Legal Services Corporation Reauthorization

On April 1, 2009, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced the Civil Access to Justice Act of 2009 (CAJA), a bill to reauthorize the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and increase the authorized funding level to $750 million, an amount, when adjusted for inflation, that equals what LSC received in the FY 1980 appropriation.  If enacted, CAJA would reauthorize LSC for the first time since 1977.  The 1977 reauthorization expired in 1980, but Congress has continued to appropriate funds for LSC, while imposing a series of substantive restrictions on LSC and its grantees through riders on the appropriations bills that have been re-imposed each year.

The Harkin Bill would eliminate many of the restrictions imposed on LSC recipients in 1996 at the same time that appropriations were cut by thirty percent.   In addition to restricting funds appropriated by Congress for LSC, in an unprecedented move, the 1996 riders imposed most of the same restrictions on all of LSC grantees' non-LSC funds.  The Harkin bill would lift or modify most of the limitations on LSC funds and eliminate all of the restrictions on non-LSC funds, except for the restriction on abortion which would continue to apply to all of an LSC grantee's funds. 

In addition to the revisions that eliminate or revise restrictions on LSC grantees, the Harkin Bill includes numerous provisions that relate to LSC corporate governance and oversight.  CAJA also includes provisions that authorize a grant program from the Department of Education that would expand law school clinical programs.

CLASP and its coalition partners, including the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, the American Bar Association, the Brennan Center, the United Auto Workers, and the ACLU, worked closely with Sen. Harkin's staff to fashion the provisions of the CAJA, and although it does contain several provisions that we think could be improved or eliminated, the Harkin Bill is a significant improvement over the current LSC Act and appropriations riders.   We hope to be able to make additional improvements in the Bill before it is taken up by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee which has jurisdiction over LSC.

CLASP also worked closely with the staff of the House Judiciary Committee to craft a comparable House bill, which was introduced on October 8, 2009, by Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA).  The Scott bill is similar in most respects to the Harkin Bill, although it goes somewhat further than the Harkin bill in eliminating several of the restrictions and makes a number of other improvements in provisions where our proposals differed from those adopted by Sen. Harkin.  It does not include the Senate provisions on grants to expand law school clinical programs.  We have worked with the House Judiciary Committee staff to try to address several concerns about the bill that have been raised by the LSC Inspector General, but to date no progress has been made in resolving those issues. 

We hope to be able to continue to work with the House and Senate staff to try to improve both bills before they are brought to their respective committees for votes.  However, if the bills are not adopted by the end of the current Congress in December 2010, in order to move LSC reauthorization forward, the Bills will have to be reintroduced in the next Congress that will convene in January 2011.

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