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|Founded||July 25, 1974|
|Founder||United States Congress|
|Focus||Promoting equal access to justice and providing grants for high-quality civil legal assistance to low-income Americans|
|Origins||LSC Act of 1974|
|Method||Many state-level grantee programs|
|$425 million federal appropriation (2018)|
The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is a publicly funded, 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation established by the United States Congress. It seeks to ensure equal access to justice under the law for all Americans by providing funding for civil legal aid to those who otherwise would be unable to afford it. The LSC was created in 1974 with bipartisan congressional sponsorship and the support of the Nixon administration, and President Gerald Ford appointed Bill Janklow as LSC's first director. LSC is funded through the congressional appropriations process.
LSC has a board of eleven directors, appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the United States Senate, that set LSC policy. By law the board is bipartisan; no more than six members can come from the same party. LSC has a president and other officers who implement those policies and oversee the corporation's operations.
For Fiscal Year 2018, LSC had an appropriation of $410 million in the federal budget to fund civil legal aid. LSC is the largest single funder of civil legal aid in the country, distributing more than 90 percent of its total funding to 132 independent nonprofit legal aid programs.
For Fiscal Year 2019, Congress appropriated $415 million to LSC to fund civil legal aid. LSC is the largest single funder of civil legal aid in the country, distributing more than 90 percent of its total funding to 132 independent nonprofit legal aid programs.
LSC is one of the organizational descendants of the former Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, a key part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society vision, established the OEO. From 1965 on, starting with a budget of $1 million, the OEO created 269 local legal services programs around the country, such as California Rural Legal Assistance, which made a name for themselves suing local officials and sometimes stirring up resentment against their federal funding.
By the early 1970s the Nixon administration began dismantling the OEO; funding for legal services for the poor began to wither, and supporters looked for an alternative arrangement. In 1971 a bipartisan congressional group, including Senators Ted Kennedy, William A. Steiger, and Walter Mondale, proposed a national, independent Legal Services Corporation; at the same time, administration officials such as Attorney General John N. Mitchell and chief domestic advisor John Ehrlichman were proposing their own somewhat similar solution.
Creation and the Ford era
The idea behind the LSC was to create a new corporate entity that would be funded by Congress but run independently, with eleven board members to be appointed by the president subject to senate confirmation.
LSC was created by the Legal Services Corporation Act of 1974 (Pub.L. 93–355). The LSC Act contains certain rules and restrictions regarding what LSC grantees can do. The initial budget was set at $90 million.
Naming and confirmation of the first LSC board was delayed by inaction and opposition, but by July 1975 President Gerald R. Ford had named, and the Senate approved, the first board, with Cornell University Law School Dean Roger Conant Cramton as its first chair. Debate existed from the start among the board members as to whether LSC's role should be the OEO's one of using lawsuits and other means to attack broad underlying difficulties of the poor, or whether the focus should be more narrowly defined to addressing small, specific situations. The LSC Act said that the organization was to pursue "equal access to justice," but Cramton wrote that while the law was intended to proscribe the blatantly political objects of the 1960s OEO work, it was worded ambiguously.
In December 1977, President Jimmy Carter nominated Hillary Rodham to the board of directors of the LSC, for a term to expire in July 1980. Rodham, an attorney with Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, Arkansas and the wife of Arkansas Attorney General Bill Clinton, had a background in children's law and policy and had worked in providing legal services for the poor while at Yale Law School. She had also done 1976 campaign coordination work for Carter in Indiana. This was a recess appointment, so Rodham took her place on the board without immediate Senate confirmation. Rodham was nominated again in January 1978 as a regular appointment. In mid-1978, the Carter administration chose the thirty-year-old Rodham to become chair of the board, the first woman to become so. The position entailed her traveling monthly from Arkansas to Washington, D.C. for two-day meetings.
During Rodham's Senate confirmation hearings, she subscribed to the philosophy that LSC should seek to reform laws and regulations that it viewed as "unresponsive to the needs of the poor." Rodham was successful in getting increases in Congressional funding for LSC, stressing its usual role in providing low-income people with attorneys to assist them in commonplace legal issues and framed its funding as being neither a liberal nor a conservative cause. By her third year on the LSC board, Rodham had gotten the LSC budget tripled. Opposition to LSC during this time came from both Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner, who favored a "judicare" approach of compensating private lawyers for work done for the poor, and Conservative Caucus head Howard Phillips, who objected to LSC representing gays.
