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January 19, 2009
Interest Rate Drop Has Dire Results for Legal Aid

BOSTON — Scores of legal aid societies that help poor people with noncriminal cases — like disputes over foreclosures, evictions and eligibility for unemployment benefits — are being forced to cut their staffs and services, even as requests for help have soared.

In an odd twist, the societies have been hit hard by the Federal Reserve’s steep reduction of its benchmark interest rate, which finally plunged last month to near zero.

The rate decline, though generally welcomed as a blow against the recession, has had an unplanned and severe effect on legal aid societies, which depend heavily on revenues that are tied to the federal funds rate. As recently as 2007, the rate was more than 5 percent and legal aid agencies reaped more than $200 million for their operations.

Now, for many legal aid groups across the country, cutbacks in staffing are expected to reach 20 percent or more over the coming months, even as requests for their services have risen by 30 percent or more.

Legal aid groups have long benefited from little-known programs that draw interest earned from short-term deposits that lawyers hold in trust for clients during, for example, real estate transactions or personal injury payouts. The interest is mainly donated to legal services for the poor.

But as the federal funds rate declined along with the number of real estate transactions, the payout has fallen precipitously. And beleaguered state governments are also curbing their aid.

The director of Connecticut Legal Services, Steven Eppler-Epstein, said that local agencies were already giving out pink slips and that 50 of 150 legal positions statewide might be lost.

“We are watching the interest rates with a sense of horror,” he said.

The cutbacks are occurring precisely as soaring foreclosures and unemployment, a surge in disputed applications for food stamps and a possible rise in domestic violence have produced record requests for help.

Some agencies that, in the best of times, had to turn away half of their qualified applicants are facing ever more wrenching choices about whom to represent, decisions that Steven Banks, chief attorney for New York City’s Legal Aid Society, compared to those in “a MASH unit in a war zone.” Legal aid can represent only one of every seven people seeking help in the city, he said.

In East Texas, where thousands of people whose houses were destroyed by Hurricane Ike last fall are contesting federal denials of aid, and some are living in tents, the regional legal service budget of $16 million is expected to decline to $4 million this year. Paul Furrh, director of Lone Star Legal Aid, said his group was already overwhelmed.

Low-income defendants in serious criminal cases have a constitutional right to a lawyer. But there is no such right in civil cases, even though the consequences — losing a home or custody of a child, failing to obtain a protective order quickly — can be just as life-altering.

Federal appropriations for the Legal Services Corporation, the largest source of money for aid groups, have declined over time. This year’s level of $350 million is, when adjusted to inflation, down more than one-third from its peak in 1994. Many states provide a supplement, but they are also in a brutal fiscal squeeze.

Over the last three decades, every state has adopted a program drawing interest from trust or escrow accounts. Called Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts, or Iolta programs, they have been a godsend for struggling legal aid groups, providing $212 million in 2007, according to the American Bar Association.

But as a result of the collateral damage from the free-falling interest rate, the Massachusetts budget for civil legal services has been cut to $19 million this fiscal year, from $27 million; the Boston branch expects to lay off up to one-fifth of its lawyers and paralegals in coming months. People with legal troubles and little money, like Jim Vedrani, 53, of Amesbury, Mass., have found themselves on their own.

As a technician fixing boat motors, Mr. Vedrani earned a right to unemployment benefits when he was let go. Then he took a job working on a farm, but quit after seven weeks because of what he called extreme emotional abuse by his supervisor. “He took every chance to humiliate me in front of others,” he said.

He applied to reinstate his unemployment benefits, but the farm supervisor testified that Mr. Vedrani had not quit for good reason, and his claim was denied.

He appealed and contacted the office of Neighborhood Legal Services in Lawrence, Mass., which had recently laid off 7 of 32 staff members. The employment lawyer was too busy to attend his hearing, and Mr. Vedrani lost.

Sheila C. Casey, director of Neighborhood Legal Services, said that based on experience with such disputes, “We probably could have won it.”

Mr. Vedrani moved in with friends and now does odd jobs. “With those benefits, I’d have the money to put gas in the car, or to get a haircut or buy shoes before an interview,” he said.

Legal aid groups have long engaged in painful triage. A study in 2005 by the Legal Services Corporation found that the agencies it helped finance could represent only half the people who asked for help and qualified for it. Many more people never seek aid.

“Equal access to justice is a bedrock principle,” said Helaine M. Barnett, president of the Legal Services Corporation. But now, “the justice gap has precipitously widened.”

