More than 300 bar leaders from 48 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands traveled to Capitol Hill April 10-12 for the annual “ABA Day in Washington,” an opportunity to lobby on issues of critical importance to the legal profession.
ABA Day, coordinated by the ABA Governmental Affairs Office and now in its 22nd year, featured hundreds of face-to-face visits with members of Congress. During the meetings, participants focused on two programs that have been targeted for elimination by the Trump administration: the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF). The bar leaders also expressed ABA support for the Legal Orientation Program (LOP) for immigration detainees, which the Justice Department (DOJ) had announced April 10 it was planning to pause for a cost-benefit analysis.
LSC. Even though the administration proposed elimination of LSC, Congress approved a $25 million increase for fiscal year 2018 that brought LSC funding to $410 million. Nevertheless, ABA Day participants emphasized that 86 percent of low-income Americans receive inadequate or no legal help for their civil legal problems and urged Congress to restore the program’s funding level to at least the inflation-adjusted fiscal year 2010 level of $482 million. The federal funding, they said, provides support for legal services offices in every congressional district, and individuals helped by the offices include domestic-violence victims, veterans, seniors, rural residents, women, and natural disaster victims.
PSLF. This program, established in 2007 to provide loan forgiveness for qualified borrowers who have made 120 timely payment on their federal direct loans while employed full-time in public service jobs, has been caught up in larger discussions about higher education affordability as Congress considers reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Without PSLF, employers would be unable to fill lower-paid positions serving the public – such as legal aid attorneys, public defenders or prosecutors − because of the staggering amount of student debt most new lawyers have when they graduate. ABA Day participants urged their members of Congress to allow the program to continue to function as envisioned until there has been an opportunity to assess the impact of the program.
LOP. The bar leaders were the first to alert many members of Congress about DOJ’s intention to suspend the LOP program as of April 30 - a decision the department later reversed. The program’s services, offered since 2003 to individuals in immigration detention facilities around the country, include group legal-rights presentations, individual orientations, self-help workshops, and pro bono referrals. These services have resulted in cost savings, greaterimmigration court efficiency, and fairness and due process.
Patricia Lee Refo, chair of the ABA Day Planning Committee, told attendees that their participation “sends a message to members of Congress and the administration that lawyers are actively engaged in the democratic process to improve access to justice and advance the rule of law.” She noted that the association has seen over the years that what the bar leaders do on Capitol Hill during ABA Day makes a difference.
Keynote speakers during the event included Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), as well as Assistant Attorney General Beth Williams, and past ABA President and LSC Board member Robert J. Grey Jr.
Justice Awards Recognize Members of Congress
This year’s recipients of the Justice Awards, presented by ABA President Hilarie Bass to recognize members of Congress for their support for LSC and their leadership in the pursuit of justice for all, were: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for opposing legislation that would restrict access to the civil justice system; Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) for his efforts to enhance access to the civil justice system; Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) for his commitment to ensuring access to justice for domestic violence and trafficking victims; and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), for her efforts to ensure that the Senate Judiciary Committee has an opportunity to consider the ABA’s peer assessments of the professional qualifications of federal judiciary nominees prior to their confirmation hearings.
During the awards presentation, Pelosi thanked the association for its ABA Day advocacy. “We stand with you” and are grateful for the ABA’s “steadfast commitment to an independent judiciary,” she said.
Next year’s ABA Day is scheduled for April 9-11, 2019.