LSC funding was at its highest-ever mark, in inflation adjusted dollars, in fiscal 1980, with a budget of $303 million. Some 6,200 poverty lawyers filed suits using its funds on behalf of 1.5 million eligible poor clients; the lawyers won almost 80 percent of their cases, which mostly involved divorces, evictions, repossessions, and interrupted payments from federal agencies. For fiscal 1981 it was budgeted at $321 million.
In June 1980, Carter renominated Rodham for another term on the board, to expire in July 1983. Sometime between about April 1980 and September 1980, F. William McCalpin replaced her as chair of the board. He would remain chair through late 1981.
LSC was strongly opposed by some political groups. As Governor of California in the 1960s, Ronald Reagan had advocated elimination of all federal subsidies for free legal services to the poor in civil cases, and had tried to block a grant to California Rural Legal Assistance in 1970. Indeed, Time magazine would state, "Of all the social programs growing out of the Great Society, there is none that Ronald Reagan dislikes more than the Legal Services Corporation." CRLA's executive director would characterize Reagan's attitude towards the organization as akin to that of Darth Vader.
When President Reagan took office in January 1981, he attempted to eliminate the LSC by zero funding it. Supporters of LSC rallied to defend it; American Bar Association president W. Reece Smith, Jr. led 200 lawyers to Washington to press its case. The U.S. House Judiciary Committee blocked Reagan's zero-funding action in May 1981, but did cut financing to $260 million for both of the next two years as well as place additional restrictions on LSC lawyers. By the following month, the now Republican-controlled U.S. Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee had cut proposed financing to $100 million, as part of what The New York Times deemed an "increasingly bitter ideological struggle". Moreover, Reagan administration officials accused LSC of having "concealed and understated" its lobbying activity and support for politically motivated legislation.
In November 1981, the Reagan administration, although still hoping to eliminate LSC, decided to replace all eleven LSC board members with nominations of their own. For the new chairman they chose Ronald Zumbrun, president of the ideologically opposite Pacific Legal Foundation, which had previously defended the state of California against several legal aid lawsuits. For fiscal 1982, LSC's budget was reduced by 25 percent to $241 million, with new rules prohibiting most class action suits and lobbying. Zumbrun's nomination was sufficiently controversial that in January 1982, the Reagan administration dropped it, and instead made a recess appointment of William J. Olson to be chair. Olson had headed the Reagan transition team dealing with LSC and had personally recommended its abolition, so LSC advocates were not mollified.
At the same time, the Reagan administration had named six other board members as recess appointments. In February 1982, the Carter-appointed members of the previously existing board filed suit to against the recess appointments, claiming they were unlawful and that they should be enjoined from holding meetings. Rodham hired fellow Rose Law Firm associate Vince Foster to represent her in the case and to seek a restraining order against Reagan. The Reagan nominees may have been prohibited from meeting with the Legal Service Corporation before confirmation.
Rodham also prodded Senate Democrats to vote against Reagan's nominees. The nominees did undergo heavy criticism in Congress, with one labeled a bigot and Olson lambasted for his transition position. In March 1982, yet another new chair was named, Indiana University law professor William F. Harvey, although Olson would remain on the board. Harvey and Rodham had a conference call in which Rodham reiterated her desire for the lawsuit. That action, McCalpin v. Dana, was decided in favor of the defendants by summary judgment in October 1982.
By December 1982, the Senate was willing to confirm six of Reagan's more moderate nominees, but not Harvey, Olson, and another; the Reagan administration instead pulled the names of all of them. This board then closed its last meeting in a public debacle, with Olson lambasting LSC as full of "abuses and rampant illegality" and a "waste of the taxpayers' money through the funding of the left," while being harangued by a hostile audience. And too, the Reagan appointees to the board were being criticized for collecting substantially higher fees than previous board members.
In September 1983 the General Accounting Office found that in early 1981, LSC officials and its local affiliates had used federal funds in assembling opposition to Reagan's efforts to eliminate LSC, and that this use had been in violation of the LSC Act's restrictions against such political activity. Such actions against the LSC Act were not crimes, and the GAO report did not claim any crimes had taken place. The investigation had been initiated by the LSC in 1983 ordering a series of "raids" on their own offices to attempt to discover evidence of questionable actions taken by the LSC in 1981, prompting Time magazine to declare LSC "an organization at war with itself."
