assistance can range from educational programs to direct legal representation in state, federal, and tribal courts.
The LSC’s most recent annual budget amounted to $375 million, a decline from its $420 million peak during Obama’s first term. Bergmark described it as no more than a “rounding error” in the sprawling federal budget. And legal-aid lawyers in rural and low-income areas were skeptical that the cuts would produce real savings, overall; they described civil legal aid as a cost-saving measure for communities in the long run.
“When we're able to help in a domestic-violence situation and get someone safe and protected, that reduces costs to the police officers in the future, to the court system, to hospitals for medical care,” said Gary Housepian, the executive director of Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands. “When we're able to stop a foreclosure, that keeps the property values up in that community. When we're able to keep someone in housing and keep individuals and families from being homeless, that saves expenses to that community too.”
Housepian’s organization covers 48 counties in central Tennessee, including the city of Nashville. But a large share of its work is done in deeply impoverished rural communities, where poverty rates in some counties can reach as high as 25 percent. About 450,000 people in the region are eligible for his organization’s services, Housepian told me, while he only has 32 lawyers on staff to help them.
Legal-aid lawyers who work for federally funded organizations avoided speaking directly with me about the Trump administration’s budget proposal, citing federal rules that bar their organizations from lobbying either for or against legislation. Instead, they described the services they currently provide, the challenges they face, and their role in the community.
Trump’s proposal isn’t the first time the Legal Services Corporation has faced an existential threat. Ronald Reagan, an avowed opponent of legal-aid services, saw his bid to abolish the program in 1981 thwarted by a bipartisan coalition of Democratic and Republican legislators. He eventually relented in exchange for new restrictions on what kinds of services it could provide, including bars on class-action lawsuits and providing help to undocumented immigrants. Another attempt to gut its funding in the mid-1990s by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich after Republicans retook both houses of Congress failed, but the program’s funding has remained roughly flat since then.