TOPICS > Politics

Reducing Legal Aid to the Poor

November 14, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ilene Jacobs is practically a one-woman law firm for the poor. She drives the dusty back roads of California on behalf of indigent people who can’t afford private attorneys. Federal dollars make it possible for Jacobs to represent poor clients like these people who are trying to get unsanitary conditions cleaned up in their trailer park. Jacobs works out of an aging bungalow in a tiny California farming town. She’s employed by California Rural Legal Assistance, an organization that is supported almost entirely by the Legal Services Corporation that grants money to legal aid groups all over the country. There used to be two more lawyers here, but they had to be let go because of federal budget cuts. So now, Jacobs is doing a juggling act between four or five major cases and the fifty or so people who walk in the door needing help.

ILENE JACOBS, California Rural Legal Assistance: (talking to parents) This is your list of all the parents?


BETTY ANN BOWSER: On a recent day, Jacobs began her afternoon by meeting with a parents’ committee. The mothers had complained that a local school board had discriminated against their Hispanic children.

ILENE JACOBS: (talking to parents) So there still are children now who are in separate classes?

WOMAN: Yeah. Some.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: That meeting was interrupted when a woman walked in with another legal problem–trouble getting government-promised payments for her disabled daughter.

ILENE JACOBS: (speaking to woman) And the private lawyer who you talked to was going to charge you $800?

WOMAN: Eight or nine hundred (dollars).

ILENE JACOBS: Eight or nine hundred (dollars).

WOMAN: They say how complication it is, the case–now, he’s gonna charge me more.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Jacobs told the woman she could not take her case.

ILENE JACOBS: She was told by someone in Salinas that the reason that they weren’t helping her is because she’s not American. Now, I don’t know how much more American you get than a husband in the Navy an a son in the Air Force, but I don’t think that that’s an appropriate reason, if it’s true, and right now, because we’re so short-staffed, we are referring these cases to an agency in Sacramento, which is 45 miles from here, to see if they will handle the conservatorship or guardianship.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: That’s a constant problem for her. A few minutes later, she had to tell the parents’ committee, she couldn’t take their case either. What Jacobs can and cannot do in her tiny office in Marysville is at the mercy of a longstanding political fight three thousand miles away on Capitol Hill.

REP. ALAN MOLLOHAN, (D) West Virginia: The Legal Services Corporations, for many of our poorest, most vulnerable citizens, has helped make the most basic tenet of our judicial system–equal justice under the law–a reality.

REP. DAN BURTON, (R) Indiana: The Legal Services Corporation is defending the right of the drug dealers to stay in the public housing projects. They’re trying to frustrate the local government officials from–in trying to get those people out of there.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Not only has Congress cut the budget of the parent Legal Services Corporation by 1/3, this year, it wrote new restrictions on what Legal Services’ lawyers could do–no more class-action suits, no prisoners or illegal immigrants as clients, no more voting rights or welfare reform cases. For Jacobs’ boss, Jose Padilla, the cutbacks alone meant laying off 15 attorneys.

JOSEPH PADILLA, California Rural Legal Assistance: I have a one-attorney office in El Sancho. I have a one-attorney office in Coachella. Now, up here is Marysville–that’s a one-attorney office. Here she’s serving 23,000 poor people in the three counties that she’s serving. Now you tell me if this office goes, where are those 20,000 people going to go? Are they going to go 80 miles here to talk to a legal aid lawyer? Are they going to go 120 miles here to talk to a legal aid lawyer? Of course not. This county is going to go unserved. Those 22,000 people will not have access to the system.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It’s the same in urban areas. A few blocks from Padilla’s office in San Francisco, Ken Tyson screens 200 calls a month at the San Francisco Neighborhood Legal Assistance Foundation.

KEN TYSON: (on phone) She broke her arm, and they put ice on it, that’s all they did?

MAN: Did you pay a deposit?

WOMAN: You got my message that the judge had scheduled your hearing–

SECOND WOMAN: But you should know that the next time you call the police, that you have a right to–

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We’ve had that discussion with them, and–

ANOTHER MAN: Has there been any violence from him toward you, any domestic violence?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: His office can’t take more than 12 of those cases now because of cutbacks and congressional restrictions. Those who oppose Legal Services say the agency deserved all the cuts and restrictions it got because it has been irresponsible.

REP. CHARLES H. TAYLOR, (R) North Carolina: And let’s look at the history. Twenty years of history of an organization that did not help the poor. It, in fact, punished the poor and used them as an excuse for a very liberal agenda.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Rep. Charles Taylor of North Carolina led a congressional fight to abolish Legal Services because of the kinds of cases he says the organization takes.

REP. CHARLES H. TAYLOR: Let me give you an instance. In one case, where a woman–um–an unmarried woman with a child, a drug addict, the child was taken away by the Social Services for its protection, because the woman clearly was incapable of handling the child. Legal Services sues the Social Services agency to get the child back. The woman then beats the child to death within two weeks after getting the child back.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Terry Wear is also concerned about the direction of Legal Service. He was president of the corporation from 1988 to 1990. He says he tried unsuccessfully to curtail what he thought were abuses by lawyers using government money.