More recess appointments were made by Reagan in late 1983, in 1984, and in early 1985, with again none of them being confirmed by the Senate. Indeed, LSC's board would go a total of three and a half years populated by recess appointments. Finally in June 1985 the Senate confirmed the latest batch of Reagan nominations. The Carter board lawsuit, since renamed and appealed as McCalpin v. Durant to the United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, was then decided later in June 1985 as moot.
George H. W. Bush era
Overt White House hostility towards LSC ended with the George H. W. Bush administration, with calls for level funding rather than decreases. Under board chair George Wittgraff, LSC began to ease relations with private lawyers and with state grantees. In fiscal 1992, LSC saw a funding increase back to $350 million.
The first two years of the Clinton administration saw more growth for LSC, as former chair McCalpin returned to the board and the previous former chair was now First Lady of the United States Hillary Rodham Clinton. Funding rose to a high mark in absolute terms of $400 million for fiscal years 1994 and 1995.
Things turned upon the advent of the Republican Revolution. In fiscal 1996, once the Republican party had taken over Congress the year prior, LSC had its funding cut again, from $400 million to $278 million. A new set of much more extensive restrictions were added to LSC grantees. The organization's supporters expressed disappointment that the Clinton administration did not make LSC a critical priority in its budget battles with the Republican Congress, especially given Hillary Clinton's former role in it.
As part of a comprehensive "welfare reform" of federal welfare laws beginning in 1996, most significantly the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, Congress imposed restrictions on the types of work that LSC grantee legal services organizations could engage in. For example, LSC-funded organizations could no longer serve as counsel in class action lawsuits challenging the way public benefits are administered. Additionally, LSC grantees faced tightened restrictions on representing immigrants, specifically those illegally in the country. However, in 2001, the restriction on welfare advocacy was ruled unconstitutional in Legal Services Corp. v. Velazquez.
However, non-LSC funded organizations are not subject to these restrictions leading the legal services community to adopt a two-track approach: LSC restricted counsel taking on individual clients but not engaging in class actions, and non-restricted counsel (using private donor funding) both taking on individuals as well as engaging in otherwise restricted litigation. Poverty lawyers in both tracks still work together where they can, being careful not to run afoul of LSC restrictions.
George W. Bush era
According to LSC's 2009 report "Documenting the Justice Gap in America: The Current Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans," all legal aid offices nationwide, LSC-funded or not, were together able to meet only about 20 percent of the estimated legal needs of low-income people in the United States.
For 2007, LSC had a budget of some $350 million.
By fiscal 2011, the annual budget amount for the LSC was $420 million. In early 2011, House now-majority Republican proposed a $75 million reduction in that current-year amount, while Obama's suggestion budget proposed a $30 million increase for the subsequent year.
On December 16, 2014, the President signed into law the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act for FY 2015 that includes $375 million for LSC.
Since 2017, the Trump administration has called for the elimination of funding for LSC. LSC has strong bipartisan support on behalf of robust funding for LSC. External stakeholders, including members of the legal and business communities, state attorneys general, and law school deans across the country send letters to the House and Senate appropriations committees advocating for robust funding for LSC. They include:
- 252 General Counsels from some of the largest American businesses, including Apple, American Express, Google, Walmart, General Motors, and Walt Disney.
- 181 law firms from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
- The Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators.
- 41 bipartisan state Attorneys General.
- 167 Deans of law schools.
In addition, 209 members of the House of Representatives signed a bipartisan letter in support of funding for LSC, the largest number in history, and 46 bipartisan Senators signed a similar letter in support of funding for LSC.
Due to the up-and-down nature of LSC's political history, there are many restrictions on lobbying, advocacy, and general impact work which apply to LSC-funded organizations. Here they are broken into categories of expressly forbidden, forbidden with LSC funds, and expressly permitted.
Recipients may never:
- Publicly identify LSC or the recipient with any partisan or nonpartisan political activity or a candidate for office, or encourage others to do so (45 CFR 1608.4)
- Staff attorneys may not use their position or authority to influence elections or coerce anyone to contribute to a political cause (45 CFR 1608.5)
- Run for office (45 CFR 1608.5(c))
- Register, transport to polls, or otherwise assist voters in election-related activities (45 CFR 1608.6)
- Use non-LSC funds for anything prohibited by the LSC Act, unless it is specifically allowed in 45 CFR 1610.4, 1610.6, or 1610.7 (45 CFR 1610.3)
- Lobby. In the language of the regulation, recipient organizations may not attempt to influence the passage or defeat of a bill, constitutional amendment, initiative, referendum, executive order, or provision which appropriates funds or defines the functions or authority of LSC or the recipient (45 CFR 1612.3).
