EDITOR’S NOTE: The budget released by the Trump administration on May 23 would eliminate the Legal Services Corp., giving it only a modest budget to wind down its operations. Here’s HuffPost’s report from March on the effect of cuts to the Legal Services Corp. across the country:
MARTINSBURG, W.Va. ― Six days after the Trump administration proposed eliminating hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for legal aid organizations, a domestic violence victim sat in Legal Aid of West Virginia’s office and imagined what her life would look like without its help.
“Legal Aid helped me keep my family together,” said Colleen, a mother of four who asked to be identified only by her first name. She was severely injured in a 2014 incident involving the father of her youngest child, which has left her with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. She was unable to work. Her daughter’s father tried to get custody of the child, claiming that Colleen was incompetent.
“I had a lot going on, and I was still trying to process the trauma and cope with it,” Colleen said. “They treated me like a human being. They didn’t treat me like I was less-than or some crazy person. They understood that the trauma was severe. I was really treated with dignity.”
Colleen’s case was labor-intensive and complex, said Erin Clark, the Legal Aid attorney who worked on her case. The two spoke to The Huffington Post last week at the Legal Aid of West Virginia’s office in a Martinsburg strip mall, which it shares with a Family Dollar, a laundromat, and Chinese and Latino restaurants. Clark typically juggles 25 to 50 clients at a time, many of them domestic violence victims referred by the nearby Shenandoah Women’s Center. She spent more than 100 hours on Colleen’s case, she said, which could have cost Colleen tens of thousands of dollars if she’d had to pay a private attorney. For Colleen, Legal Aid was what allowed her to maintain custody of her daughter.
“It could’ve gone a different way,” Colleen said.
Earlier this month, the Trump administration proposed cutting all funding for the Legal Services Corp., a nonprofit that Congress established in 1974, which funds more than 130 legal service organizations across the country, including Legal Aid of West Virginia. The corporation was created to “provide equal access to the system of justice in our Nation” and “provide high quality legal assistance to those who would be otherwise unable to afford adequate legal counsel.” Today, legal service groups that the corporation funds help an estimated 1.8 million people per year with issues including domestic violence, housing and child custody.
The effect of Trump’s proposed defunding of the Legal Services Corp. would be felt around the United States but would hit especially hard at legal service nonprofits located in the regions Trump won in November. A Huffington Post analysis found that legal aid organizations in states that went for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton received an average of 27.8 percent of their budget through this program, compared to 45.8 percent for organizations based in states that voted for Trump. Of the 28 states where organizations received more than 40 percent of their budgets from this program, 21 went for Trump.
Trump won every county in West Virginia. And during a trip to the state last week, Vice President Mike Pence pledged that the administration “will never forget” the “overwhelming” support it received there.
Martinsburg, a city of around 17,000 where 29 percent of residents live below the poverty line, is in the middle of the eastern panhandle of the state. Trump’s former butler at Mar-a-Lago, Anthony Senecal ― who served Trump steaks so well done they would “rock on the plate” and who was investigated by the Secret Service over a Facebook post calling for Barack Obama’s death ― was the mayor of Martinsburg in the early 1990s. (As mayor, Senecal proposed jailing the homeless and fining them $500 if they panhandled without a license ― a plan he said Trump called “great.”)
Kelly Beck heads a team of three attorneys at Legal Aid of West Virginia’s Martinsburg office. Beck joined in 2008, after working in private practice in the area for years and taking time off to raise her kids. She said she wanted to do something community-oriented, a job she could feel good about.
“There’s not a day that I come in here where I don’t enjoy what I do,” Beck said. “Sometimes people refer to us as the attorneys of last resort. We’re dealing with folks who can’t afford attorneys, who just don’t even know where to turn.”
The work can be challenging, Beck said, but rewarding. One recent example: legally uniting a family that had been broken up by drug addiction. “Grandma had the children for years, and one day she said, ‘They want me to adopt them, and I’m willing to do it,’” Beck said. Drug addiction plays into an increasing number of cases Legal Aid handles, Beck said, as heroin and prescription drug abuse has swept West Virginia in recent years.
Legal Aid of West Virginia would fare better than organizations in most red states if Trump’s budget plan is enacted: The organization receives about a fourth of its budget from the federally funded Legal Services Corp. The rest of its funding comes from outside grants and from West Virginia, but there could be even more of a squeeze coming as the state government anticipates a half-billion-dollar budget shortfall for 2017-2018.
Adrienne Worthy, who leads Legal Aid of West Virginia’s operations statewide, said a budget cut would directly affect programs for veterans, families with special education needs and residents facing eviction. Work like helping victims of the devastating floods that hit the state last year would also suffer.
“We’re a lean organization, and cutbacks mean that we have fewer staff attorneys talking to the people in need,” Worthy said. “In times of cutbacks, we won’t be able to help that domestic violence victim who is really facing life and death, and where involvement of a lawyer can help her get out of a bad situation, and then working with an advocate to put her life back together.”
She said her organization was committed to keeping lawyers “on the front lines” delivering services in the communities where they’re needed.
Matthew Jividen, one of the attorneys in the Martinsburg office, said he enjoys working in a job where you usually “get to feel like you’re on the right side of things.”
Jividen said he thinks there’s a misconception about the typical legal aid client. With a few exceptions, legal aid offices accept clients making 125 percent of the federal poverty rate, which nationally works out to about $30,000 for a family of four. The Legal Services Corp. estimates that 63 million Americans ― a fifth of the country ― are eligible for LSC-funded legal aid.
“We’re dealing a lot with people who are working, people who are making an effort to get by. I think a lot of times the perception is we’re dealing with people who are just looking for a free ride or things like that,” Jividen said. “The face that people often put on a legal aid client is a lot different than the one who comes through the door.”
The Trump administration reportedly relied upon The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has long called for the abolishment of the LSC, in its proposal to end its funding. The organization’s budget is a relatively small part of the massive federal budget: LSC received $385 million in the 2016 fiscal year, which works out to just over $1.20 per American on an annual basis. There are already major restrictions on how federal legal aid money can be used: Legal aid organizations receiving money are barred from helping undocumented immigrants or getting involved in class-action lawsuits, for example.
Civil rights advocates have roundly criticized the proposed cut. The American Bar Association was “outraged,” and a group of 166 law school deans signed a letter to leaders in Congress last week urging them to protect LSC funding. The letter quoted the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who said LSC “pursues the most fundamental of American ideals.”
Colleen, the domestic violence victim in the Martinsburg office last week, said the idea of cutting Legal Aid’s budget “breaks my heart.”
“There are a lot of people who work hard that aren’t able to defend themselves legally even with working one or two jobs, because they’re supporting their families. There’s people who have had experiences like mine who aren’t able to work and defend themselves.”
Additional reporting by Alissa Scheller.
CORRECTION: A previous version of the chart above mislabeled Nevada as having voted Republican in 2016.