Each year, representatives from state and local bar associations across the US gather in Washington, DC, for a couple of days of advocacy on behalf of some of the American Bar Association’s top priorities. Last week, BBA President Mark Smith, of Laredo & Smith, and President-Elect Jonathan Albano, of Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP, joined their counterparts from the Massachusetts Bar Association—Chris Sullivan and Chris Kenney, respectively—on another whirlwind tour of the Capitol, visiting the offices of 10 of the Commonwealth’s 11 US Senators and Representatives as part of ABA Day.
Although our group had to split up in order to fit all those meetings in, we did get to sit down with both our Senators, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, and Representatives Katherine Clark, Bill Keating, Joe Kennedy, and Jim McGovern. We also saw staffers for Congressmen Mike Capuano, Steve Lynch, Seth Moulton, and Richard Neal.
This year, we focused our presentations on four main topics:
- LSC funding
As always, the federal appropriation for civil legal aid, through the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), was at the top of our list. LSC is the largest source of funding for providers nationwide: There is not a county in the US that is not covered by an LSC-funded agency, and here in Massachusetts, they fund the Volunteer Lawyers Project, South Coastal Counties Legal Services, Northeast Legal Aid, and Community Legal Aid—for a total of about $5.5 million this year.
The $1.3 trillion budget deal reached in Congress earlier this year increased LSC’s line-item, for the first time in years, from $385 million to $410 million. Even at that level, however, legal-services providers remain woefully under-resourced. Our request, on behalf of the ABA, was for an increase to $482 million in the coming fiscal year. That would at least get LSC, and its grantees, back to where they were nine years ago.
LSC enjoys wide and deep bipartisan support in Congress—evidenced by that $25 million increase they received for the current fiscal year, in the face of a White House proposal to defund and shut down LSC’s operations entirely—and our delegation is unanimous in their strong support. Yet the fiscal climate in DC makes almost any funding increase a challenge, no matter how worthy the cause.
- Criminal-justice reform
This issue was on the ABA’s agenda two years ago, when momentum finally seemed to be growing for bipartisan agreement in Congress. Since the 2016 election, though, there has been little action, if any, on this front, and the ABA didn’t make it one of their two priorities for ABA Day 2018. But we chose to add the topic because we believe Massachusetts’ recently-enacted law can be a model for federal action—especially given the overwhelming support it had in the Legislature from both parties.
Our message to the elected officials was that Congress should take a comprehensive approach to reform, including bills that have ABA support on bail reform, sentencing, and juvenile justice. Taking a piece-meal approach, to first tackle the low-hanging fruit would risk prematurely ending the debate for the foreseeable future by taking the heat off Congress. What we heard back was that there may be an appetite to pick this issue up again after this fall’s mid-term elections—depending on the outcome.
- Public Service Loan Forgiveness
In 2007, the federal government created the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, designed to assist with student-loan repayment for those who work at least 10 years at a qualified public-service job. Now, just as the program is beginning to pay back public-sector/non-profit employees who signed up at the outset and have been making timely payments ever since, it is under threat of cut-backs or even elimination.
Lawyers—who graduate with average debts of $88,000 for public schools or $122,000 for private schools—face some of the most-daunting challenges in considering whether to start their careers in public service. But our case for the program extends as well to other professionals, such as teachers, first responders, and social workers. And the program benefits not only those individuals, but their employers, too, since it can be difficult to attract talented applicants to these relatively low-paying jobs. Of course, society as a whole stands to gain from measures such as this, to encourage students to acquire needed skills and then apply them in public service.
- Immigration Orientation Program
This fourth item was a last-minute addition to our agenda, after the White House announced, just the previous evening, the suspension of a successful program to help applicants navigate the complexities of our federal immigration system. The program helps to streamline the process and has demonstrated its cost-effectiveness, with the most-recent analysis finding a saving of $17 million as a result. Nevertheless, as we heard from Rep. Kennedy, anything related to immigration is toxic these days in Washington.
A separate part of ABA Day involves the presentation of the Justice Awards, to recognize the work of members of Congress in advancing issues of critical importance to the ABA and the administration of justice. This year’s event could only be a bit of a let-down from last year, when our own Rep. Joe Kennedy was one of the recipients, but it was still a treat to hear from House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Pennsylvania freshman Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick. Leader Pelosi, the former Speaker, was introduced as the highest-ranking female elected official in American history, but said she couldn’t wait to lose that distinction. She went on to talk about the importance of lawyers in our system, and about her pride that her daughter is one herself.
Rep. Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent, joked (we think) that he’d left a job where he knew his colleagues would take a bullet for him for one where the opposite is true. He also tied his belief in civil legal aid for the poor to his Roman Catholic faith, quoting Jesus saying, “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.” (Although they could not attend the award ceremony, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas and California Senator Dianne Feinstein were also honored.)
We’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: We are blessed in Massachusetts to be represented by a delegation that shares these priorities—and, especially, understands the importance of civil legal aid. Unlike attendees from other states, we were there at least as much to thank those we met with for their continued support as to persuade them on our issues.
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association