An independent, quasi-corporation, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is a creation of the federal government designed to fund legal aid offices throughout the country. The LSC was designed to help low-income people afford legal assistance in civil cases. It does this by distributing hundreds of millions of dollars to offices in U.S. states and territories. In 2006, legal advocates accused the corporation of discriminatory behavior and other serious violations, prompting its inspector general to investigate, which uncovered even more bad news for the LSC. In response, the corporation’s board tried to fire its inspector general.
In 1964, Congress adopted President Lyndon Johnson’s Economic Opportunity Act, which helped launch the War on Poverty initiative. To implement this ambitious agenda of Johnson’s, the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) was created in 1965. The OEO established 269 local legal services programs around the country, such as California Rural Legal Assistance, to help poor people gain access to legal representation in civil lawsuits. These legal offices gained notoriety by helping to sue local officials, which produced a backlash among some in Washington D.C., especially Republicans.
When President Richard Nixon took over the White House, the OEO’s days became numbered. The Nixon administration gradually cut funding for OEO programs, including legal aid for the poor. But supporters of the legal assistance program were determined not to see it dismantled entirely. In 1971, a bipartisan congressional group that included Senators Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) and Walter Mondale (D-Minnesota) and Rep. William A. Steiger (R-Wisconsin) proposed creating a national, independent Legal Services Corporation (LSC). The idea was not immediately embraced, but three years later, with Nixon having resigned and Gerald Ford now President, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) was born.
In July 1975, President Ford named the LSC’s first board, with Cornell University Law School Dean Roger Conant Cramton as its first chair.
During the Carter administration, a then-little known Democratic lawyer named Hilary Rodham was appointed to the LSC board by the president. Rodham, an attorney with Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, Arkansas, and wife of then-Arkansas Attorney General Bill Clinton, had a background in children’s law and policy and had worked on Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign in Indiana. Rodham eventually rose to chair of LSC in 1978, becoming the first woman to do so. She successfully lobbied Congress to increase the LSC’s budget, which reached $303 million in 1980.
But the high times would soon end with the election of Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980. Reagan hated federal subsidies for legal aid, and while serving as governor of California, tried to block a grant to the California Rural Legal Assistance in 1970. Upon taking over as President of the United States, Reagan set out to eliminate the LSC, one way or another. First, he tried to completely cut all funding to the non-profit corporation. Although Democrats managed to prevent this, Reagan officials were successful in dramatically cutting LSC’s budget, from $300 million down to $241 million. The President also used his powers of appointment to load up LSC’s board with individuals who were philosophically opposed to legal aid. For several years, Reagan went back and forth with Democrats in nominating numerous appointees who were either rejected or blocked from taking their seats. Reagan also used recess appointments to place, at least temporarily, his choices on the board.
During this period, it was revealed by government auditors that the LSC had used some of its funding to legally battle Reagan’s efforts to weaken the corporation. The investigation was launched after some LSC officials ordered a series of “raids” on their own offices, which prompted one media source to characterize the corporation as being at war with itself.
Hostilities between LSC and the White House ended with the election of George H. W. Bush, who did not view legal aid with the same contempt as Reagan. Funding for the LSC gradually improved, up to $350 million in FY 1992. Things were even rosier when Bill Clinton took control of the Presidency, thanks to the First Lady. Funding reached a peak of $400 million in 1994—the same year the Republicans seized control of Congress. With the ascension of the GOP, the LSC was again targeted for cutbacks. This time its budget was slashed to $278 million. Also, new restrictions were placed on how LSC funds could be used in legal cases. For example, LSC-funded organizations could no longer serve as counsel in class-action lawsuits or represent illegal immigrants.
Unlike previous Republican administrations, President George W. Bush did not try to eliminate or downsize the LSC. In fact, during his administration, its board selected the first legal aid careerist to serve as president of the corporation.
President Barack Obama has been supportive of the LSC, which saw a 7.7% increase in funding in FY 2010. The Republican-controlled House sought to reduce LSC funding by $75 million in FY 2011, but in a budget compromise with the Obama administration, the LSC budget was instead reduced by $15.8 million. For FY 2012, the budget was reduced by $56 million from the previous year, and President Obama has requested an increase of $122 million for FY 2013.
Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty: Weeks into Office, LBJ Turned Nation's Focus to the Poor (by Robert Siegel, NPR)
The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is a private, non-profit corporation established by the federal government to help low-income individuals gain access to civil legal assistance. A bipartisan, 11-member Board of Directors appointed by the President oversees all aspects of LSC operations. LSC’s primary job is to give grants to independent, local programs that provide legal aid. Grants are awarded through a competitive process, and generally, the size of the grant is based on the number of people living in poverty in a given state or service area.
The LSC currently funds 136 local programs, serving every county and Congressional district in the nation. Using the public-private partnership model, LSC encourages its grantees to leverage federal funds to raise $346 million annually in other government and private revenue to help support their activities. In addition, LSC-funded programs maximize and promote pro bono service from private attorneys. The agency provides the education and structure that enable private attorneys to volunteer and serve clients effectively.