- This includes using resources from a recipient organization to support lobbying efforts on employees' own time – don't even take an envelope! (45 CFR 1612.3(c))
- The caveat is that organizations may lobby at the State and local level with non-LSC funds regarding funding for their organization (45 CFR 1612.6(f)).
- Grassroots lobby (45 CFR 1612.4)
- During working hours or with resources provided by an LSC-funded organization, employees may not participate or encourage others to participate in public demonstrations, boycotts, picketing, or strikes. This must be on personal time (45 CFR 1612.7(a)).
- Employees of recipients may never engage in rioting or civil disturbances, actions which violate a court-imposed injunction, or take part in illegal activity of any kind (45 CFR 1612.7(b))
- Support or conduct training sessions which advocate particular public policies, encourage or facilitate prohibited political activities, disseminate information about such policies or activities, or train participants to engage in prohibited activities (45 CFR 1612.8(a))
- Form or organize an association, labor union, or other similar organization. This is distinct from holding informational meetings for attorneys or forming organizations of eligible clients for advice on service delivery (both of which are allowed). You may also advise your clients on the legal procedures for forming these types of organizations themselves, and even help them with documents like bylaws (45 CFR 1612.9).
- Represent clients in criminal proceedings (unless you are appointed by a court or a situation arises out of your representation of the client in a civil case) (45 CFR 1613)
- Initiate or participate in a class action suit (45 CFR 1617.3), although you may represent individuals who want to remove themselves from the suit or have not received the settlement ordered by the court (45 CFR 1617.2(b)(2)).
- Provide legal assistance to ineligible aliens (45 CFR 1626.3; see 45 CFR 1626.5 to judge eligibility), unless the alien in question is, or is the parent of someone subject to battery or extreme cruelty by a spouse, parent, or member of their spouse's or parent's family residing in the same household. In this case, non-LSC funds must be used for the case (45 CFR 1626.4).
- Participate in any activity related to the redistricting of a legislative, judicial, or elective district at any level of government (45 CFR 1632.3)
- Defend clients in eviction proceedings from a public housing unit if that client has been charged with or convicted of the sale, distribution, or manufacture of controlled substances, or of possession with the intent to sell or distribute (45 CFR 1633.3)
- Participate in civil litigation on behalf of an incarcerated person, as plaintiff or defendant, nor any administrative hearing challenging the conditions of incarceration (45 CFR 1637.3)
- Represent, nor refer for representation by another recipient any client gained through in-person, unsolicited advice (45 CFR 1638.3)
- Participate in legislation, lobbying, or rulemaking involving efforts to reform Federal or State welfare systems (45 CFR 1639.3)
Recipients may, with non-LSC funding:
In many of their regulations, LSC only states activities that their funding cannot be used to support. In 45 CFR 1610.2(c)–(h), however, several different types of non-LSC funding are defined:
- “(c) IOLTA funds means funds derived from programs established by State court rules or
- legislation that collect and distribute interest on lawyers' trust accounts.
- (d) Non-LSC funds means funds derived from a source other than the Corporation.
- (e) Private funds means funds derived from an individual or entity other than a
- governmental source or LSC.
- (f) Public funds means non-LSC funds derived from a Federal, State, or local government or
- instrumentality of a government. For purposes of this part, IOLTA funds shall be treated in
- the same manner as public funds...
- (h) Tribal funds means funds received from an Indian tribe or from a private nonprofit
- foundation or organization for the benefit of Indians or Indian tribes."
With these definitions in mind, 45 CFR 1610.4 goes on to specify what each type of funding can be used for:
- Tribal funds can be used for whatever purpose they were granted (45 CFR 1610.4(a))
- Public, IOLTA, and Private funds can be used for whatever purpose they were granted, as long as it doesn't violate LSC's regulations (45 CFR 1610.4(b)-(c))
- Non-LSC funds generally can be used to assist clients who are not financially eligible under LSC guidelines (45 CFR 1610.4(d))
In addition, the category of general non-LSC funds may be used to:
- Support a political party, association, candidate, ballot measure, initiative, or referendum – but not during working hours or at the recipient's office location (45 CFR 1608.3(b))
- Respond to a written request from an agency, legislative body, elected official, etc. to participate in rulemaking or to provide oral or written testimony in order to provide information which may include analysis and/or comments on legislation (45 CFR 1612.6(a))
- Recipients may also provide oral or written comments to an agency in a public rulemaking session without having been requested (45 CFR 1612.6(e))
- Lobby at the State or local level regarding the recipient's funding (45 CFR 1612.6(f))
- Assist an ineligible alien or his or her child who has been subjected to battery and/ or extreme cruelty by the alien's parent, spouse, or a member of the parent's or spouse's family residing in the same household as the alien. To qualify, the alien him- or herself cannot have participated in the abuse, and the representation must be related to preventing or ending the abuse (45 CFR 1626.4(a)).
