Civil Rights Group’s Budget Nearly Halved by Foundation with Ties to Texas Supreme Court

The Texas Civil Rights Project announced it will no longer receive funding from its largest donor, a nonprofit created by the Texas Supreme Court.


Facebook/Texas Civil Rights Project

The Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), a 26-year-old nonprofit well-known in social justice circles, announced Monday that it lost about $900,000 in funding this year — more than 40 percent of its roughly $2-million budget. Since 1991, TCRP has received significant financial support from the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, a nonprofit created by the Texas Supreme Court that distributes fees collected from attorneys to support access to the legal system for poor people. But in July, TCRP said the foundation abruptly decided it would no longer support the civil rights organization.

TCRP claims its funds were revoked for political reasons stemming from their work around voting rights and immigration policy. “Let’s be clear about what just happened: Our success at holding the people in power accountable led to the loss of our funding,” said Mimi Marziani, executive director of TCRP. Marziani said she was shocked when the foundation’s director called to tell her the funding would be yanked.

On Monday, TCRP also announced a fundraising campaign to replace the lost revenue, which the group said has raised around $500,000 so far. “When you’re faced with funding cuts like this, you can either shrink into the corner, or you can fight with both fists and try to fill the gap,” said Marziani.

TCRP was founded by civil rights attorney Jim Harrington in 1990, and today has five offices around the state. The group says it’s handled more than 2,500 cases for low-income Texans, including suits on behalf of the disabled, victims of police brutality and undocumented immigrants unable to obtain birth certificates for their children. TCRP was one of many to sue the state over Senate Bill 4, the anti-”sanctuary cities” bill earlier this year.

In the beginning, the group was just a two-person volunteer affair, said Harrington. TCRP got its first financial boost when the Texas Access to Justice Foundation donated $80,000 in January 1991. The foundation has been TCRP’s main benefactor ever since.

The Texas Access to Justice Foundation doles out millions of dollars each year to about 40 organizations who provide civil legal services to poor Texans. Though organized as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the group is tightly affiliated with the Texas Supreme Court. The court launched the foundation in 1984, and its board is appointed by the Supreme Court justices — all nine of whom are Republicans — and the State Bar of Texas. The foundation’s money comes from a state-mandated program that culls money from lawyers’ trust fund accounts.

After years of giving more money to TCRP than any other group, the foundation cut off all cash this year. In a year dominated by luminary political regressives like Donald Trump and Dan Patrick, the civil rights group called the decision a political “backlash” in its Monday statement, but the foundation disagrees, saying TCRP has shifted away from the type of direct service to poor Texans the foundation exists to fund.

“The Texas Civil Rights Project has made a conscious decision and was in the process of moving out of the direct delivery of legal services,” said the group in a statement to the Observer. The statement cited specifically TCRP’s “decision to stop helping veterans with foundation funding.”

Jim Harrington photographed in 1979 in San Juan at the first Texas United Farm Workers convention.
Jim Harrington, photographed in 1979 in San Juan at the first Texas United Farm Workers convention.  Alan Pogue

Harrington, who retired from TCRP in 2015 after serving as its executive director for 25 years, said he understood the foundation’s rationale for denying the funds. He said his former organization has moved away from what he calls “community-based” cases.

“We were very controversial … but everything we were doing was always related to the community,” he said. “It wasn’t picking up these sort of hot-button liberal issues like redistricting or SB 4.” Harrington said that TCRP should have let other organizations handle the lawsuit over the controversial anti-immigrant law.

The foundation continues to fund a program that helps immigrant victims of crime, but it’s been transferred from TCRP to a different organization — Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.

For her part, Marziani said she was already working to reduce her organization’s heavy reliance on the foundation’s funding, but not because her organization has shifted course in any fundamental way.

“The core of TCRP is unchanged,” she said. “For our entire history, we have worked with grassroots partners and ordinary Texans to challenge laws and policies that attempt to keep down Texas communities. … None of that has changed at all.”