LSC Board Member Sarah M. Singleton and President Helaine M. Barnett attended the State Bar of New Mexico's reception in Albuquerque on Oct. 20 to pay tribute to the state's retiring senior U.S. Senator, Pete V. Domenici, for his long-time support of the Legal Services Corporation and his commitment to providing equal access to justice for all low-income Americans. Singleton, co-chair of the New Mexico Commission on Access to Justice and a former president of the bar, helped arrange the reception, which took place following the Mountain West Project Directors second annual meeting (see article below).
A year ago this month, Domenici announced plans to retire from the Senate when his current term ends in January. The 76-year-old New Mexico native was first elected to the Senate in 1972, making him tied with Delaware Senator Joe Biden as the fifth longest-serving Senator in Congress today, and the 17th longest-serving in American history.
For much of his career, Domenici has been a strong and steadfast supporter of increased funding for legal aid to the poor. In 1996, when some in Congress were working to eliminate LSC, Domenici stepped in to help craft a compromise to ensure the survival of LSC. Since then he has consistently advocated for increased funding to meet the vast unmet need for legal services to the nation's poor. Earlier this year, LSC presented Domenici with a Champion of Justice award in recognition of his extraordinary efforts on behalf of poor Americans.
Domenici said, in remarks prepared for delivery, "Because New Mexico unfortunately has so many families with limited incomes, the legal aid offered by legal services providers is very important to many people in our state. This help gives the poor a real chance to right a wrong or to escape abusive family situations. I don't think American justice could be considered justice if the poor and those of moderate means had no real access to legal representation."
"The Legal Services Corporation is most fortunate to enjoy bipartisan support in the Congress for much of its history and especially today," says Barnett. "Much of that congressional support can be traced to the efforts of Senator Pete Domenici....We at the Legal Services Corporation, our 137 grantees, and all the clients that we serve join in thanking you for this leadership and dedication to equal justice."
The Finance Committee of LSC's Board of Directors voted on Oct. 14 to recommend that the full Board adopt LSC management's proposal to request $495.5 million from Congress for the Corporation's FY 2010 budget (see chart for a breakdown of the total request.) The figure represents a five percent increase over last year's request of $471 million. Congressional action has not yet been completed on the FY 2009 budget, but Appropriations committees of both the House and Senate have recommended $390 million, an 11 percent increase over the FY 2008 level of $350 million. The full Board will vote on the proposal at its meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, on October 31.
The Finance Committee, which is chaired by Michael D. McKay of Seattle, Wash., approved the proposal after a discussion concerning the Board's responsibility to request an appropriation that adequately addresses the need for legal services while recognizing the funding constraints placed on Congress by the financial crisis facing the country. LSC management urged the committee to approve $495.5 million, which represents the mid-point on the Corporation's five-year journey to closing the Justice Gap by FY 2011-a plan adopted by the Board when LSC's Justice Gap report was released in 2005. Management pointed out that the poor will suffer disproportionately in times of financial crisis, and that the ongoing subprime mortgage meltdown, the increasing number of people financially eligible for LSC-funded services, and the recent series of destructive natural disasters make the need for a funding increase even more necessary. Representatives from the American Bar Association and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association testified before the committee in support of requesting $530 million and $579 million, respectively.
Wyoming Legal Services has relinquished its grant from the Legal Services Corporation to provide civil legal assistance to low-income individuals and families in the state, LSC announced on October 16. Planning is underway to ensure continuity of legal assistance to the program's clients.
LSC officials have pledged to work closely with the Wyoming program to minimize disruption of legal assistance to the program's clients during the transition to an interim legal services provider.
LSC also has sought the help of the Wyoming State Bar and Wyoming courts to ensure a smooth transition and a long-term plan to provide high-quality legal services in Wyoming.
"Our efforts in Wyoming will be directed at ensuring those eligible for legal services have access to justice and receive legal assistance in an efficient and effective manner," LSC President Helaine M. Barnett said.
Wyoming Legal Services had been awarded a 2008 grant of approximately $660,000 to provide legal assistance to low-income residents of the state. LSC's Office of Compliance and Enforcement had cited the Wyoming program for not adhering to LSC regulations and grant requirements.
LSC President Helaine M. Barnett and Vice President Karen J. Sarjeant attended the second annual meeting of the Mountain West Project Directors in Albuquerque, NM, from Oct. 20-21. The group, formerly known as the Mountain States and Southwest Region Project Directors, consists of executive directors and other leaders from legal aid programs in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming. Stephanie Edelstein and Evora Thomas from LSC's Office of Program Performance also attended the meeting.
Barnett provided the attendees with an update on LSC's activities and initiatives, including prospects for LSC's FY 2009 appropriation and FY 2010 budget request, federal funding for foreclosure legal aid and loan repayment assistance programs, and developments regarding LSC's ongoing focus on issues like private attorney involvement, technology, and disaster assistance. Sarjeant discussed LSC's current criteria for program visit selection, format and timetable for reports, and increased fiscal reviews.
Other sessions at the meeting focused on topics such as regional training and mentoring, employee health and retirement plans, rural technology, and community lawyering. There was also informal discussion of issues that impact statewide programs struggling to maximize sparse resources in vast rural service areas.
New Jersey Governor Jon S. Corzine appeared before a joint session of the state legislature on Oct. 16 to unveil a comprehensive plan to shore up the state's economy in the face of the ever-worsening national financial crisis.
