Government agencies and legal providers must join forces across state and party lines to expand legal services across the U.S. amid the pandemic and other overlapping crises, five bipartisan state attorneys general said at a Tuesday access to justice forum hosted by the Legal Services Corporation.
Joshua Kaul of Wisconsin, Doug Peterson of Nebraska, Karl Racine of the District of Columbia, Ellen Rosenblum of Oregon and Herbert Slatery III of Tennessee are among the 42 attorneys general who recently sent letters to members of Congress asking for robust funding of LSC, which they say is facing a severe budget shortfall amid a surge in demand for free legal representation by the country's most in need.
At the forum — which also featured recorded remarks from Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and John Cornyn, R-Texas — the five attorneys general laid out their offices' priorities in tackling the nationwide access to justice crisis. They noted the crisis predated the pandemic but has worsened amid job losses, struggling economies and public health emergencies.
Peterson's office, for example, has been focusing on consumer protection. In both urban and rural areas of Nebraska, low-income people have suffered the helpless feeling of having "nowhere to go," he said.
"If we don't within our system make all the citizens of our country and of our states know that they have the ability to be represented and have legal counsel, we have failed," Peterson said. "We have failed as lawyers. We have failed as citizens."
Peterson told the audience the story of a woman who recently called his office's mainline to tell him about her personal struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic. Her husband, an employee of a railroad company, lost his job last year, Peterson said. He added the bank has been putting pressure on them to pay their mortgage, the threat of eviction looming.
"She didn't know who she was talking to. And we kept it that way," Peterson said, "It was interesting and it was helpful for me to have The Legal Aid of Nebraska material in front of me."
Peterson said that while the state attorney general's office has limited statutory authority to help people in need, it still works as a watchdog for consumers in tenant-landlord disputes. Ultimately, however, providers such as The Legal Society, which is one of the providers that receives grants from LSC, play the most important role, he said.
LSC has repeatedly called for Congress to increase funding for its 132 grantees across the country providing legal aid at no cost to people meeting federal poverty guidelines. The imminent lifting of the eviction moratorium across the United States is expected to cause extreme hardship on low-income Americans, and legal representation will be crucial in helping them, the organization has said.
But funding has waned and free legal services providers have been left hamstrung in their efforts to assist those in need, stakeholders said Tuesday.
Raun Rasmussen, the executive director of NYC Legal Services, said his organization has been struggling to meet New Yorkers' demands for legal assistance.
"We all know too much about the pandemic," he said. "In New York City, it was brutal. Family and children lost their jobs, their incomes, their education, their health, and in way too many cases, their life."
Before the pandemic, nearly 1.7 million people in the city had incomes under the federal poverty level, which is just above $26,000 a year for a family of four, Rasmussen said. The pandemic pushed that number up significantly, he added.
To complicate the recovery, Rasmussen noted, many poor people around the country don't have access to computers and reliable internet they can use to apply for financial aid and legal help.
Racine said his office's consumer mediation program has benefited D.C. residents, particularly in housing issues. A team of mediators helps consumers draft letters and prepare applications and educates them about the help they can receive from the district's agencies.
"We'll do anything short of filing a suit," Racine said, adding that the program has helped consumers seek the restitution of over $3 million. Racine's office has helped residents of the district in issues related to poor housing conditions in a close partnership with local legal aid providers.
Evictions will be by far the most pressing issue facing Americans in the coming months, Racine said, and the affordable housing crisis following the Great Recession provides a look into what the near future has in store.
"We're going to face that again in the coming eviction tsunami," he said.
Kaul emphasized his office's work in protecting the rights of victims of crimes. Wisconsin was the first state to pass a "victims' rights provision," and his office has been active in helping victims of crimes.
"There are times when victims of a crime may want legal representation, and we've got to make sure that their rights are protected," Kaul said. "There are big issues that get a lot of attention. But there are a lot of issues that can slip through the cracks."
Slatery's office has been involved with assisting Tennesseans in recovering damages stemming from the opioid crisis, which hit his home state particularly hard.
"In Tennessee, we have five people a day who die from overdose deaths," he said. "It's an extremely urgent problem that we are trying to work together on."
His office has begun several civil investigations into opioid manufacturers and assists people touched by the opioid epidemic who are eligible for compensation under various settlements stemming from multidistrict litigation on the unregulated distribution of opioids across the country.
Rosenblum said her office has been particularly active in addressing a spike in hate crime in Oregon since the beginning of 2020 that has victimized primarily Black and Asian people.
"Sadly, what we discovered is that it is an even bigger problem than we thought," Rosenblum said. "We saw a shocking 134% surge in reporting in the second half of 2020."
Thanks to funding earmarked by the state legislature for access to justice programs, she said, Oregon now has a hate crime hotline that assists residents with reporting. The state's AG office also kicked off an elder abuse unit consisting of a prosecutor and two investigators who help local law enforcement assist senior citizens.
"We now provide support to any district attorney office in the state that requests it," she said.
--Editing by Ellen Johnson.
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State AGs Call For Bipartisan Support For Legal Aid Funding
By Marco Poggio | July 20, 2021, 4:57 PM EDT