Legal services available to Maryland's lowest-income residents face drastic cutbacks if the U.S. Senate passes a controversial bill that calls for reducing funding to Legal Aid, advocates for the poor warned yesterday.
The Senate is expected to vote in the next few days whether to cut funding from $400 million to $210 million for the Legal Services Corp., the agency that provides lawyers for the nation's poor. The bill also would disburse funds through block grants, effectively eliminating a role for LSC.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Phil Gramm, D-Texas, passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday and next comes to a vote of the full Senate. If successful, it would place new, stringent limits on the types of cases that could be handled by Legal Aid, eliminating those involving divorce and eviction assistance.
Locally, lawyers involved in legal services programs said the proposed cutbacks and restrictions would do immeasurable harm.
"If this goes through, in a month the legal profession is going to wake up to a world in which there is virtually no federal funding to represent the poor in civil cases," said Michael Millemann, a University of Maryland law professor who has long been active in civil rights.
"I'm distressed," said Herbert Garten, chairman of Maryland Legal Service Corp. "There is no question poor people need lawyers to represent them, and need these services in dealing with a myriad of problems we know exist."
In Maryland, more than 83,000 low-income people received legal assistance for civil matters last year from legal service programs, including Legal Aid and House of Ruth, according to the Maryland State Bar Association. Legal Aid, the most prominent of those agencies, has a staff of 70 legal workers throughout the state, including 45 attorneys.
The Senate bill has drawn heavy criticism from the legal community, including the American Bar Association and the Maryland State Bar. In recent days, those organizations and others have called on the Senate to consider a raft of amendments.
Mr. Gramm and the bill's other supporters, including members of the Christian Coalition, have been critical of LSC for what they view as its overly aggressive, overly broad role.
But opponents of the bill say the proposed changes would deny legal services to people who cannot afford to pay.
Said Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md.: "These drastic Republican cutbacks and restrictions would be a devastating blow to many of our citizens who would find access to the courts blocked and who would be unable to assert the rights to which they are entitled by our constitution and our laws."