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Should Congress Pull the Plug on the Legal Services Corp? : * No: The national promise of equal justice can be met only by guaranteeing the poor access to the legal system.

Steven A. Nissen is executive director of Public Counsel and a member of the State Bar of California's Access to Justice Working Group

Across this country, Americans have devoted countless hours to debating our justice system in light of the O.J. Simpson verdict. Does the system work? Do you need a “dream team”? Are lawyers available only to the highest bidder?

Unfortunately, many of these questions are being debated only in the context of the Simpson trial and verdict. Long after the Simpson criminal case and its civil progeny become part of our history, questions about our system of civil justice will continue to weigh heavily on Los Angeles’ poor, for whom access to the legal system is difficult and often a matter of survival.

Reportedly, the dream team defense had $10 million at its disposal--Simpson’s net worth. Paradoxically, that same sum of money--$10 million--is roughly equivalent to the entire amount of legal aid dollars allocated by Congress for all below-poverty-level residents in Los Angeles County. In the coming days, a House-Senate conference committee will consider slashing that inadequate amount even further, with proposals ranging from complete elimination of the Legal Services Corp. (the entity that administers the program nationally) to block grants which will decline and then disappear over the next few years. The “kindest” alternative under consideration is a cut of 35%, with a massive dose of restrictions.

Our Constitution’s framers, who are often quoted by today’s leaders in Congress as inspiration for their actions, believed that the establishment of justice was so important that it was written into the preamble as a primary goal for the new nation. That lofty ideal, “equal justice under law,” is chiseled into the frieze above the entry of the U.S. Supreme Court, for every schoolchild, tourist, attorney and elected official to see. But this fundamental notion in the firmament of the nation’s core precepts is not, as the moderate Justice Lewis Powell observed, merely “a caption on the facade” of a building. “Justice should be the same,” he wrote, “in substance and availability, without regard to economic status.”

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That is where the dream team comes in. Only this team is not an expensive gaggle of high-priced attorneys serving the needs of one wealthy man. This dream team is a vibrant mixture of federally funded legal aid lawyers, pro bono (volunteer) lawyers from private firms, and other nonprofit agencies sworn to secure fair and effective access to our legal system. In many industrialized nations, the right to counsel in civil cases is underwritten by public monies. In poll after poll, 75% of Americans mistakenly believe that our citizens have the same right. In reality, no more than 25% of those who desperately need access to legal services obtain it. With the threatened budget cuts, the situation will get worse and the tenuous threads that connect the various parts of the poverty dream team will be severely--perhaps irreparably--tattered.

Why does any of this matter to Southern Californians, thousands of miles from the debate in Washington? What does free legal aid provide to poor people in our community? To a mother dying of AIDS, it means that her children will have legal guardianship arranged before she dies. To a nonprofit organization, it means that affordable housing can be created and the money can go into the housing itself, not to the legal work necessary to execute the transaction. To an elderly couple who scrimped and saved to pay their mortgage, it means a scam artist will not be able to steal their house. To the more than 1.5 million poor people in the county, it offers renewed faith in the national promise of equal justice. For all of us, it is an investment in an American tradition.

Are lawyers available only to the highest bidder? The present $400-million budget of the Legal Services Corp. works out to about $1.50 for every woman, child and man living in the United States. It is a small price to pay to secure one of our most fundamental rights.


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