TERRANCE J. WEAR, Former President, Legal Services Corp.: The problem is that these moneys are also used for other cases that don’t have the support of the American people, such things like litigating with the Department of Health & Human Services over requiring the government to fund sex change operations for transsexuals, litigating to keep drug dealers in public housing, things of that nature that are just absolutely bad from a policy perspective. But, yet, the Legal Services programs take these cases and promote them.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Charges like that surface repeatedly not only in Washington, D.C.. Growers in the San Joaquin Valley of California, who hire thousands of low-paid farm workers, also have fought with legal aid lawyers. Dan and Mike Gerawan are still angry, even after settling a controversial case over pay and housing conditions at their huge fruit-growing operation near Fresno. The Gerawans built these housing units for their workers, which they claimed were high quality. They were stunned when the local legal aid group sued them on 11 counts, including charges of unsanitary and substandard housing conditions.

DAN GERAWAN, Grower: The complaints that they brought against us, most of them were completely frivolous–lack of recreational facilities, um, no screens on the doors. This had nothing to do with the workers. This had to do with an agency that had a social agenda and, and the workers were secondary.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Jack Londen is a San Francisco attorney who has studied the Gerawan case and says there was nothing frivolous about it.

JACK LONDEN, Lawyer: Let me be specific about it. There were four bunkers in the labor camp there. They were built–the inspectors were told they were single-family dwellings. They had enough room under the minimum standards for ten people in each of the four buildings, but the policy was to keep twenty-four people in each of them. An inspector found a hundred people there, and rent listings–because they charged the workers rent for these places–showed over 90 people at all times in houses built for 40.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: When the case went to trial, the court threw out most of the charges but upheld others, including poor housing and unpaid back wages for workers. In the end, the Gerawans said they were so disgusted by what they saw as irresponsible handling of their case, that they bulldozed the housing. Despite all the criticism the agency has received, an American Bar Association committee concluded that the legal aid lawyers rarely take cases involving a social agenda. It also concluded there is a profound need for attorneys among the migrant poor. Lori Zelon serves as chair of the committee.

LORI ZELON, Chair, ABA Committee on Legal Aid: I think that, in general, the lawyers who are funded by Legal Services work hard to serve their clients. And what they’re doing for their clients are very straightforward things. They’re trying to ensure that women get child support, that people get out of violent relationships, that people have housing, that people have food stamps, that people get access to health care, that people get an education. That’s the main run of what they do.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the whole question of when a lawsuit becomes an agenda depends on your perspective. Ken Boehm of the National Legal & Policy Center has also studied Legal Services, citing hundreds of cases he says show clear examples of social engineering by legal aid lawyers. And he blames that on the nature of the parent agency.

KEN BOEHM, Chair, National Legal & Policy Center: In making this agency, providing legal assistance to the poor, independent of government, they made them so independent that when they did things that were wrong, against public policy, controversial, presenting more problems for the poor than they solved, there weren’t the checks and balances to stop them from doing that, and so it’s one of the few government-funded agencies where even the monitors looking for ways for an abuse can’t get into the records. The records are locked up tight. Attorney-client privilege is absolute. It’s taxpayers’ money, but if somebody embezzles it, uh, none of the federal laws against embezzlement apply.

ILENE JACOBS: (on phone) Did you give them a written 30-day notice?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: When Ilene Jacobs hears charges of social engineering and no accountability, she leaps to the defense of her work. Most of her days are filled with the everyday problems of poor people, like these farm workers.

ILENE JACOBS: (on phone) It’s best to confirm that in writing.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: After a long day of meetings and walk-ins, Jacobs went to a meeting of county planners. She’s suing them on behalf of poor clients who can’t find affordable housing in Sutter County and hopes to influence public policy.

ILENE JACOBS: And less portable housing is required when development is put in, in this county, um, we’re not going to have enough for the people who live here and have the least, and rather than litigate about it, it seems to me that the most important thing is to develop that affordable housing.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Jacobs was also responsible for getting county officials to develop an unused railroad station into a shelter for the homeless.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: When you use the law to provide a homeless shelter for people who don’t have homes, when you use the law to force a municipality to change its housing policy, are you involved in social engineering as the critics say?

ILENE JACOBS: I don’t believe so. I believe that all we are doing is saying, for example, the state of California has a legislature, and that state legislature has decided that housing, decent, affordable housing for the poor people in this state is of critical importance. And if the legislature gives a right to an individual because they’re a member of a particular group and they enforce that right, that’s not social engineering. That, in fact, is a very conservative approach, well within the judicial system, and one that is designed to accomplish within the rules, within the rules that are set by some of the same people who would argue that we’re social engineering, to accomplish a goal.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Terry Wear doesn’t see it that way.

TERRANCE J. WEAR: I think that you could have done the great amounts of good with these federal programs. If the people out in these programs, the program directors, these refugees from the 1960’s, who are going to litigate people out of poverty, had allowed it to happen, but the bottom line is they’re not interested in that sort of Legal Services. They want an agenda-driven Legal Services.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Legal Services Corporation’s opponents did not make further cuts this year, but they promise they’ll try again next session. For Ilene Jacobs, that’s mixed news. She won’t have to close her office, but she will continue to be the principal legal resource for 23,000 poor people.