Office of Information Technology develops, implements and maintains a networked computer environment featuring an integrated information system.
In 2010, the LSC Board established the Special Task Force on Fiscal Oversight to make recommendations regarding fiscal oversight of legal aid program grant recipients. The task force, led by the chairmen of the Board’s Audit and Finance committees, includes business leaders experienced in grants administration, audits and internal controls, and charitable organization practices.
From the Web Site of the Legal Services Corporation
Fact Book (pdf)
Justice Gap Report (pdf)
Three out of four clients of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC)-funded programs are women, and most of those are mothers with children. Other clients consist of elderly or disabled individuals, as well as some veterans. All of them turn to LSC-funded programs for help securing safe and habitable housing, protection from domestic violence, child support or health care. LSC-funded programs close nearly one million cases per year nationwide involving households of 2.3 million people and provide other legal assistance to more than 1.3 million people. Most Americans receiving civil legal aid from the LSC are at or below 125% of the federal poverty level threshold, an income of approximately $27,563 a year for a family of four.
Each state receives LSC funding and maintains one or more legal aid offices. In 2010, California received $51.1 million, Texas $33.5 million, New York $28.6 million, Florida $20.7 million, and Illinois $13.7 million.
Through the Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) program, the LSC promotes full access and high-quality legal representation through the use of technology. Technology Initiative Grants are available only to LSC grantees. Since Congress authorized funding for the program in 2000, the LSC has—through 2010—awarded over 450 grants totaling more than $36 million. In 2007, the agency awarded 38 TIG grants in 25 states and the territory of Micronesia totaling more than $2.4 million ($2.1 million in TIG funding and an additional $321,000 in matching funds from the State Justice Institute to support TIG grants that emphasize and coordination with state courts). More than 60% of the 2007 TIG money was used to help pro se litigants—people who represent themselves in court proceedings—in nine states: Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, New York, Ohio, Washington, and West Virginia.
The LSC FY 2013 Budget Request (pdf) provides the following breakdown of proposed funds disbursement for that year:
Basic Field Grants $440,300,000
Management and Grants Oversight $19,500,000
Technology Initiative Grants $5,000,000
Office of Inspector General $4,200,000
Loan Repayment Assistance Program $1,000,000
Total Request $470,000,000
Tea Party Congressman Calls to Eliminate the LSC
Freshman lawmaker Austin Scott of Georgia chose as his first bill a one-sentence proposal to eliminate the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), apparently because it had gotten a local business in his district into trouble.
A member of the Tea Party, Scott introduced H.R. 2774 on August 1, 2011. It read: “Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the Legal Services Corporation Act is repealed.”
Scott’s move was labeled by The Washington Post as “a transparent attempt … to defend a company in his district that discriminates against U.S. citizens in favor of Mexican migrant workers.”
The LSC — an agency that has bipartisan backing of Republicans and Democrats — had won a ruling from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that said Georgia’s Hamilton Growers engaged “in a pattern or practice of regularly denying work hours and assigning less favorable assignments to U.S. workers, in favor of H2-A guestworkers.”
How Rep. Austin Scott Betrayed His Tea Party Roots (by Dana Milbank, Washington Post)
Rep. Austin Scott Proposes Killing Legal Services Corp. (Daily Report)
The Relentless Push To Bleed Legal Services Dry (by Heather Rogers, Remapping Debate)
Lawmakers in 2009 considered lifting restrictions on the Legal Services Corporation that have been in effect since the mid-1990s.
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved legislation that would end some speech restrictions on legal aid grant recipients that were adopted in 1996. The Senate bill also called for increased funding for the LSC by $10 million (but $35 million less than the Obama administration wanted).
The existing restrictions applied to grant recipients whether they received federal or non-federal funding. Under the restrictions, LSC grantees were prevented from engaging in lobbying, participating in agency rulemakings, filing or participating in class-action lawsuits, representing foreign citizens, soliciting clients in person, and litigating on cases involving abortions, redistricting, prisoners, or people being evicted from public housing for drug violations. Also, LSC programs could not claim, collect, and retain attorneys’ fees.
The House considered its own LSC legislation, which included $40 million more than the Senate version. But it also maintained many of the speech restrictions, except for the one pertaining to attorneys’ fees.
One Step Closer to Equal Justice for All (by Nicole Austin-Hillery, Brennan Center for Justice)
LSC Rocked by Numerous Allegations
In 2006, legal advocates sent a letter to the inspector general of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) asking for an investigation into numerous complaints regarding the spending and delivery of legal services by offices funded by the corporation. Complaints included:
The inspector general, Kirk West, opened an investigation and found LSC directors had spent excessively on extravagant meals and transportation. He also reported the corporation had overpaid by nearly $1.8 million on its 10-year lease at its new headquarters in an upscale Georgetown neighborhood.
