Legal Funder Eyes Senate After House Backs Budget Increase

By Kevin Penton | June 30, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

The ball is now in the Senate’s court when it comes to how much the nations’ largest single funder of legal aid services will have in its coffers next fiscal year, with the House recently approving a budget allotment for the Legal Services Corporation that would be the biggest in its history.

The $550 million in funding, included in an appropriations package that the U.S. House of Representatives passed Tuesday, would represent a nearly 33% increase from the LSC’s current budget of $415 million and now heads to the U.S. Senate.

“The additional funding would allow more victims of domestic violence to obtain protection orders, more veterans to access the benefits they have earned, and more tenants to avoid unlawful evictions,” LSC President James J. Sandman said in a statement.

The funding for the LSC was bundled in a five-bill, $383 billion appropriations package for the fiscal year beginning on Oct.1.

The bills, which were passed by a 227-194 vote, would also provide funding for agencies such as the U.S. departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, and Housing and Urban Development, according to the House Appropriations Committee’s website.

“The entire equal justice community was heartened by the significant increase in federal support ... that was included in the congressional appropriations package this week,” Don Saunders, senior vice president for policy for the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, told Law360 on Wednesday.

The bills must ultimately be signed by President Donald Trump, following a call by the White House in its own budget proposal to abolish the LSC.

The White House sought to eliminate the LSC as part of the administration’s plans “to move the nation towards fiscal responsibility and to redefine the proper role of the federal government,” according to budget documents posted by the White House in March.

It viewed the $18.2 million it proposed to appropriate to the LSC as a way to conduct “an orderly closeout” in 2020.

White House officials could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

After the White House’s announcement on March 18, groups like the American Bar Association and NLADA urged Congress to reject the recommended cut.

“Being able to provide legal services to even more individuals is critical to our nation’s promise of justice for all,” said ABA President Bob Carlson in a statement on Wednesday. “We urge the Senate to agree to a comparable level of funding.”

The White House’s bid to nix the LSC is the most recent example of efforts to stymie the organization, which have come up repeatedly over the past 40 years.

Established by Congress in 1974, the LSC works independently to financially support efforts to provide civil legal aid to low income individuals in the United States, according to its website.

It provides funding to 133 independent nonprofit legal aid organizations in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the nation’s territories, according to the site.

--Additional reporting by RJ Vogt. Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.