New York City reduced its grant for legal aid in 2008, and now, with New York State deep in the red, the 2009/2010 budget proposal of Gov. David A. Paterson would cut the entire $8 million it gives to legal service groups.

Legal aid for the poor was a contentious political issue in the 1970s, when Congress established the Legal Services Corporation as an outgrowth of the war on poverty. Conservatives charged that liberal lawyers were trying to use legal services, like class-action lawsuits on behalf of migrant farm workers, to change social policy. Congress has restricted how Legal Service Corporation money can be used: recipient agencies cannot be involved in class-action suits or cases involving immigration, abortion or prisoners, among others. As a result, many agencies do not accept federal dollars.

Richard A. Samp, chief counsel of the Washington Legal Foundation, a conservative law firm, said that the Iolta programs amounted to “a slush fund for legal aid groups to do the kind of work the Congress has prohibited them from doing with public money.”

His group argued before the Supreme Court that the programs were an illegal seizure of private income, but the court, in 2003, held otherwise, calling them justified for the public good.

Lonnie Powers, director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, said in response to Mr. Samp, “Iolta is a creature of the states, and the states can decide how it is spent.” Some states impose their own restrictions.

The immediate financing crisis, others note, does not reflect any legislative rebuke but rather the fallout from the recession, combined with surging unemployment and foreclosures.

Donna Hawkins, 42, a receptionist at a Boston hospital, said she was always on time with the $1,100 rent on the apartment she lives in with her husband, two grown daughters and three grandchildren. So Ms. Hawkins was stunned when two men showed up in May to tell her that the bank had foreclosed on the property and that she had to move out in 15 days.

Her story is ending happily. A legal aid lawyer who took up her case free helped her contest improper filings and expects to win a one-year lease.

But for the lawyer, Zoe K. Cronin, of Greater Boston Legal Services, the victory is bittersweet. Her agency expects to lay off 15 to 20 lawyers and paralegals this spring, and Ms. Cronin does not have seniority.

“I’m virtually certain that I’m going to be laid off,” she said.


Just putting it out there because I'm sure citations to it will be all the rage in these parts.  You can hear LDF's gloss here.

EDIT, pursuant to IrrX's instruction, for a terrible typo.

From SCOTUSblog yesterday:

Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Analysis: A Clean Sweep for Conservatives?
Posted by Tom Goldstein at 07:28 PM

As we enter the last few decision days of the Term – with 17 cases remaining – I want to raise the prospect that the Term will ultimately reveal that the Court’s ideological shift has been far more profound than almost anyone outside the building has realized so far.

Here are the numbers to this point. Eleven cases have been decided by a five-to-four vote on classic ideological lines. Justice Kennedy has cast the deciding vote in each – six times with the right and five with the left. Those results suggest a balanced outcome.

But the numbers are very misleading. In almost all of the meaningful cases decided thus far – measured by their effect going forward – the conservatives prevailed. In particular, three of the five decisions in which Kennedy joined the left (Smith, Brewer, and Abdul-Kabir) were essentially fact-bound rebukes of the Texas courts and Fifth Circuit for their application of the Penry II mitigating evidence rule. Those decisions are similar in their importance to the Court’s various summary reversals of the Ninth Circuit. A fourth (Marrama) decides a pipsqueak of a bankruptcy question.

The only arguably significant decision with that voting alignment is the global warming case (Massachusetts v. EPA), which got a lot of press but may not amount to much. The Court merely told the EPA to consider regulating carbon. And its standing holding is quite fact-bound.

By contrast, the five-to-four decisions in which the conservatives have prevailed have tended to be genuinely significant. Most notable, of course, is the Carhart abortion case, more so for its doctrinal and public significance than the significance of that particular procedure. In Ledbetter, the Court broadly applied the Title VII statute of limitations in the context of a frequently recurring fact pattern.

To the same effect, the three Texas death penalty decisions discussed above pale in comparison to three other capital cases in which the Court adopted structural rules that will limit challenges to capital sentences: Ayers on mitigating evidence; Schriro on the right to an evidentiary hearing; and Uttecht on excluding jurors who have doubts about the death penalty.

But we are not done. The consensus is that the Chief Justice is writing an opinion invalidating the school assignment programs. The federal campaign finance law at issue in Wisconsin Right to Life is likely to be struck down on the same voting alignment.

