Postmaster: If undeliverable, send Form 3579 to The Texas Observer, 600 W. 7th, Austin, Texas 78701 We at the Observer believe the Reagan administration has not well considered the implications of wiping out the legal services program or the effects of dropping 5,000 poverty lawyers into the already clogged job market. After all, as they hit the streets, scratching for a buck, suing any which way they can, it’s not going to be poor Democrats they wind up hauling into court, it’s going to be rich Republicans . . . . In this article, Clinton Cross, director of Texas Legal Services Center in Austin, discusses some of the more serious aspects of cutting funds for poverty lawyers. Eds. Austin “Let’s say you do away with legal aid to the poor,” Cross said. “What’s going to happen to the battered woman? How will she get help? How will she get relief? . . . There are many instances where we represent women who have problems with the welfare department, the government bureaucracy trying to take her kids away . . . . Who is going to keep the government off the backs of these folks?” Cross and other supporters of the legal aid program point to the fact that the vast majority of cases handled by poverty lawyers deal with basic, humdrum, dayto-day hassles not the dramatic civil rights controversies that raise the hackles of conservative opponents. “Nationwide, about 80% of the cases are dealt with by advice only,” Cross said. “Less than 25% of the clients we see ever wind up in court at all.” Cross said of the cases which go to court nationwide, roughly 34% deal with family matters, including divorce. About 17% deal with problems in housing other than government subsidized housing, with 1.4% cases involving government housing. Income maintenance, including aid to families with dependent children, food stamps, unemployment, workers’ compensation and social security, are about 13%. About 12% are consumer finance, including bankruptcy, contract warranty, loans, installment purchases, credit collections, and unfair sales practices. Employment, individual rights, 24 MARCH 20, 1981 torts and juvenile cases each make up between 1.5 and 3%, with the rest in miscellaneous categories. “The poor people are faced with problems with the federal bureaucracy and problems having to do with their children, women with husbands who won’t pay child support, they need lawyers, too,” Cross said. “They can’t even present their side of the case without legal aid.” There are about 350 legal services attorneys in Texas running eleven programs throughout the state. Funding in Texas is about $15 million, on a par with California and New York, but a drop in the bucket compared with many other federal programs, Cross said. The reason the program has excited the wrath of conservatives is not, of course, because it provides bread and butter legal assistance to people who can’t afford to pay for it. “In my opinion they are using budget cuts like this to get rid of a whole lot of programs they don’t like,” Cross said. “One of the theories about this whole backlash is if you deny people access to process, you in a very practical way have repealed their legal rights . . . . Folks who don’t like these kinds of cases, don’t like this kind of law enforcement, don’t like civil rights actions, don’t like suits against the juvenile system and so on, gain very real victory.” Cross cited several older landmark cases brought by legal services lawyers in Texas. Gomez v. Perez, brought by Bexar County legal services, in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a Texas law which said a father has no obligation to support an illegitimate child. Morales v. Turman, brought by El Paso Legal Assistance Society, in which the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found the Texas Youth Council violated the constitutional rights of children entrusted to their care. “This had more to do with reforming the juvenile justice system in Texas than any other case,” Cross said. “It’s still controversial and it’s still pending.” Castaneda, Sheriff v. Partida, brought by Texas Rural Legal Aid, in which the U.S. Supreme Court found selection of grand jury panels in Hidalgo County to be unconstitutional. Cross said that over a ten-year period the panels were under-representative of Mexican-Americans by about 40%. Kamarath v. Bennett, brought by Dallas Legal Services Foundation, in which the Texas Supreme Court recognized the existence of an “implied warranty of habitability” in landlord-tenant contracts, which Cross said means that tenants have the right to safe and sanitary housing. He said the decision altered a hundred years of existing law. Tate v. Short, brought by the Houston Legal Foundation, in which the U.S. Supreme Court extended the right to counsel to indigents in criminal cases. These are examples of some of the cases which have led many conservatives to charge that legal services attorneys are attempting to engage in social engineering. U. S. Rep. Sam Hall of Marshall has introduced a bill to abolish legal services on grounds that the program’s lawyers are “engaged in a pursuit of a host of politically-inspired activities” which taxpayers should not be asked to subsidize. Hall contends that “poor people with ordinary legal problems are often ignored” as these lawyers seek to win benchmark cases, build their reputations, and cause social change. But the American Bar Association, the State Bar of Texas, the League of Women Voters, and former U.T. Austin law school dean Page Keeton have urged that the program be continued. Diana Clark of Dallas, president of the state’s League of Women Voters, has said the organization “has proven to be one of the more important tools available in seeing that good laws for education, employment, and housing are actually being enforced.” Keeton has said that “the people who are most skeptical of a legal system that pledges to be fair to all persons are the poor. I think legal services stands as a symbol to those frustrated persons that the rule of law is available to all regardless of ability to pay.” William R. Smith, president of the American Bar Association, called the proposal to end the U.S. program “unsound, unwise and not in the nation’s best interest.” He said eliminating the commitment to assure access to justice by the nation’s poor “will in the long run cost far more than any immediate dollars we might save.” MARY LENZ Reagan’s Cuts Hit Texas Legal Services Doomed?
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