Last month, the ABA held its first fully online digital advocacy event called ABA Day Digital 2020. During this two-day event, ABA and state bar leaders, members of the legal profession, and thousands of participants used social media, teleconferences, and digital advocacy tools to discuss and advocate for our four primary and two secondary issues – funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), preserving Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), allowing the VA to fund legal services for homeless veterans, expanding broadband access to rural America, protecting the attorney client privilege in prisons and passing a small claims procedures for copyright claims. Did our collective advocacy have an impact? Early results look promising.
Less than a month after ABA Day Digital, the Democratic held U.S. House of Representatives narrowly passed, by a 208 to 199 vote, H.R. 6800, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES Act). The HEROES Act is the latest legislative effort to provide substantial economic relief to individuals, businesses, and state and local governments affected by the spread of the coronavirus.
Although the House bill is far from becoming law, and has not yet been considered by the Republican held Senate, there are positive developments involving several of our ABA Day Digital issues included in the House’s bill: additional LSC funding, increased relief for those eligible for PSLF, help for homeless veterans, passage of the Effective Assistance of Counsel in the Digital Era Act, and funding to increase access to broadband internet.
Specifically, the House’s HEROES Act includes $50 million in emergency funding for the LSC, which would be in addition to the $50 million previously granted to LSC in March by the CARES Act. LSC has already awarded $47 million of the CARES Act funding to its grantees to address critical civil legal needs confronting low-income individuals and families as a result of the pandemic. LSC also awarded $2.4 million to 126 of its grantees to support new equipment, services and related expenses needed for legal services organizations to improve or expand telework capabilities during this period of social distancing. Advocating for increased LSC funding and access to legal services for low income Americans remains one of the ABA’s highest priorities as evidenced by our recent letters, testimony and the more than 10,000 tweets, retweets and likes on social media for this issue during ABA Day Digital.
So far, the PSLF program continues to be preserved. In fact, the HEROES Act would help students repaying loans and seeking loan forgiveness under the program by temporarily removing the requirement that qualified individuals filing for forgiveness be employed in qualifying public service employment positions at the time of forgiveness. It would also allow PSLF borrowers to consolidate their student loans without having to start a new ten-year repayment period to remain qualified for PSLF, contrary to what happens now. Another ABA priority, over 11,000 people showed their support for preserving PSLF on Twitter during ABA Day Digital.
For homeless veterans, the HEROES Act does not include authority for the VA Secretary to fund legal services for homeless veterans as advocated by the ABA. The provision was kept out of the bill for reasons unrelated to its merits, but the ABA continues to push to get this authority passed by the end of this legislative session. Unless the VA is able to fund the needed legal services, legal problems will continue to serve as an obstacle to homeless veterans accessing their due benefits, including the very programs and services for which the HEROES Act provides emergency funding: food, shelter, clothing, transportation, phones, blankets, and toiletries.
Another issue at the forefront of ABA Day Digital, and now one step closer to passage during this legislative session by being in the HEROES Act, is the Effective Assistance of Counsel in the Digital Era Act, which aims to modernize prison regulations by prohibiting the government from monitoring inmates’ privileged emails with their attorneys sent through the Bureau of Prisons’ email system. Although the attorney-client privilege is uncontested when in the form of a phone call or in-person meeting, the ABA and other interested parties have been advocating to protect the confidentiality of email communications, especially during a pandemic where in-person meetings pose grave health and safety risks.
Advocacy to expand broadband access to rural America was new for the ABA this year, but the need for it quickly became even more critical during COVID-19 because of the increased need for comprehensive internet access for those learning and working from home. If passed, the HEROES Act would provide $5.5 billion to close the digital divide, at least until the pandemic is over. Four billion dollars would help expand high speed internet access to those who cannot afford it, and $1.5 billion would help schools and libraries purchase hot spots and connected devices to facilitate socially distanced learning.
Having these issues included in the HEROES Act is an important step for our advocacy efforts, but much more needs to be done to ensure they remain included in any negotiated bill passed by Congress and ultimately signed into law. Join us in urging the Senate in include these issues in the next relief bill by contacting your Senators now to tell them how important each of these issues are to you and to the rest of their constituents.