Equal Justice Under Law

Trump Cuts LSC From Proposed Budget

While you’ve been reading news about proposed dramatic spending on the wall on the Mexican border, or cuts to the corporation for public broadcasting, you might have missed that the budget proposed by Donald Trump also includes completely eliminating the Legal Services Corporation. The LSC is a quasi-governmental entity charged with distributing funding to legal aid organizations across the country, providing free legal services to extremely poor Americans. In California, the LSC distributes about $40 million each year to one agency in each area. (In the Bay Area, that agency is Bay Area Legal Aid.) Those organizations do their best to fundraise from other sources, as well – but they remain by far the largest providers of legal aid to the poor, and eliminating LSC (or even cutting it dramatically) would likely be a death blow to the work of these important organizations.

Even more importantly, it would be devastating to people already struggling in poverty. In eighty percent of family law cases in California, at least one party does not have an attorney – including cases in which that party is seeking a restraining order against an abusive partner. As lawyers, we know how scary going to court was those first few times. Imagine going to court with no law school training, no one by your side, no one to explain the rules, no one to help articulate your defense or the terrible things that have happened to you? Now imagine that you are trying to do that in a language not your own, or with a 5th grade education?

While this “justice gap” is filled in part by a patchwork of hardworking orgs (including VLSC), Legal Aid is the foundation of everything. And now Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts this funding. This is not really a cost-saving measure, or a draining of the swamp: LSC funding amounts to only 0.00009872% of the federal budget each year. In fact, this cut would actually increase costs. Not having a lawyer in these kinds of cases significantly increases the number of people who slide further into poverty – and that affects our economy and our quality of life, increasing society’s costs in medical care and law enforcement.  

Over the doors of the US Supreme Court, in letters larger than life, is one of the key American values:  Equal Justice Under Law. This simple statement comes from the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution:  “no state…shall deny to any person…the equal protection of the laws.” It is a hallmark of American democracy that justice should be available to everyone and not just to a privileged few (as it is in many countries). Eliminating funding for legal aid would amount to an abandonment of that key value, and would ensure that the only people who can really have access to the courts are those with money. 

Tiela Chalmers is the CEO and General Counsel of the Alameda County Bar Association the Volunteer Legal Services Corporation. Tiela has been a consultant in the fields of legal services and pro bono. Prior to that she was the Executive Director of Volunteer Legal Services Program (now JDC) in San Francisco. Tiela started her career as an attorney at Farella, Braun + Martel in San Francisco.