That would truly be an extraordinary Term, but I get the sense that there may still be more. The fact that Justices Ginsburg and Stevens dissented from the bench in three cases – twice in late May and early June after all the votes had been cast – strongly suggests an exceptionally high level of frustration on the left. (Neither does such a thing lightly.) It seems entirely possible that the remaining cases involving, for example, challenges to public funding of programs with religious components (Hein), search and seizure (Brendlin), and the environment (Defenders of Wildlife) all will be decided five to four, with Justice Kennedy siding with the conservatives.

If that happens -- and I think it is likely that it (or something close to it) will -- the President will have gotten with his appointments precisely the Court he sought and that liberals feared. We can already count on conservative rulings on race, abortion, campaign finance, and the death penalty, and may be able to add to that religion, the Fourth Amendment, and the environment. It would be a memorable Term indeed.


Your thoughts?  Does Goldstein overplay the differences between Sandra Day and Alito?  Is the CJ just more persuasive and powerful than his predecessor?

I've long thought Bill Richardson is the only viable general election candidate for the Democrats.  I'm curious about how you think he did in his blistering hour-long discussion with Tim Russert this morning.  If you missed it, podcasts are available at and you can read the transcript here.  Can he really win on this Red Sox and Yankees United platform?

This thread is the repository for a discussion about Tim Hardaway's recent anti-gay comments, gay marriage, and other issues pertaining to theology and homosexuality that started on the main BLSD thread.  New posts begin on page 4.

Katherine Y. Barnes of WUSTL recently authored "Is Affirmative Action Responsible for the Achievement Gap Between
Black and White Law Students?" in response to Richard Sander's theory of racial mismatch in law school admissions.  I haven't had a chance to read it thoroughly, but I thought it might be of interest to some of you.

A draft of the article is available here, and its draft abstract is below:

Abstract: While the Supreme Court upheld some affirmative action programs as
constitutional in 2003, the wisdom of affirmative action as a policy decision remains hotly
contested. In the law school context, the challenge is to determine how affirmative action policies
affect law schools, law students, and the legal profession. This paper takes up one strand of this
challenge, estimating how minority students would fare in a world with different affirmative
action policies than those currently implemented.

I posit a model of law school performance that controls for entering credentials and
allows for a "mismatch" between student and school (where the student is outmatch by his fellow
students). The model also allows for differences in the law school experience for students of
different races, which may be the result of discrimination or other differences in the way that law
school cultures affect students. The results indicate that, if anything, reverse mismatch boosts the
performance of students with low credentials. Using monte carlo simulations of graduation and
bar passage with bootstrapped standard errors, I find that removing affirmative action policies
decreases the number of new black lawyers each year by 13.4% ± 5.2%. This is in direct conflict
with a recent study by Richard Sander that estimates an increase in the number of new black
lawyers. Sander, however, assumes that there is no discriminatory effect on law student
performance, and therefore confounds discriminatory effects with the mismatch effect in his

Finally, recognizing that the data upon which I and others rely is imperfect and unable to
provide a definitive answer regarding whether the mismatch theory applies in the law school
context, I suggest some experimental additions to the data to correct for these problems.


General Off-Topic Board / Take 20 seconds for the National AIDS Fund
« on: December 01, 2006, 05:26:33 PM »
OSA posted this on the BLSD thread, and I thought I would re-post it on the general off-topic board so that OTBers who don't read BLSD might also donate.

A simple way to do something about AIDS.  Bristol- Myers is donating a dollar to AIDS research every time someone goes to their website and moves the match to the candle and lights it.

Incoming 1Ls / I am scared!
« on: August 16, 2006, 02:30:36 PM »
I just realized school is starting next week and I don't think I know what I am doing!  Does anyone else feel this way?  I know there's the "momentary lapse of zen" thread for this type of panic, but I think it's more for worries about loans and moving and stuff.  What about just plain old "I'm going to law school" eek?

General Off-Topic Board / Ozzie Guillen's impolitic remarks
« on: June 22, 2006, 04:25:03 PM »
I'm just curious about what people think of this incident.  I've gone back and forth.

I know the poll is flawed, but I hope it prompts some discussion anyhow.

So, not being a Dan Brown fan or anything, I haven't paid a whole lot of attention to Opus Dei beyond its politics.  Imagine my surprise to read a NYT op-ed about Opus Dei this morning and learn about the doctine of corporal mortification.  Do you all know about this stuff? 

The cilice?

The discipline?

The heroic minute?

Now this is kind of hot, no?

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