After Superstorm Sandy ravaged America's Eastern Seaboard in October 2012 and caused nearly $70 billion in damages, Congress granted the Legal Services Corporation just $1 million dollars to allocate toward legal aid services related to the storm.
The next four years of supplemental disaster bills included no federal funding for legal aid at all, but in 2018, Congress set aside $15 million for LSC to spend on the limited purposes of mobile resources, technology and pro bono outreach for those hit by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, plus California wildfires.
On June 3, the U.S. House of Representatives voted for the second year in a row to earmark $15 million for LSC — this time without limitations on how it could be used.
According to LSC President Jim Sandman, the back-to-back $15 million allocations demonstrate how much Congress has come to appreciate the importance of legal aid when disaster strikes.
"I hope it reflects a normalization of funding for legal aid," Sandman said. "It's great news."
President Donald Trump signed the bill on Thursday, giving LSC license to distribute the funds across a vast geographic area that stretches from Guam to California to Alabama. Covered natural disasters include typhoons, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, wildfires, floods, tornadoes, mudslides and earthquakes.
Though Sandman said grantees on the ground are the groups best equipped to assess the local needs of their communities and respond accordingly, he noted that the new bill lifts restrictions on things like hiring additional legal aid lawyers, who can be critical to helping disaster survivors recover.
LSC had asked for $8.5 million, making the $15 million allocation a rare instance in which LSC got more than it asked for.
"I'm hopeful that we'll see this routinely in any disaster relief package that Congress enacts in the future," Sandman said.
The bill comes on the heels of last month's House Appropriations Committee vote to provide $550 million for LSC in fiscal year 2020. That sum, roughly a third more than LSC's 2019 fiscal year funding, is the largest appropriation proposal LSC has ever received in absolute dollars. A full House vote is yet to be held.
Though LSC's appropriations have been steadily rising since 2013, the Trump administration has called for the organization's elimination in each of his first three annual budget proposals, citing "fiscal responsibility" concerns. The efforts echo previous attempts to quash the group.
Congress has routinely ignored the suggestions, however, thanks to strong bipartisan support for continued federal legal aid funding.
In April, general counsel from Walmart Inc., Amazon.com Inc., General Motors and more than 250 other major American companies urged Congress to increase funding for the group, noting that legal aid is good for business because "the stability of our communities directly impacts the success of our companies."
The organization's public profile has also been buoyed by its Leaders Council, which includes high-profile advocates like baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Stanford Law School Dean M. Elizabeth Magill and legal novelist John Grisham.
In February, it announced the launch of a new Emerging Leaders Council, filled with luminaries from "the next generation" and led by Kristen Sonday, co-founder of pro bono management software company Paladin PBC, and Brad Robertson, a partner at Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP.
John Levi, LSC's board chair, said at the time that the new council's social media and tech savvy will help the organization "open the doors and windows" on America's access to justice crisis.
Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.