Supreme Court justices urge lawmakers to pass legal aid funds

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As many as 75,000 poor Texans will be cut off from basic legal services under the Lege’s current funding scheme, according to Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson and Justice Nathan L. Hecht. In a letter sent out yesterday, the justices pleaded with lawmakers to pass some $20 million for legal aid programs in the special session – money that was stripped away in the last days of the regular session.

“You have asked what the probable consequences will be if we are unable to secure funding to give these citizens access to our courts,” the justices wrote. “We hesitate to contemplate that outcome.”

For decades interest from the Texas Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts program raised money for some 40 legal aid groups around the state, organizations dedicated to what the justices called “basic civil legal services” for indigent victims of domestic violence, veterans and their families, the disabled, children, the elderly, and other vulnerable groups.

But the fund took a dive in the recession as interest rates dipped to near zero. Since 2007, the fund has plummeted over 75 percent from about $20 million to an estimated $4.4 million this year. Lawmakers last session set aside $20 million to keep legal aid programs afloat, but failed to repeat the gesture this year.

“Some consider this Court conservative,” the justices wrote. “Conservative principles do not call for the rule of law to be denied the most vulnerable members of our community.”

The justices also praised legal aid attorneys, who are typically paid a fraction of what their private-sector peers earn. “It is triage work,” they wrote, saying that when legal aid organizations fail from lack of funding “the portal through which clients are aligned with private attorneys will collapse.”

“Legal aid lawyers work to preserve the rule of law, and thus the integrity of our civil justice system.”

- Michael Barajas, mbarajas@sacurrent.com

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