Included in the plan is $9 million for Legal Services of New Jersey (LSNJ), which is predicting a $25 million decrease in its principal funding source, Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTA). LSNJ is the umbrella organization that distributes state funds to the state's six legal aid programs.
"The poor and economically distressed rely on this organization for counsel on bankruptcy, repossession and foreclosure," said Corzine. "They need our help."
"This supplemental funding will address the first phase of our funding crisis, enabling the state's system...to maintain the current level of service through the end of the state fiscal year next June," said Melville D. Miller, Jr., president of LSNJ. "Even this most welcome emergency supplemental funding will not be sufficient, in the long term, to solve the problems caused by the precipitous decline in IOLTA revenues. We will face an additional shortfall of at least $14 million in the next state fiscal year, which will begin July 1, 2009."
Note: LSNJ does not receive LSC funds, but distributes state funds to the six LSC-funded programs in New Jersey.
The Northwest Justice Project of Washington State and Seattle Children's Hospital have joined forces to launch the Pacific Northwest's first medical-legal partnership for children. The three-year pilot project began last month with nearly $400,000 in funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a New Jersey-based organization whose mission is to improve the health of all Americans. The partnership will provide valuable assistance to low-income families receiving medical treatment at two children's clinics in the Puget Sound area. A staff attorney with the Northwest Justice Project will train physicians and social workers to recognize legal problems that may affect a child's health, and also provide direct legal services and referrals for patients. "More than a referral process, this is a new service model where lawyers and physicians can collaborate," said NJP attorney Scott Crain. "We'll be able to offer advice and counsel including full representation in court, as well as educate doctors and social workers so that together we can address legal issues and rights violations that negatively impact health."
Steve Gottlieb, the long-time executive director of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, who is celebrating his 40th year as a legal aid lawyer, has lived a life that seems preordained, although he might say it was anything but. When he applied for an internship with legal aid during his second year of law school in 1968 he did so "on a lark," having no expectation of becoming a legal aid lawyer and knowing nothing about Atlanta. Even after he returned to the program after graduating from law school, he always chose to renew his Georgia driver's license for the shortest time possible, never fully committing himself to a life in Atlanta or a career in legal aid. But that is exactly what he has done, spending the last forty years working to provide equal access to justice for Georgia's poor, mostly at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society but also as a manager of the Savannah office of Georgia Legal Services from 1974 to 1976. For the last 28 years he has led the Atlanta program as executive director, during which time he has shepherded the organization through its highs and lows, from steep funding cuts in the early ´80's to landmark victories in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Norman K. Janes has announced his plans to retire at the end of the year from his position as executive director of Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut, ending a 40-year career almost exclusively dedicated to providing legal services to the poor residents of his state. Aside from a four-year stint as a history teacher in the early ´70's, Janes worked with different legal aid programs throughout Connecticut since graduating from law school in 1968. Looking back on decades of service to the poor, Janes says, "When I started in legal aid, my colleagues and I wanted to change the world. We wanted to use the law to eliminate poverty. Forty years later, it's obvious there's still work to be done, but we have definitely made some far-reaching changes, and we have definitely made a significant difference in the lives of innumerable individuals, and I am confident that SLS will continue to do so after I leave." Janes will serve as interim executive director of the state bar for the first nine months of 2009, an organization he has been involved in for some time, including serving as president from 2006-2007.
Legal aid is about helping ordinary people with real-life problems. Client stories illustrate the day-to-day struggles-and victories-of poor Americans seeking justice under law.
Karen Shade, Tulsa World – October 19, 2008
Julia Pearson is a private person who'd rather not tell people about her business. But when Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma helped her save her home, she was ready to talk.
About how a mortgage company tried to foreclose on the home she'd lived in since 1977-she fell behind on payments when an accident at work caused her to lose a job she loved.
And she was ready to talk about how a so-called foreclosure rescue company approached her in 2004 with assurances that it could help her keep the house. She gave the company $1,000, and they did nothing.
Legal Aid helped her get a settlement for that, too.
But while she dealt with the personal turmoil that threatened her life, she kept her problems to herself. No doubt, she said, because of stubborn independence. She didn't even tell her beloved church family. It's just her nature.
"They probably wonder why I never came to them, because they probably could've helped me," Pearson said.
Pearson made the final payment on her house through a Chapter 13 bankruptcy reorganization plan a few months ago. Now the house is hers, but it's hard to forget about the stress, pain and anger that she has lived with for the last four years.
"You can't go to sleep, because your mind won't relax," she said. "You have to be strong. It's not easy. You wonder, 'What am I going to eat?' because you get where what you like, you can't buy anymore," she said.
Victor Hunt, who has worked at the Tulsa office for two years, was the second attorney to work on Pearson's case.
"She just got into a situation that is not uncommon-somebody losing a job or somebody being injured. Their income stops, and they can't make the mortgage payments," Hunt said.
Pearson was only a few years away from paying off her mortgage when a pallet jack ran over her foot at the grocery store where she worked. She was a butcher for many years and used to stand on her feet 10 hours a day. The bones were shattered. She now relies on a walking stick. Despite four operations, her foot hasn't healed as it should. Now, Pearson is disabled.
But the series of events and the years following also took a mental and emotional toll on the woman, who became a first-time homeowner at age 37 and was used to doing things herself without help.
"I wanted that away from me, and it's gone. It's gone," she said.
With the payments to the bankruptcy court finished, the house is now free and clear.
"It's jubilant for me," Pearson said.