TALKING IT OVER
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON
August 11, 1999
"Equal access to justice under the law" is a phrase too often taken for granted. But although equal access has always been one of the cornerstones of our democracy, 25 years ago, it was a promise that finally became a reality for millions of Americans. For it was in 1974 that Congress established the Legal Services Corporation, to provide legal assistance in civil cases to those who couldn't afford to hire their own lawyer.
I am especially proud of the Legal Services Corporation, because in 1978, when I was teaching at the University of Arkansas School of Law, I was named by President Carter to be a member of the LSC's board of directors. Later, I was honored to serve as its chair.
Today, the LSC funds programs in every county of the nation. It shines as a beacon of hope and a last line of defense for millions of poor Americans --mothers seeking child support, and children without access to health care; families facing homelessness or living in intolerable housing conditions; welfare recipients seeking training, and nursing home residents deprived of basic care and dignity; farmers losing their livelihoods, and women seeking protection from abuse.
For Lucy Johnson, of Syracuse, N.Y., the LSC meant keeping her home. Lucy has been a resident of the Kennedy Square Building since it opened in 1975. A few years ago, she and her neighbors were shocked to hear that their electricity was about to be cut off because their landlord owed over $1 million in unpaid bills. For years, all the tenants of the building had paid utilities as part of their rent, but for three years, the management company had failed to pay its electric bills.
With nowhere else to turn, Lucy called a lawyer at the offices of Legal Services of Central New York. He set up a meeting between the tenants and the utility company, and negotiated a plan to keep the electricity on. Lucy and her neighbors feel very lucky. "Very simply," she says, "we would have been in very big trouble without the help of legal services."
For Dan and Terry Choat, Legal Services meant keeping the family farm. Dan has been raising pigs outside of Omaha, Neb., since he was 11 years old. But like so many small family farmers across the country, he and Terry have faced near bankruptcy as prices have fluctuated. With the help of a legal aid lawyer, though, they have devised a plan to pay off their creditors, honor their debts, and save the farm for their children and grandchildren.
For Karen Brown, Legal Services has meant even more. Karen grew up in public housing in New Jersey, but she knew she wanted a different life for herself. In her words, "The people I grew up around just felt it was hopeless and there was nothing they could do. It's a disgusting feeling, like a disease, and I just said to myself, 'I want to help my people and give them a sense of power so that they can do things for themselves.'" Karen won a scholarship to college, and then, went on to Rutgers law school. Despite tempting offers from high-paying corporate law firms, Karen decided to become a legal aid lawyer. Her first clients were the tenants of the public housing project she grew up in.
Last year alone, Karen and thousands of other legal aid lawyers just like her handled over 1 million cases. But even with all their good work, and with the help of tens of thousands of private attorneys who do pro bono work every day, legal services still reach only a fraction of those in need.
Some things haven't changed in the 20 years since I was on the LSC board. The LSC still has to fight for every penny it gets from Congress. This summer, like so many before it, a congressional appropriating committee slashed funding for legal services.
What has changed, though, are the faces of the poor. Twenty years ago, the majority of poor Americans were elderly. Today, of the 40 million Americans living in poverty, almost half are children. And without the LSC, many of those children and their mothers would have no place to turn when facing legal hurdles.
As we come to the end of this century, we find ourselves at a critical point in our history -- a point when the very notion of what America stands for is being tested. If we are to meet that test -- if we are to fulfill the promise of equal access to justice under the law -- then, we must continue to support the work of the Legal Services Corporation.
To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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