In response to West’s findings, the LSC board privately debated whether to fire the auditor. The corporation’s meeting transcripts showed that board members made disparaging remarks about West and discussed how to fire him.
After learning that the board was secretly discussing firing West, several U.S. senators sent a letter warning the board’s chairman, Frank Strickland, that firing West, “would be an egregious action in light of the fact that Mr. West is investigating you.”
Federal Legal-Services Agency Disparaged Whistleblower (Philanthropy Today)
Legal Services Corporation Abuses (by Terri Lynn Tersak and Charles E. Corry, Domestic Violence Against Men In Colorado)
Legal Aid Centers Sue LSC over Restrictions
Since 1996, when Congress and President Bill Clinton adopted the landmark welfare reform plan, the LSC has placed severe restrictions how its funds can be used and extended these restrictions to private funds raised by legal services programs. In December 2001 four legal service programs in New York City, a private charity and pro bono attorney filed suit against the LSC challenging the constitutionality of restrictions.
On December 20, 2004, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York struck down the restrictions on private funding of legal aid groups. But the judge denied the plaintiffs’ challenge to the restrictions on direct LSC funding.
There has been an increase in efforts to overturn the LSC funding restrictions since 2009. That year, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced the Civil Access to Justice Act of 2009 that ends the restrictions on the use of non-federal funds by LSC grantees, with several exceptions, including those related to abortion litigation. The bill did not become law.
Dobbins/Velazquez v. Legal Services Corporation (Brennan Center for Justice)
Give Legal Aid More Freedom to Help the Poor (Editorial, Washington Post)
GAO: LSC Suffering Numerous Accounting Problems
In May 2008, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its review of the Legal Services Corporation’s (LSC) fiscal operations and its discovery of numerous problems. It found that the agency had not kept up with evolving reforms aimed at strengthening internal control over the organization’s financial reporting process and systems. Had the LSC done so, it might have prevented recent incidents of excess payments, questionable expenditures, and potential conflicts of interest. In addition, it had not kept up with current management practices, including those involving risk assessment, internal control and financial reporting. Furthermore, the corporation had not formally assessed the risks to the safeguarding of its assets and maintaining the effectiveness and efficiency of its operations. The GAO also found weaknesses in LSC internal controls over grants management and oversight of grantees that negatively affected its ability to provide assurance that grant funds were being used for their intended purposes in compliance with federal laws and regulations.
The GAO made a total of nine recommendations to the LSC’s Board of Directors and eight to its management. These recommendations dealt with fundamental management and governance practices. Both LSC’s board and management expressed a commitment to move to implement the recommendations.
In June 2010, the GAO released a new report, which made 17 recommendations for the improvement of internal controls and how the LSC documents its grant evaluation process. The report also acknowledged that the corporation took steps to improve its governance and accountability practices since previous GAO reports about the LSC were issued. The agency claims to have provided additional documentation to the GAO on partially implemented recommendations and that it is awaiting GAO’s final approval.
Should the LSC be Abolished?
Some conservatives see the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) as a waste of money that only helps liberal trial lawyers and want to see it abolished. Advocates of legal aid counter that the LSC is still as vital today as it was 40 years ago when it was established under the Nixon administration.
If only Congress knew what the LSC does and doesn’t do. Critics of the quasi-government agency see it as an empty bureaucracy that falls short of its mission of providing free legal assistance. For example, most funding for LSC-supported programs doesn’t come from the LSC, but rather from other legal aid sources. Also, most legal assistance to the poor does not come from LSC-funded lawyers—it comes from lawyers performing pro bono work or from law schools. Finally, the LSC has long ignored reforms adopted by Congress, demonstrating it is happy to accept federal funding but not abide by the rules of the legislative branch.
What the Legal Services Corporation Doesn’t Want Congress to Know (National Legal and Policy Center)
For many people, a good lawyer can mean the difference between sickness or health, oppression or liberty, fear or peace of mind, says Judge Kevin Burke, an LSC supporter. If the LSC were to cease, an enormous gap would open in the legal system, and low-income Americans would suffer for it. People can’t count on the public defender system like they used to, due to budget cuts at the state and local level. At least 15% of public defenders have been eliminated in Minnesota since 2008. The LSC is needed to fund local legal aid offices so people with limited means can receive the necessary advice inside a courtroom.
Just Why Should We Care About Legal Services for the Poor? (by Judge Kevin Burke, Minn Post)
James J. Sandman, a specialist in pro bono legal work, spent three decades with an international law firm and then became the top legal official for the District of Columbia’s school system before accepting the job to lead the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), beginning February 1, 2011. The LSC is a private, non-profit corporation established by the federal government in 1974 to help low-income individuals gain access to civil legal assistance. It distributes about $400 million in grants each year to 136 non-profit legal aid programs.
After nearly three decades of work for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), Victor M. Fortuno was appointed interim president in January 2010. The LSC is a private, non-profit corporation established by the federal government to help low-income individuals gain access to civil legal assistance.