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Will Obama Block Sen. McConnell’s Attempt To Dismantle Legal Services For The Poor?

By Ian Millhiser  

"Will Obama Block Sen. McConnell’s Attempt To Dismantle Legal Services For The Poor?"

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browneThe Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is a federally funded provider of legal services to the poor. By law, no more than six members of the LSC’s 11-member board can be controlled by the same party, so the president traditionally nominates six members of his choosing, and the party-out-of-power’s Senate leader selects the other five.

In 1981, President Reagan tried to dismantle LSC by nominating the head of a right-wing legal organization called the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) to chair LSC’s board, although this nomination was eventually withdrawn due to outrage over Reagan’s decision to nominate an attorney to the LSC board who fundamentally disagreed with LSC’s mission.  Now, however, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) wants to refight this battle by selecting another PLF attorney named Sharon Browne:

A member of the right-wing Federalist Society, Browne has worked on behalf of a panoply of conservative legal causes while at the industry-funded PLF, including opposing race-based school district assignment policies, and supporting Prop 209, a California ballot initiative to end most affirmative action programs in the state.

A look back at history makes clear that PLF, which describes itself as a promoter of free enterprise, private property rights, and limiting the role of government, is ideologically opposed to the mission of the LSC, a non-profit created as part of President Johnson’s Great Society initiative to provide free or low-cost legal services to the poor, and which was chaired in the late 1970s by Hillary Clinton, then an Arkansas lawyer.

In 1998 and 2003, PLF infamously participated in two Supreme Court decisions known as the “IOLTA cases,” in which a coalition of right-wing organizations tried to have a primary means of funding legal services for the poor declared unconstitutional (the justices ultimately rejected their claim, but in a 5-4 decision with Justice O’Connor casting the key vote). Although Browne does not appear to have worked on this case, her resume is riddled with assaults on laws intended to fight racism — including a key role in the recent Parents Involved case where Chief Justice Roberts wrote an opinion claiming that it is unconstitutional for school boards to desegregate public schools.

Browne’s appointment to the LSC board, however, is not etched in stone.  Although presidents have historically deferred to the other party’s nominees to this board, nothing requires them to do so. If President Obama wants to prevent Mitch McConnell from succeeding where Ronald Reagan failed, he has the power to withdraw Browne’s nomination.

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