Trump hypocrisy threatens again with massive proposed cuts to legal aid

Trump hypocrisy threatens again with massive proposed cuts to legal aid

- in Weekly Briefing

The most litigious president in U.S. history says “no” to lawyers for poor people

No one ever accused Donald Trump of being consistent. If ever there was a politician for whom a gravitation toward blatant self-contradiction and 180 degree flip flops was embedded in the very fiber of his being, it would have to be the 45th president. Name an important issue of public policy and it seems a virtual lock that Trump will have staked out a position on all sides of it (and then probably contradicted each of them at one time or another with his own personal behavior).

As a “Fact Checker” article in the Washington Post recently observed:

Perhaps no politician is a bigger flip-flopper than Donald Trump. During the 2016 campaign, we counted flip-flops on four issues, but in some cases (H-1B visas and the minimum wage), Trump flip-flopped so often that it was just about impossible to determine his actual policy position.

After Trump won the electoral college vote while losing the popular vote, he flip-flopped on the unique American system of electing presidents. Whereas he had once called the electoral college “a disaster for a democracy,” he began to celebrate it as “genius.”

The pattern has continued during his presidency.”

Of course, it’s one thing to adopt and abandon policy positions as the political winds ebb and flow; it’s quite another to adopt positions that represent direct contradictions of one’s own personal values and behavior. It’s like the “pro-life” politician who secretly pays for his mistresses’ abortions or the “family values” crusader with a fondness for gambling and intoxicating substances: hypocrisy of the highest order.

A serial litigator seeks to kill legal assistance to the poor

It’s in this latter vein of hypocritical behavior and self-contradiction that one would probably have to classify one of Trump’s recent and most problematic budget proposals: a plan to zero out funding for civil legal aid to people in need.

As the Winston-Salem Journal reported over the weekend, Trump proposes to, literally, do away with the main source of federal funding for legal aid:

Trump is recommending the elimination of funding for Legal Services Corp., which has a current appropriation of $385 million. Legal Services, which Congress established in 1974, provides funding for 133 Legal Aid agencies throughout the country, said Jim Sandman, president of Legal Services.”

The article goes on to note that, here in North Carolina, this would essentially cut legal aid funding in half – this, in a program that’s already struggling mightily with budget cuts and a growing demand for services.

What such massive cuts would mean, as a practical matter, is that thousands of people in need – extremely poor people with incomes (at a maximum) barely above the paltry official poverty line – would have to do without any hope of legal representation when it comes to things like obtaining domestic violence protective orders, getting the public benefits they deserve or having their basic rights vindicated when they’re taken advantage of by a predatory lender.

That Donald Trump is the man proposing such a cut to legal aid is especially outrageous and bitterly ironic given Trump’s own personal behavior when it comes to the law. Last summer, at the height of the presidential election, USA Today took a look at Trump’s own record for litigation and made the following remarkable, if not terribly surprising, findings:

An exclusive USA TODAY analysis of legal filings across the United States finds that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and his businesses have been involved in at least 3,500 legal actions in federal and state courts during the past three decades. They range from skirmishes with casino patrons to million-dollar real estate suits to personal defamation lawsuits.

The sheer volume of lawsuits is unprecedented for a presidential nominee. No candidate of a major party has had anything approaching the number of Trump’s courtroom entanglements….

The legal actions provide clues to the leadership style the billionaire businessman would bring to bear as commander in chief. He sometimes responds to even small disputes with overwhelming legal force. He doesn’t hesitate to deploy his wealth and legal firepower against adversaries with limited resources, such as homeowners. He sometimes refuses to pay real estate brokers, lawyers and other vendors.”

And, of course, Trump’s addiction to litigation (and litigation-inducing behavior) has hardly subsided since his election. Whether it’s his own personal behavior, those of his various corporate namesakes or his administration itself, “litigation” is practically the president’s middle name.

Interesting isn’t it, that a man for whom the courts are a virtual second home would seek to deny even the tiny thread of a chance for legal vindication that Legal Services funding provides to hundreds of thousands of people in need?

To make matters even more absurd, the cuts Trump proposes would hit especially hard in regions of the country he won last November. This is from a recent Huffington Post article:

The effect of Trump’s proposed defunding of the Legal Services Corp. would be felt around the United States but would hit especially hard at legal service nonprofits located in the regions Trump won in November. A Huffington Post analysis found that legal aid organizations in states that went for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton received an average of 27.8 percent of their budget through this program, compared to 45.8 percent for organizations based in states that voted for Trump. Of the 28 states where organizations received more than 40 percent of their budgets from this program, 21 went for Trump.”

Even conservative voices push back

Happily, despite the massive and aggressive nature of the Trump budget cut proposal, there are signs that establishment voices across the political and partisan spectrum are pushing back.

Reports from Washington indicate that a cadre of corporate leaders and heavy hitters (the group to whom Trump seems to pay closest attention) are weighing in against the idea. Indeed, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association – an advocacy group that speaks on behalf of legal services programs – reports that there have been recent and public statements of strong support for legal aid by the managing partners of more than 150 of the nation’s largest law firms, the general counsel of many of the largest corporations in America and the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators.

This is from the Chief Justices’ letter referenced by the NLADA:

Our research makes clear that the large number of unrepresented citizens overwhelming the nation’s courts has negative consequences not only for them but also for the effectiveness and efficiency of courts striving to serve these and other segments of the community who need their disputes resolved. More staff time is required to assist unrepresented parties. In the absence of a fair presentation of relevant facts, court procedures are slowed, backlogs of other court cases occur, and judges confront the challenge of maintaining their impartiality while preventing injustice. Clearly frontline judges are telling us that the adversarial foundation of our justice system is all too often losing its effectiveness when citizens are deprived of legal counsel.”

As with so many other ideas and proposals emanating from the White House these days, there is reason to believe that the Trump legal aid proposal will, as the legislative saying goes, “die for lack of a second.” Let’s hope that this is the case and that conservative members of Congress – maybe even establishment conservatives like North Carolina’s Richard Burr and Thom Tillis – recognize and acknowledge the counter-productiveness of the idea.

In a nation in which the president’s private life has been dominated by decades of incessant litigation, it seems the least that Congress can do is to assure some modest level of access to justice for the millions of poor citizens for whom a single day in court is likely to be the full extent of their lifetime litigation experience.