In 1963, the Supreme Court decided the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright, holding that states are required to provide counsel for criminal defendants who are unable to afford to hire their own lawyer. Three years later in Miranda v. Arizona, the right to counsel was embedded in the ubiquitous “Miranda warnings” that anyone who has ever watched a TV cop show now knows.
As important as those two decisions are, many Americans do not understand that there is no right to a lawyer in civil cases. You can lose your home, your job, and even your children under circumstances that violate the law, but you have no right to a lawyer to assist you in protecting your rights. You can, of course, hire a lawyer – if you have the money. But for millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet, there is no way they can afford to hire a private attorney.
For over 40 years, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) has played a critical role in filling this gap in access to justice by funding legal aid organizations throughout the country. Created during the Nixon administration with bipartisan support, LSC is the largest single funder of civil legal aid in the country. The organizations that LSC funds handle critical civil legal needs of low-income people such as assisting military families and victims of domestic violence, representing parties in guardianship proceedings, and helping with housing matters such as evictions and foreclosures.
The dollars invested in LSC are a minuscule portion of the federal budget, but President Trump has proposed eliminating all funding for LSC. What a tragedy that would be. One of the features of this country that makes it great is the aspiration of “Equal Justice Under Law.” Denying access to justice for the most vulnerable takes us a step away from greatness. I’m proud to add my name to a letter signed by over 160 law deans urging our congressional leaders to continue to support the LSC. Learn more here.