By Alan Houseman
[Part 12 of the series on the 40th anniversary of the Legal Services Corporation, Support: p. 5]
This is the fifth in a series of blogs that are focusing on the development, growth and demise of the federally funded support infrastructure: national support centers; state support; training; technical assistance; and information sharing and dissemination. This blog will explore the time between 1985 and 1996 and the ultimate Congressional action that eliminated funding for support. The first blog focused on the development of that unique system and ended with the inclusion of the “Green Amendment” in the LSC Act. The second and third blogs discussed what LSC did between 1975 and 1981 to preserve, expand and strengthen the support system brought over from the OEO legal services program. The fourth discussed the efforts by the LSC Boards appointed by President Reagan to defund or limit support.
In 1985, the support structure consisted of 17 national support centers, state support centers or units in each state, five Regional Training Centers, six computer assisted legal research projects, and the National Clearinghouse for Legal Services, which published the Clearinghouse Review.
Between 1985 and 1996, the support structure came under continuing but unsuccessful attack from critics of legal services and some members of the Board of LSC. These critics saw the support structure as the engine that drove legal service into class actions, major litigation, legislative and administrative advocacy and the glue that held together a coordinated, cohesive advocacy network to challenge the status quo. In September of 1987, the LSC Board voted to request that Congress not provide funds for national and state support, regional training centers, computer assisted legal research projects and the National Clearinghouse for Legal Services. Congress rejected this proposal, and, indeed, became very irritated at LSC for making such a proposal.
To protect support as well as other components of the legal services delivery system under attack (e.g., migrant and Native American programs), Congress, led by Senator Warren Rudman and beginning with the 1987 appropriation for LSC, specifically earmarked funding for support components. For example, Public Law 99-500, (October 18, 1986), the 1987 appropriation of $305,500,000 for LSC provided: $623,964 for regional training centers; $7,528,218 for national support; $7,842,866 for state support; $865,000 for the Clearinghouse; and $510,444 for computer assisted legal research grants. This earmarking continued until the 1996 appropriation.
Although LSC attempted to defund several national support centers (e.g., Migrant Legal Action Program, National Center for Youth Law), the only successful defunding was of National Social Science & Law Project, located in Washington, D.C. All of the other 16 remained funded until 1996. Similarly no state support center was defunded, although LSC unsuccessfully attempted to defund the Western Center on Law and Poverty because of its advocacy activities around a California election proposition on tax limits (Proposition 13).
As noted in the last blog on support, numerous LSC studies attempted to examine support throughout the 1980s, but none were successful in eliminating support. Two non-LSC studies were done on state support. The Management Project of NLADA commissioned a paper on state support completed by Erica Black Grubb in November of 1983, The Role of State Support in Delivering High Quality, Cost-Effective Legal Services to Low Income Clients. The National Organization of State Support Units did a subsequent study in 1991 entitled The Challenge of Leadership: Providing State Support Services in the 1990s. A shorter version of the report was included in an article by Daniel M. Taubman, “The Role of State Support Centers in the 1990s and Beyond,” 25 Clearinghouse Rev. 75 (Special Issue 1992).
During this period, NLADA organized a number of conferences for state support staff to help state support build on successful initiatives among the various states and improve state level advocacy. Regional training centers met periodically to improve training and learn from each other. National support centers gathered at national NLADA conferences to share experiences and successful activities. While LSC remained hostile or indifferent until the Clinton board took over in 1993, the support entities themselves, working with NLADA, continued to focus on support and to build cohesive state and national networks of advocates.
In 1994, the Delivery Working Group (of the Project Advisory Group and NLADA) completed a comprehensive review of support that was presented to the LSC Board for its consideration just after the 1994 Congressional elections. That study set out eight core functions of state and national support:
- Advocacy: State and national support centers conduct advocacy directly as sole or co-counsel at state and national levels and are the focal points for such advocacy efforts because the two primary judicial, legislative, and administrative systems are centered at the state and federal levels.
- Coordination of and assistance to advocacy of others: Providing help to others in the Legal Services system who are doing advocacy, rather than doing it directly.
- Management, administrative and organizational assistance, coordination, and development: Providing a variety of help to Legal Services programs and their administrative staff at both state (where there are at least two field programs distinct from the state support center) and national levels.
- Information dissemination to and sharing with staff, case handlers, and board members: state and national support centers are primary information distribution points.
- Information dissemination to and sharing with the low-income client-eligible community: A central role of all Legal Services programs – and therefore of support – is to provide information to client-eligible people so that they may be relatively more empowered and may seek, wherever possible, to help themselves. The nature of support’s involvement in this activity will vary according to the pattern of involvement of other Legal Services programs and non-LSC entities for the particular substantive area, client population, or state.
- Conducting and assisting necessary training
- Resource development: At both the state and national levels, support can play an important part in helping develop new sources of revenue for Legal Services.
- Preserving and strengthening Legal Services as an institution: National and state support, given their leadership responsibilities, can collectively be responsible for advancing Legal Services’ reputation and stature, preserving its independence, maintaining its integrity, and insuring its strength.
The LSC Board was to begin consideration of what to do to expand support in 1995, but by then there was a new Congress and a new political environment. The 1995 Appropriation for LSC (Pub. L. 103-317, August5 26, 1994) increased LSC funding to $415,000,000 and continued the earmarked funding for the various categories of support. This was the last time there would be annualized support funding through LSC.
With the 1994 congressional elections, LSC suffered a dramatic reversal of political fortune. Conservatives included the elimination of LSC in the infamous “Contract for America.” In much the same way as the Reagan Administration in the early 1980s, the leadership of the new Congress, under House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), committed itself to the elimination of LSC and ending federal funding for legal services. The House leadership sought to replace LSC with a system of limited block grants to the states that would severely restrict the kind of services for which the funds could be used. The House of Representatives adopted a budget plan that assumed that LSC’s funding would be cut by one-third for FY 1996, another third in FY 1997, and completely eliminated thereafter. Opponents of legal services dubbed this funding plan “the glide path to elimination.”
Despite the efforts of the House leadership, a bipartisan majority in the Congress, led by Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), remained committed to maintaining a federally funded legal services program. Nevertheless, key congressional decision-makers, led by Congressmen Bill McCollum (R-FL) and Charles Stenholm (D-TX), determined that major “reforms” in the delivery system would be required if the program was to survive. The 1996 Appropriation for LSC (Pub. L. 104-134, April 26, 1996) incorporated these reforms. Grants were to be awarded through a system of competition, rather than through presumptive refunding of current recipients. Funding was to be distributed on a strict, census-based formula, eliminating any LSC discretion over funding amounts. More fundamentally, the Congressional majority was determined to redefine the role of federally funded legal services by refocusing legal services advocacy away from law reform, lobbying, policy advocacy, and impact litigation and toward basic representation of individual clients. Congress set out to accomplish this goal by restricting the broad range of activities that programs had engaged in since the early days of OEO, many of which had been mandated in the past. These restrictions are described in the earlier blog on Restrictions. Most significantly, Congress eliminated LSC funding for national and state support centers, the National Clearinghouse which published the Clearinghouse Review, regional training centers and computer assisted legal research centers.
Alan Houseman is the former executive director of CLASP and emeritus senior fellow of the organization, and the president of the Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library. The opinions presented in this blog series are his own.