Access to justice is a fundamental principle upon which our country was founded. The phrase “Equal Justice Under Law” is engraved on the front of the U.S. Supreme Court building. “Equal protection of the laws” is mandated by the Constitution. Our Pledge of Allegiance ends with the promise of “liberty and justice for all.”
Yet, many people across America and here in Minnesota lack the resources to protect their rights and liberties in our complex legal system. Take Champlin resident Francine Siegfried, for example. Francine was nearly stabbed to death by her ex-husband when he came to pick up the children for a visitation. He was arrested, pleaded guilty to attempted murder and was sent to prison. Now he is seeking more contact with the children and access to their medical providers, and Francine can’t afford an attorney to help keep the man who tried to kill her away from her kids.
This is where the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) comes in. Each year, the LSC helps nearly 2 million Americans like Francine — including 45,000 Minnesotans — who can’t afford attorneys to protect their legal rights. The LSC also helps farmers, seniors, homeowners, renters and many others across the country, including nearly 112,000 veterans and their families. The LSC helps veterans secure housing and other hard-earned benefits, keeps seniors from losing their homes, helps rural residents where lawyers are scarce, defends victims of domestic violence and helps disaster survivors rebuild their lives.
In the 1960s, the American Bar Association and its then-president, Lewis Powell Jr., before he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, were instrumental in helping create the predecessor to the Legal Services Corporation.
As a U.S. senator for Minnesota, I helped lead the fight to ensure that all Minnesotans could access critical legal services to help protect their rights, and I was chief author of the bill that Republican President Richard Nixon signed into law in 1974, leading to creation of the LSC. Congress has funded the LSC ever since, with bipartisan support, based on the principle that access to justice is neither a Democratic nor a Republican idea; it’s an American promise.
The LSC supports more than 800 legal aid offices nationwide, serving every congressional district. In Minnesota, the LSC funds over 20 legal aid offices in cities and rural areas.
I was raised in rural Minnesota, and I know our rural communities need this help just like our cities. Indeed, approximately 10 million Americans living in rural communities currently qualify for LSC assistance based on income, and surveys show that 75 percent of rural Americans experienced a civil legal problem in the past year. While some legal aid offices existed in large cities before we created the LSC, Americans in rural communities had little help. The LSC brought needed legal protections to rural America.
But now, the White House has proposed eliminating all federal funding for the LSC. That would be wrong for America, and it makes no economic sense.
The LSC provides bang for the buck. Last year, the federal government allocated just $385 million for the LSC, or just over $1 per American. That’s about $200 million less than what Americans spent on Valentine’s Day gifts in 2017 — for their pets. Yet, this allowed the LSC to help over 45,000 Minnesotans when their legal rights were at stake.
The LSC is a good investment. The Minnesota State Bar Association recently helped write an economic-impact report showing that for every dollar invested in Minnesota civil legal aid programs, the return on investment is $3.94. If veterans become homeless, seniors lose their money to scams or disaster victims can’t rebuild their lives, the monetary costs can be enormous, and the costs can’t be measured in terms of dollars and cents alone.
The need for legal aid has only grown since the LSC was created. Now, shockingly, more than 60 million Americans are eligible for legal assistance through the LSC because they have annual incomes at or below $15,075 for an individual and $30,750 for a family of four.
Turning our backs on people at their most vulnerable moments is not the American way. Doing so would deprive many of our fellow Americans of both liberty and justice.
I am joined in this letter by Linda Klein, president of the American Bar Association (ABA). The ABA has strongly supported the LSC since its creation under Nixon, and Linda knows the importance of protecting legal rights for those in need. Linda has been fighting to protect the legal rights of vulnerable Americans since before becoming the first woman president of the State Bar of Georgia, and today, as the president of the ABA and one of America’s most respected attorneys, she is fighting to save the LSC.
Linda and I strongly urge you to take a few minutes to go to DefendLegalAid.org and send a personal message to your elected representatives in Congress about the need for the LSC — or write your representatives a letter. Leaders from Microsoft President Brad Smith to football coach Jim Harbaugh also are helping to raise awareness of this critical issue. Please do what you can to join the growing chorus of support.
Walter F. Mondale is former vice president of the United States, former U.S. senator from Minnesota and retired partner at Dorsey & Whitney LLP. Linda A. Klein is president of the American Bar Association and senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson.