Much has been written about the rural lawyer shortage and what it means in terms of access to justice in rural areas. One potential solution is to increase funding for legal aid organizations to hire lawyers serving rural efforts.
However, such measures are hampered by the politicization of the very existence of government-funded lawyers for the poor, which began with Governor (later President) Ronald Reagan of California and his battles with California Rural Legal Services.
While support for civil legal aid attorneys was bipartisan before Reagan’s time as President, it has become fiercely partisan since his election in 1980. According to the Center for Law and Social Policy, The Legal Services Corporation’s (LSC) funding (when adjusted for inflation) peaked in 1980, one year before Reagan took office as President. Reagan’s presidency weakened the LSC and introduced opposition to civil legal aid into the Republican mainstream. Over fifty years later, we still feel the results of Reagan’s actions.
Ronald Reagan was elected Governor of California in 1966 and it did not take long for his administration to frequently find itself on the other side of the courtroom from California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA). Reagan saw the CRLA as an obstacle to achieving his agenda and sought to find a way to weaken it.
CRLA received funding from the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), which existed within the United States Department of Health and Welfare. The federal government would later spin this functionality into the newly established LSC in 1974. As Governor, Reagan could veto CRLA’s federal funding, but it would only take effect if the federal government agreed with him. He needed to build a case to get the federal government to gain that support. In July 1970, he appointed Lew Uhler as head of the California Office of Economic Opportunity and tasked him with producing a report justifying defunding CRLA. In December 1970, Reagan used the report to justify his vetoing of OEO funds for CRLA. However, the federal government did not take the report at face value and gave CRLA a six-month grant while investigating the report and its methodology. Ultimately, the federal government did not sustain Reagan’s veto, and CRLA received federal funding.
When Reagan became President in 1981, he set out to abolish the LSC and end federal funding for lawyers for the rural poor. He initially proposed abolishing the agency altogether but was rebuked. He did succeed in reducing its budget, which was a consistent theme throughout his term. He also tried to appoint a hostile board, but the Senate also rebuked that. However, this resulted in a series of recess appointments governing the agency. While Reagan did not kill the LSC, he did succeed in weakening it and introducing opposition to its very existence into Republican orthodoxy.
When Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 1994 for the first time in decades, House Speaker Newt Gingrich sought to do what Ronald Reagan could not do – finally kill the LSC.
The House Republicans sought to decrease the LSC’s funding incrementally until its ultimate elimination in 1998. However, this also failed. As with Reagan’s failures, the 90s House Republicans succeeded in weakening the LSC. The Republicans passed restrictions on the types of cases the LSC-funded entities could take and effectively banned them from lobbying for and against pending legislation. These restrictions effectively banned LSC-funded entities from advocating for systemic change and limited them to only focusing on the individual issues of their clients.
Why is this especially important to the rural poor? In 2017, when Donald Trump’s Administration proposed eliminating the LSC, then-LSC President Jim Sandman noted to CNN that the LSC provides the majority of legal aid funding for 12 states: Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Utah. Many of these states have large rural populations and high rates of rural poverty.
What is more, when Legal Aid entities lack funds, they close rural offices. For example, when Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC) lost state funding in 2011, they closed three rural offices. LANC had lost funding after Republicans successfully took control of both chambers of the North Carolina legislature for the first time in a century.
Over the last 50 years, we have seen the weakening of civil legal aid in the United States. According to the Center for Law and Social Policy, the LSC was appropriated $300 Million in 1980. If its appropriation had kept up with inflation, it should have received $936,391,172 in 2017. Instead, they received $385 Million. In 2022, the LSC received $489 Million through the appropriations process. They had requested $1.01 Billion.
The federal government funds the LSC at less than half its estimated need. This lack of funding represents a considerable barrier to expanding rural legal services in this country. The Republican Party’s grudge against civil legal aid started with Ronald Reagan’s fights with rural legal aid lawyers and their decisions continue to influence lives of people in rural spaces.
Christopher Chavis is the executive director of the National Lawyers Guild of Los Angeles. He grew up in rural Robeson County, North Carolina, and is a frequent writer and speaker on rural access to justice issues. He is a citizen of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina.