Trump’s first budget would end program to help low-income Americans get lawyers

Cut would reinforce America’s “rigged system.”

Mick Mulvaney, the top budget official in Donald Trump’s White House. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Mick Mulvaney, the top budget official in Donald Trump’s White House. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

A small, efficient, 40-year-old program to provide legal aid to middle- and low-income clients in civil proceedings is facing the budget ax, according to a New York Times report on the early stages of the Trump administration’s internal budget planning.

The cut would hardly lighten taxpayers’ burden — even at $375 million last year, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) was roughly one one-hundredth of one percent of total federal spending — but would make life significantly harder for people who can’t afford to hire a fancy lawyer with their own money.

About 1.9 million Americans turned to lawyers paid through the LSC’s grant programs in 2014, according to the organization’s website.

The LSC is a civil-court legal aid program. The lawyer hours its funds deliver to people of modest means are fundamentally different from the work of criminal legal aid programs, which must uphold every American’s right to representation when they are accused of law-breaking.

Low- and middle-income Americans may have to wait a while to get a lawyer when they are charged with a crime, and when a lawyer does show up she will almost always be underpaid and overworked. But when the state says it wants to fine or jail you, you get to have a lawyer whether or not you can afford one.

Civil court is a different bag. Working-class Americans get dragged into civil court by powerful entities frequently in very serious situations where the government has no obligation to provide them with a lawyer. If the bank claims it has the right to take your house away, for example, the complex thicket of foreclosure proceedings that follows are not covered by right-to-counsel laws for civil court.

A handful of civil actions do create an obligation for the government to appoint an attorney for parties who can’t afford their own lawyer, but they are mostly limited to family-court proceedings. In almost every other type of case — from wrongful termination to denials of service from federal programs like Medicaid or public housing — people are on their own unless a legal aid lawyer is available to help.

The LSC is not the sole source of funding for civil-court legal aid, but it is the primary channel. Trump’s reported plan to end the program would lop off roughly a third of the total resource pool currently available for getting civil representation to those who can’t afford to buy it out of pocket.

Since the LSC accounts for just one ten-thousandth of the total federal budget, ending it won’t dent government deficits. Nor will any of the other Trump cuts reported on Friday, including plans to zero out the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts.

But by making it significantly harder to find a lawyer unless you’re already rich, Trump’s planned destruction of the LSC would tilt the economic playing field more steeply against the little guy. There are already far more people who need civil legal aid than the LSC and its parallel systems can serve.

In the wake of the Wall Street collapse in 2008 — probably the best example of what happens when the rules of our economy and courts system are rigged in favor of the powerful — there were almost twice as many foreclosure clients in need of assistance as there was capacity to field such cases. Even at present levels, Congress is giving the LSC roughly half the budget it received in the early 1990s in inflation-adjusted terms.

Trump’s plan to cancel the program entirely would also improve corporations’ odds of avoiding consequences when they cheat customers. Civil courts are often the only place where someone wronged financially can seek restitution. The civil legal aid system makes it possible for low-income people to mount cases themselves, as well as ensuring they can access a competent defense when they’re on the other end of a lawsuit.

Why, then, would an avowed populist like Trump, who knows that government deficits operate in billions not millions, go after a small and populist-oriented line item like the LSC? The answer likely lies in ideology.

Hard-right conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation have been railing against federally-backed civil legal aid for decades. The problem with LSC, Heritage wrote in 1995, is that in representing the interests of the poor it ended up backing cases that push against conservative orthodoxy.

“Legal Services suffers from an institutionalized ideological bias. Attorneys have promoted racial preferences and illegal immigration, and grantees are sufficiently politicized to become involved in congressional redistricting, litigation, and campaigning on ballot referendum questions,” the ’95 paper says. “For the past 30 years, the LSC has been the legal pillar of the welfare state.”

In the context of these longstanding gripes about the program, it’s not actually so odd to see Trump putting the LSC alongside other right-wing bugaboos like federal arts funding and the programs that support public radio and kids’ educational television.

The new president seems to have absorbed the conservative movement’s perception of low-income legal aid programs as just another venue for culture-war sparring. Rather than take on the “rigged system” and ensuring Americans have equal justice under the law, Trump looks set to fuel a conservative backlash against the idea that poverty and other social ills are systemic problems rather than purely individual ones.