Legal services

  • May 4, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Slowly the economy continues to recover, with jobs being added over the past 26 months, but that progress is amazing in an atmosphere where one of the two major political parties is concerned only with advancing the outlandish interests of the nation’s super wealthy.

    The Great Recession, underway before the Obama administration was in existence, has shoved millions into poverty and the gap between the nation’s top 1 percent and everyone else is the widest since the 1920s. Last fall, the Census Bureau reported that the number of people in poverty is at its highest in more than 50 years. As noted earlier this week the super wealthy are increasingly out-of-touch, indeed one retired multimillionaire is pushing a book that calls for more economic inequality.

    But how did the country arrive at this point where the middle class is shrinking, the poor is growing and a tiny group of people are amassing most of the wealth? Because, according to some, the nation’s conservative party has been bought by the out-of-touch super wealthy.

    The mainstream media, in the name of objectivity, will continue to blame both parties for gridlock in Washington, but a growing number of economists, academics, lawyers, activists, and others concerned about the well-being of all people are pushing back against that tired line.

    Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, who have studied Congress for several decades, say the Republican Party is to blame for pushing fantastical policy and refusing to budge from it, therefore creating an atmosphere where progress or change is difficult to foster.

    “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics, Mann and Ornstein write for The Washington Post. “It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

    One of the group’s to blame for the Republican Party’s unmovable concern about the nation’s super wealthy is Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, which pushes conservative lawmakers to sign a pledge against raising any taxes. Norquist (pictured) is all about policy that starves the federal government of revenues, so policies to help the less fortunate dwindle, because those are not the people Norquist or the Republican Party are concerned with.

    In his May 4 column for The New York Times, economist Paul Krugman notes the work of Mann and Ornstein, writing, “Specifically money buys power, and the increasing wealth of a tiny minority has effectively bought the allegiance of one of our two major political parties, in the process destroying any prospect for cooperation.”

    “And the takeover of half our political spectrum by the 0.01 percent is, I’d argue, also responsible for the degradation of our economic discourse, which has made any sensible discussion of what we should doing impossible,” Krugman continued.

    In a piece last year for Rolling Stone Tim Dickinson, said the party of Ronald Reagan has “undergone a radical transformation, reorganizing itself around a grotesque proposition: that the wealthy should grow wealthier still, whatever the consequences for the rest of us.”

  • April 6, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Laura Abel, Deputy Director, National Center for Access to Justice. This piece is cross-posted at NCAJ’s blog.

    The Department of Justice has released startling evidence that language barriers are leading to serious injustices in courts in North Carolina. In a March 8 letter, DOJ warned North Carolina that its ongoing failure to provide court interpreters in civil cases, and in some criminal cases, violates the federal Civil Rights Act, which bars courts and other recipients of federal funding from providing worse services to people on the basis of English language ability.  

    DOJ reports that prosecutors in Wake and Durham counties ask people with limited English proficiency to plead guilty and then, assuming the role of “interpreters,” convey the guilty pleas to the courts. A judge relying solely on “prosecutorial interpreting” cannot know whether the person is even aware that a guilty plea is being entered, much less whether he understands the charges and consequences. When the federal government then deports the person, it cannot know whether it is deporting an innocent person. 

    The quality of justice is equally in doubt in civil cases. In 2010, a mother in Wake County lost permanent custody of her children after a trial in which she struggled to understand basic facts because she had limited command of the English language. Although she told the judge about her language difficulty, the court provided no interpreter. She also had no lawyer to help. Communication was so poor that at the end of the case she did not even understand that the judge’s ruling would cause her to lose her children.

  • December 9, 2011

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Peter B. Edelman, a longtime champion of fighting poverty in American, was honored this week with a humanitarian award from the D.C. Commission on Human Rights and the D.C. Office of Human Rights. 

