TALKING IT OVER
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON
"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
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
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