Obviously, the results of yesterday’s election are potentially very bad news for legal aid funding (broadly defined). Notwithstanding the generally bipartisan support demonstrated for LSC at its recent 40th anniversary, the risk of cuts to the LSC budget is very real.
But the passage of the minimum wage referenda, often by overwhelming margins, by very red voting pools in several states such as South Dakota and Alaska, as well as in bluer Pennsylvania and Illinois, suggests that the unfairness of income inequality is well known and understood as an action item by huge swathes of even this red electorate.
So, while I would obviously not advocate branding legal aid as “the legal arm of the minimum wage increase movement,” we should think about how to build on the fairness arguments (“Civil legal aid helps ensure fairness for all in the justice system, regardless of how much money you have.”) which came out of the legal aid communications research.
Given that this communications research indicates that support for legal aid depends on the sense that it will be available to those in the middle, the minimum wage referenda might be explained by the widespread fears that they, or their family members, may need the protection of minimum wage. It might also be true that people understand that, to misquote, “a rising minimum wage lifts all boats except the heaviest.” Or it may just reflect the power of very simple fairness arguments even in this very angry and bad tempered electorate.
In any event, time for careful thinking on how to apply these fairness arguments most effectively to the access context.
I am one of 32 Democrats in my zip code. Having had the opportunity to watch Access to Justice support develop in Texas since 1996, I must say that the fear of funding reductions being the immediate response to Republicans winning elections is all wrong. The Governor-elect of Texas has been very supportive of civil legal aid funding on the state level for a number of years, starting when he was a State Supreme Court Justice. The entire State Supreme Court, currently all 9 conservatives, has been fighting for support for access to justice for more than two decades. They (along with the rest of the Access to Justice community) convinced the Texas Legislature to fund civil legal aid out of general revenues a few years ago. While the amount falls short of the need, the decision to support that funding by the Legislature and the Governor would not have happened without the staunch and very active support of the Supreme Court.
Our biggest problem in the legal aid movement is that we fail to resist the temptation to paint Republicans as being uniformly anti equal access. We really must do a great deal more to build relationships with the political right. Because very few Americans, at the end of the day, believe that Justice should be based on what you can afford to pay for it – regardless of political affiliation.
We might disagree on the amount of government funding or where that funding should come from. We do not disagree that the poor deserve the same access to justice as the rest of us.