    The D.C. human rights offices presented Edelman with its annual Cornelius R. “Neil” Alexander Humanitarian Award on Dec. 8. Edelman (pictured), the newly elected ACS Board Chair, is a professor at Georgetown Law. Edelman’s distinguished career has included work for Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was an eloquent and forceful tribune of the nation’s oppressed, especially African and Native Americans or the “disaffected.”

    In a press statement regarding its Award, the D.C. Office of Human Rights says Edelman’s “name is near the top of any list of people who have worked to make poverty and economic justice front-burner issues in the United States. He has spent much of the last four decades working to make the nation focus on poverty and find solutions that would make a difference, including being at the forefront of concerted efforts to make the welfare system more responsible, productive, and accountable, attempting to do so without making it harsh or inhumane.”

  • November 21, 2011

    by Nicole Flatow

    Proposed legislation advanced in the House last week that would limit reimbursement of costs and attorneys’ fees in lawsuits seeking to hold the federal government accountable.

    The Government Litigation Savings Act is being called a “de facto bar to the courthouse door for low income citizens and other parties that do not have access to free legal counsel” by a coalition of 25 public interest legal groups.

     “Contrary to the title of the bill, H.R. 1996 is a thinly disguised effort to prohibit litigation against the government by the needy and public interest groups,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr. before the House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to approve the bill.

    The measure seeks to roll back some provisions of the Equal Access to Justice Act, enacted in 1980 with bipartisan support to narrow the disparity in resources when the “little guy” goes up against the federal government in a legal action, by granting the costs of litigation and attorneys’ fees to citizens, nonprofits and small businesses when they can show that the federal government’s position was not “substantially justified.”

    "One of the key insights of the legislators who gave birth to EAJA was recognition of a relationship between encouraging individuals and entities to challenge unreasonable governmental action and the positive effect that such challenges have in implementing public policy for the benefit of Americans generally," explains Brian Wolfman, co-director of Georgetown University Law Center's Institute for Public Representation, in written testimony opposing H.R. 1996.

    But the now-pending bill would roll back several key provisions of the EAJA. It would, among other things, bar lawyers working pro bono from recovering fees, and limit EAJA awards to those with a “direct and personal monetary interest in the civil action,” closing the door to those seeking to vindicate constitutional rights or enforce a right on behalf of the general public, according to a fact sheet by Alliance for Justice, Earthjustice, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates.

    “For three decades, veterans, seniors, the disabled, small businesses, and groups from across the ideological spectrum have relied on EAJA to challenge illegal government actions,” explains the fact sheet. 

  • November 18, 2011

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Earlier this week Congress agreed on a drastic cut of funding for the Legal Services Corporation, the nation’s largest provider of civil legal help for low-income people.

    As noted at Daily Kos, the LSC, which helps an ever-growing pool of people, “has fallen under the chopping block of Congress.”

    CLASP, a public advocacy group for the nation’s poor, in a press statement says the House and Senate conferees agreed earlier this week to a nearly 14 percent cut. “The agreement reduced funding for LSC in 2012 to $348 million from $404.19 million in 2011. The last time LSC was funded at $348 million was in 2007,” a statement from CLASP reads.

    The draconian cut comes, of course, as more people are now living in poverty, and much of the nation continues to struggle from aftershocks of the Great Recession. Earlier this year, Daily Kos’ Adam Bonin, an attorney in Philadelphia and former ACS Lawyer Chapter leader, wrote that the proposed cut to LSC funding “would prove to be especially damaging to low-income persons whose health and safety are at risk – the elderly, the victims of domestic violence, the disabled, children, veterans, and others – by denying them access to justice.”

    Following the agreement to cut funding, LSC Board Chair John G. Levi said, “The nation’s poverty population has never been this large, and, as a consequence, requests for civil legal assistance are increasing.” And unless Congress would agree to “restore and enhance” LSC funding, services to low-income persons will dwindle.

    “Many LSC-funded programs,” Levi said, “will have no choice but to lay off staff and reduce the legal assistance they provide low-income Americans.”