The year was 1953. I was a bureau chief for the Daytona Beach News-
Journal, covering the Volusia County seat, Deland, Florida. That beat meant
covering the cops and the courts.
As a young and arguably too idealistic reporter, I was profoundly
disappointed in both. I learned that bad lawyering presents a real threat to
some of our country's most precious values.
I learned this by watching, on too many days, lawyers who showed up in
county court visibly hung over, unable to address the bench coherently. I
learned this by watching lawyers who showed up in court having never met
their client and having never read his or her record (most of these defendants
were black). I learned this by watching defense lawyers failing to object
when prosecutors presented evidence the defense clearly never saw. I
learned this by listening to prosecutors engage in rhetoric so inflammatory
that it would have been thrown out by most any judge, assuming the judge
was paying any attention. I learned this by watching prosecutors totally
bamboozle juries by using over-the-top rhetoric and playing fast and loose
with the facts of a case (this was a no-brainer in the Jim Crow era in the
But the lawyers I heard all those years ago were not all bad lawyers; some of
them were good lawyers practicing law badly. The reason they were
practicing badly is that they were unprepared to defend their clients. And
they were unprepared because they were appointed by the court. These
reluctant volunteers earned a few dollars a day in fees, had little time for
client contact, and had no resources to research the allegations against the
That situation came about because there was no public defender, no legal aid
organization, and virtually no lawyers who saw the defense of poor black
men and women as any part of their responsibilities.
All of these memories came screeching back to me as I watched a meeting
of the American Bar Association on C-Span. It was here that I first learned
about one of the prices the Republicans in Congress expect us to pay in
order to bring down the nation's budget deficit: cutting $75 million from the
budget of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the agency that funds civil
legal services for the poor.
The LSC is a private, non-profit corporation established by the U.S.
Congress to seek to ensure equal access to justice under the law for all
Americans by providing civil legal assistance to those who otherwise would
be unable to afford it. It was created in 1974 with bipartisan congressional
sponsorship and the support of the Nixon administration, and is funded
through the congressional appropriations process. Among other programs,
LSC provides grants to help local legal aid groups to operate more
efficiently for more poor people.
But none of this apparently impressed the Republicans in Congress. The cut
in the LSC's funds was part of their global plan to eliminate $74 billion from
the federal budget. And to make matters worse, the Republican-led House
Appropriations Committee upped its overall cutting goal from $74 to $100
billion, bowing to pressure from the Tea Party. The increase would likely
mean an even larger reduction in LSC funding.
The proposed $75 million funding cut would represent a 17 per cent
reduction from the Obama Administration's proposed increase in LSC
funding for Fiscal Year 2011 to $435 million. The Congressional cut would
amount to a 14 percent decline from LSC's current funding of $420 million.
If it survived in the final fiscal 2011 budget passed by Congress, the budget
cuts would seriously affect LSC grantee organizations, the local legal aid
groups that serve low-income individuals and families throughout the U.S.
These grantees are already struggling with recession-generated staff layoffs
and office closures.
Professor Stephen B. Bright, president and senior counsel at the Southern
Center for Human Rights, told the ABA delegates that public defender
offices across the country are overwhelmed with too many cases and too few
attorneys. The result is that defense lawyers are forced to "meet 'em and
This has caused what the American Bar Association calls a crisis
within the justice system.
Bright explained, "There are massive amounts of federal funds for task
forces and prosecuting indigents, but there's no federal funding for
Bright's statement was backed up by Corey Stoughton, senior staff attorney
and upstate litigation coordinator at the New York Civil Liberties Union.
She said 20 people currently charged with a crime and receiving state--
sponsored legal help are being denied their constitutional right to adequate
"The problem isn't bad lawyers, it's a bad system," she said. She added that
the media often headlines the extreme cases of bad lawyers within a bad
system. This makes it "hard to change the narrative," she said.
Stephen Zack, the current ABA president, said in a statement, "Hard choices
loom as to priorities for federal spending, but let's be smart about where
reductions are made. Slashing funds that keep working class and poor people
from falling into a legal and financial tailspin is not the right decision in this
economy." The ABA is a long-time supporter of the LSC.