Posted On: June 22, 2009

Legal Services Corp. Needs Budget Boost

Today's Washington Post's lead editorial calls for liberating the Legal Services Corporation from several federal restrictions that for years have hamstrung state legal aid organizations, such as Maryland's Legal Aid Bureau. As the editorial mentions, the restrictions include prohibitions against spending any public money on class action suits, abortion-related litigation, and the representation of undocumented workers. Loosening such limits is a good idea, but equally if not more important is the effort to boost the LSC's budget. The LSC, which was created by Congress to fund legal aid bureaus around the country, had a budget of $390 million for 2009, and the Post reports that the House approved on Thursday a measure that would increase that number to $440 million. That's a positive if modest improvement. Hopefully the Senate can find even more funds for the LSC, which plays a vital role in protecting the poor, especially in a recessionary economy.

I can't help recalling a speech given three years ago to the Equal Justice Council of Maryland by Jonathan Lindley, then Executive Director of Service Design for the Legal Services Commission, England’s counterpart to our LSC. He caught my attention by comparing the United States' commitment to legal aid to that of his country. While 50 million Americans are unable to afford legal counsel, he estimated then, four million are similarly situated in England and Wales. Yet the British government outspends our own by a multiple of three in funding for legal aid.

In 2005 the Legal Services Commission received the current equivalent of $1.6 billion in government grants for performing civil legal services on behalf of needy citizens in England and Wales, according to its annual report. For that same year, the Congress coughed up $335 million for our Legal Services Corporation, upon which legal aid bureaus around the U.S. heavily rely. Based on these numbers, I estimated at the time that the United Kingdom, with its population of about 60 million, spends more than $26 per person on legal aid. The U.S. spends just over $1 per person.

Saliently, the front page of today's Post includes a headline that reads: "Recovery's Missing Ingredient: New Jobs." "Despite signs that the recession gripping the nation's economy may be easing, the unemployment rate is projected to continue rising for another year before topping out in double digits, a prospect that threatens to slow growth, increase poverty," the story reads. That's as good a reason as any to do all we possibly can to enhance the ability of cash-strapped legal aid organizations to fulfill their critical mission.

(If you're interested in supporting the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, of which I'm a board member, click here.)

Bookmark and Share

Posted On: June 1, 2009

The Case Against Mayor Dixon

Indicting a public official is always a cause for attention. The prosecutor believes he or she is duty bound to proceed based on the facts uncovered. The defense exclaims that the case is tissue thin. The fourth estate rallies to the cry of cause célèbre. The public reads, listens and waits for the wheels of the judiciary to grind forward as they inexorable do.

In Maryland the State Prosecutor indicted the Mayor of Baltimore in a twelve-count indictment. The charges included perjury for failing to report gifts from a developer on ethics forms, theft for stealing gift cards worth more than five hundred dollars, and misconduct in office. Last week the judge assigned to the case dismissed five of the counts, leaving seven remaining, those relating to the theft. The basis of the dismissal boils down to a doctrine known as legislative immunity, or the “speech and debate” principle, which holds that an elected official’s votes, or bills she may have introduced in a legislative body, cannot be used as evidence against her. (This principle exists to prevent politically motivated prosecutions against elected officials.) In this matter, the prosecutor had presented the grand jury with such evidence in building the perjury case against Mayor Dixon, thus compelling the judge to question the integrity of the indictment and dismiss five of the counts.

The question of whether the State Prosecutor should appeal is an important one. An appeal would cause delay of the trial. Delay often works to the advantage of the accused. On the other hand, the prosecutor may be thinking of his role as public servant and seek to reverse the court's decision on theory of legislative immunity to clear the way for other cases in the future. What should the prosecutor do? Analyze the law and consider the likelihood of reversal. If he believes he has a shot, he should go for it. His responsibility may be to advocate for reversal so that he can proceed with all of the charges and, when justified, prosecute others who would hide behind the immunity. The defense, of course, must continue to battle. In doing so, they will be not only fighting of their client, but also for the need for such immunity to protect the independence of the legislative branch of government.

As an alternative to an appeal, the prosecutor could take a narrower view of the matter and attempt to re-indict Mayor Dixon for perjury and misconduct in office, this time excluding the evidence the judge deemed improper. Indeed, the judge’s opinion suggested the prosecution might take this step, and the Sun advocated for it in a recent editorial.

The trial is scheduled for September unless the special prosecutor appeals. I look forward to following the proceedings. I am familiar with the lawyers and the judge in the case and expect it to be well tried.

Bookmark and Share