Civil Legal Services

  • September 4, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Vanita Gupta, Deputy Legal Director, ACLU, and Steve Hanlon, Partner, Holland & Knight

    Earlier this year, the Orleans Parish Defenders Office (OPD), which represents more than 80 percent of criminal defendants in Orleans Parish and handled 30,000 cases in 2011, faced a particularly severe fiscal crisis. The office fired a third of its staff and effectively slashed pay for those who remained. Private contract lawyers handling death penalty and conflict cases stopped getting paid. Entire divisions of the office were cut. Hundreds of criminal defendants were left with no lawyer to represent them, though their lives and liberty were on the line. Funding for indigent defense in New Orleans relies, in part, on collection of traffic fines, as well as court fees paid by indigent defendants who plead guilty or are convicted at trial. In recent months, the office has been able to rehire a handful of lawyers after lawmakers supplemented the indigent defense budget by increasing the indigent defender fee by $10 and seatbelt violations by $20. And two weeks ago, OPD filed a lawsuit alleging that New Orleans Traffic Court has shortchanged indigent defense between $2.4 million to $6.7 million since 2007. 

    The persistent underfunding of indigent defense systems in the United States for the last 50 years has occurred on the watch of our state courts and our profession. As we prepare to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright on March 18, 2013, all of us must know that when this chapter in the history of the American justice system is written, it will not be a pretty picture.

    After first recognizing a right to prospective injunctive relief for grossly underfunded public defender systems in 1989, the federal courts abdicated their responsibility to enforce the Sixth Amendment, citing abstention concerns. As a result, since 1992, almost all significant systemic challenges to underfunded public defender systems have occurred in state courts. The principal goal of this first generation of state court litigation was to increase funding for indigent defense systems around the country. In better economic times, this goal was difficult, to say the least, since legislatures and occasionally the executive branch, rather than the courts, appropriate funds for state agencies. The task is Herculean during the current budget crisis, when state courts are turning to desperate measures to generate revenue, such as aggressively collecting fines and fees off the backs of the poor.   

  • July 25, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Laura Abel, Deputy Director of the National Center for Access to Justice at Cardozo Law School

    If Congress leads the country over the “fiscal cliff,” people are going to have a tough time using the courts to protect their most basic rights. Pretty much everyone agrees that imposing across-the-board cuts is a bad way to make public policy. When the cuts affect the Third Branch of government, they tread on dangerous constitutional ground.

    The fiscal cliff is the popular name for the package of federal budget cuts and tax increases that Congress agreed to in the Budget Control Act of 2011. The idea at the time was that a committee, optimistically dubbed the “supercommittee,” would come up with a long-term plan to reduce the federal deficit before the package took effect. But the supercommittee was unable to come up with a solution. Now, most federal agencies face budget cuts of as much as 9% on January 1, unless Congress can agree on an alternative plan.

    The federal courts have warned that the cuts “would have a devastating and long-lasting impact on the federal courts and the administration of justice in this country.” Even without the fiscal cliff, the federal judiciary is a lean operation. In the past year alone, 1,000 court staff positions have been cut. Judge Julia S. Gibbons has testified before Congress that additional Budget Control Act cuts would limit the ability of court clerks to help members of the public with court filings. This would make the federal courts more inaccessible than ever to “pro se” litigants seeking to enforce their civil rights or file for bankruptcy. Staff shortages would also result in significant delays in processing cases, providing an unfortunate demonstration of the principle that “justice delayed is justice denied.”

    The so-called budget cuts will cost the taxpayers far more money in the long run. Judge Gibbons warns that the courts will have to furlough public defenders and reduce pretrial supervision services for low-risk offenders. The likely result is that more defendants will spend more time in prison awaiting trial, driving up prison costs.

  • July 13, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    More than a decade ago federal lawmakers had little trouble coming together to pass a piece of legislation aimed at improving the lives of some the country’s most vulnerable. It was 1994 when Congress in sweeping bipartisan fashion passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), extending government services to victims of domestic violence.

    But reauthorizing that law is mired in what The Hill’s Russell Berman says is a “familiar Capitol dynamic – a political staring contest on stalled legislation that has historically enjoyed strong bipartisan support.”

    While Berman paints an evenhanded picture – both parties are obstinate, can’t work together – a strong argument can be made that what is really going on here involves the intransigence of the Republican Party. The party has moved so far to the fringe, has become so hostile to helping the nation’s most vulnerable that it should come as no surprise that it does not want to work with the Senate to reauthorize VAWA.

    The reason is straightforward: today’s VAWA would expand services for victims of domestic violence.

    The measure the Senate passed in April would bolster services for immigrant women who are victims of domestic violence, it would strengthen the ability of Native American authorities to prosecute domestic violence, and it would ensure help the LGBT community.

    House Republicans and right-wing lobbying groups have opposed the new services. Longtime right-wing activist Phyllis Schafly, for instance, called the Senate’s VAWA reauthorization a “slush fund for the feminist lobby.”

    When the House passed its reauthorization of VAWA in May it did not include the Senate’s call for extension of services, but also sought to cut existing services. At the time the House Judiciary Committee’s Ranking Member Rep. John Conyers blasted the House version for rolling back “existing law” and failing “to protect some of the most vulnerable victims of violence.”

  • May 7, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The severely conservative U.S. House of Representatives is peddling yet another effort to slash services for the poor.

    As TPM’s Sahil Kapur reports “House Republicans are set to advance legislation to replace automatic defense spending cuts they agreed to last year with cuts to programs for the poor and working class.”

    Yes, the House’s plan is likely only to be symbolic, as Kapur notes the legislation is expected to go nowhere in the Senate. Yet it provides, as if anyone needed it, another example of the conservative party’s extreme opposition to any policy that might raise taxes on the super wealthy.

    Rep. Chris Van Hollen, (pictured) the House Budget Committee’s Ranking Member, in a May 3 report blasted the proposal for advancing “costly additional tax breaks for millionaires while finding savings by ending the Medicare guarantee for seniors, slashing investments that strengthen our economy, and shredding the social safety net.”

    As noted here, a string of commentators have argued that the conservative party has been retooled to focus solely on protecting tax cuts for the wealthy, even as the middle class shrinks and poverty grows.

    A recent study from political scientists at the University of Georgia and New York University reflects a drastically changed political party, noting that the “Republican Party is the most conservative it has been in a century,” NPR’s Frank James reports.

    In a piece for The Huffington Post, Mike Lux said the political scientists “are underestimating.”

  • 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.”