Legal Aid Groups Harm Taxpayers, Citizens, and Civil Liberties

Legal aid groups funded by taxpayers through the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC) wasted money on forbidden things like liquor and subsidized “loans” to their staff, the LSC concedes. But in truth, wasting taxpayer money is among the least of legal aid societies’ vices. They are a threat to civil liberties and the poor people they claim to be helping.

They have frequently sued to prevent dangerous criminals from being evicted from public housing, harming the law-abiding majority of residents.

They have also used litigation to financially destroy many poor people. John Herring, who earned only $1300 a month (substantially less than his ex-wife), was so poor that he was reduced to living in his sister’s basement. When a circuit judge reduced his child support obligations from a crippling $673 per month — most of his net income — to a more reasonable $484 per month, lawyers from Legal Services got the Virginia Court of Appeals to reverse that reduction in Herring v. Herring, 532 S.E.2d 923 (2000).

What is the likelihood that a poor man making only $1300 per month before taxes — and maybe $1000 after taxes — will ever be able to pay $673 per month? Not much. Left to her own devices, the man’s ex-wife might not even have made such an unrealistic demand. But if a lawyer’s salary is paid by taxpayers, not private clients, the lawyer doesn’t have to worry about such real world problems. He can occupy his time demanding money from someone who may never be able to afford it, in order to justify his job.

The Employment Law Center, a project of the taxpayer-funded San Francisco Legal Aid Society, has used taxpayer funds to promote a wide array of left-wing causes, like delaying compliance with California’s Proposition 209, a state constitutional provision which ended race-based and sex-based affirmative action in state contracts and other programs. Taxpayers paid hundreds of millions of dollars a year more because of affirmative-action contracts until the California courts, over the ELC’s objections, finally struck them down under Prop. 209.

The taxpayer-funded ELC took aim at the First Amendment, arguing that speech used to produce adult-oriented TV sitcoms can be banned in the name of preventing a “hostile work environment,” a position unanimously rejected by the California Supreme Court in Lyle v. Warner Brothers Television Productions (2006) (discussed here, here and here), and arguing that speech can be sharply restricted in the workplace to prevent “racially hostile work environments,” a position adopted by a divided California Supreme Court in its 4-to-3 decision in Aguilar v. Avis (1999) (discussed here and here), over spirited dissents arguing that the speech restrictions advocated by ELC violated the First Amendment and the California Constitution.

(ELC’s attacks on civil liberties are also funded by settlements from California consumer class-actions, which also subsidize ideological lobbying “for affirmative action, hate-crimes laws,” public benefits for “undocumented immigrants, and public funding for abortion”).