- Comment in a public rulemaking proceeding or respond to a written request for testimony in a legislative session or committee meeting concerning welfare reform (45 CFR 1639.5)
- Participate in legal activity which seeks to obtain or compel an individual or institution to provide or assist with euthanasia or assisted suicide (45 CFR 1643.3) or a "nontherapeutic abortion" (term not defined) (LSC Act §1007(b)(8) or the 1996 Appropriations Act §504(a)(14))
- Participate in legal activity seeking to desegregate elementary or secondary schools (LSC Act §1007(b)(9))
- Participate in legal activity relating to violation(s) of the Military Selective Service Act or desertion from the Armed Forces of the United States (LSC Act §1007 (b)(10))
Recipients may, with any funding:
- Accept fee-generating cases in situations in which local pro bono attorneys or the referral service are not viable options (45 CFR 1609.3)
- In terms of accounting, fees garnered from these services must go into the same category as the recipient's LSC grant in the same proportion that LSC funds supported the activity (versus other funds) (45 CFR 1609.4)
- This regulation was changed in Section 533 of the 2010 Appropriations Act from a statutory prohibition (which had been implemented in the 1996 Appropriations Act Section 504(a))
- Accept reimbursement from clients for out-of-pocket expenses related to their case, if the client has agreed to pay ahead of time and in writing (45 CFR 1609.5(a))
- Represent eligible clients at the administrative level (45 CFR 1612.5(a))
- Initiate or participate in litigation challenging a governmental agency's rules, regulations, policies, etc. (45 CFR 1612.5(b))
- Communication with an agency to receive information (45 CFR 1612.5(c)(2))
- Informing clients, other recipients, etc. about new or proposed statutes, executive orders, or administrative regulations. Note that legislation is not listed here (45 CFR 1612.5(c)(3)).
- Contact LSC to comment on its rules (45 CFR 1612.5(c)(4))
- Advise a client of his or her right to contact an elected official (45 CFR 1612.5(c)(6))
- Provide assistance to eligible aliens (45 CFR 1626.5; also lists criteria for eligibility), as well as specific categories of other aliens (45 CFR 1626.10 and 1626.11)
Board of directors
LSC is headed by an 11-member Board of Directors appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. By law, the Board is bipartisan: no more than six members may be of the same political party. The current composition of the board is:
- Board Chair: John G. Levi
- Vice Chair: Father Pius Pietrzyk, O.P.
- Members: Robert J. Grey Jr., Matthew Keenan, Abigail Lawlis Kuzma, Victor B. Maddox, John G. Malcolm, Laurie Mikva, Frank X. Neuner, Jr., Julie A. Reiskin, and Gloria Valencia-Weber.
The chairs of the LSC board throughout its history have included:
- Roger Conant Cramton
- Hillary Rodham
- F. William McCalpin
- William F. Harvey
- Robert Emmett McCarthy
- William C. Durant III
- George W. Wittgraf
- Douglas S. Eakeley
- Frank B. Strickland
By law, LSC's headquarters is located in Washington, D.C. In the 1970s and 1980s, LSC also had regional offices. LSC currently has one office in Washington D.C. that administers all of LSC's work. LSC itself does not provide legal representation to the poor.
- State Justice Institute, another government-established non-profit that awards grants to improve the justice system
- Martha Bergmark
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- Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2019 (P.L. 116-20).
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- "Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Courts, Civil Liberties, and the Administration of Justice, of the Committee of the Judiciary, House of Representatives". Background release, Legal Services Corporation, September 1980. U.S. House of Representatives. September 21–27, 1979. Archived from the original on 2007-07-24. Retrieved 2008-03-10. pp. 388–403, exact reference p. 398 shows McCalpin as chair in September 1980.
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