President Trump’s proposed budget slams the courthouse doors shut for thousands of Wyoming residents who can’t afford an attorney, particularly hurting low-income women, observers say.
Trump’s America First budget proposes eliminating the Legal Services Corporation. which funds legal aid offices throughout the country, including five offices in Wyoming. Legal aid is available to an estimated 30 percent of the Wyoming population who earn less than 200 percent of federal poverty levels. Eliminating the service is part of a proposed effort to redirect a large part of government spending toward a military buildup and increased border security.
Without legal aid, many people living at low income levels wouldn’t be able to afford an attorney, legal experts in Wyoming say. While defendants have the legal right to an attorney in criminal cases, a wide range of civil law issues could become inaccessible to those who can’t afford representation.
Offices throughout the state provided legal aid — ranging from advice to full representation — for nearly 3,000 people last year, according to Legal Aid of Wyoming Director Ray Macchia.
Of that number, 2,024 of their clients were women. Somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of the calls that Legal Aid of Wyoming gets have to do with family law issues, Macchia said — whether it’s divorce, domestic violence or a parental guardianship question.
The agency operates a hotline, and calls are assessed to see whether the caller needs simple legal advice or help filling out a form, or needs the services of a staff attorney. Tasks for the attorneys can range from helping someone respond to a credit collection letter to a full fledged divorce with a custody battle over children, Macchia said. Family law issues, particularly those dealing with domestic violence, are their highest priority.
From clearing a routine legal hurdle for a client who can’t understand the paperwork to helping someone out of a dangerous relationship, “those are the type of things that would go away” with Trump’s budget, Macchia said.
Legal Aid of Wyoming receives just over half its money from the federal government. Defunding the Legal Services Corporation would cost the Wyoming group more than $600,000 dollars, out of a $1.4 million budget. Roughly another $240,000 in other federal grants have also been put on the chopping block by Trump’s budget, Macchia said.
“It would be a huge impact on us,” Macchia said. If the Legal Services Corporation is defunded, he anticipates cutting half his staff and closing at least two of the five offices. His agency has 14 full time attorneys on staff. It has offices in Cheyenne, Casper, Lander, Rock Springs and Gillette.
The Lander office, which is one of the ones he said they’d probably consider closing, frequently serves tribal members from the Wind River Indian Reservation.
Legal Aid of Wyoming also served 173 military veterans in 2016, Macchia said. Often in those cases, as well as when serving the elderly, the attorneys are working to ensure their clients aren’t denied the benefits they’re entitled to receive, whether it’s Social Security or veterans’ assistance.
Another common issue for Macchia’s clients is housing. It could be an eviction process where the landlord isn’t following the law and is forcing a tenant out without the proper process. Or it could be a living situation that doesn’t have adequate water or adequate heat.
“We have to go in and force the landlords to do the right thing,” he said.
In Wyoming’s sparsely populated landscape, such services can be particularly valuable. People in rural areas “still have the same issues with divorce, creditors and housing,” Macchia said. “It’s just much harder to find an attorney out there.”
Legal aid can change women’s lives
Climb Wyoming is a Cheyenne based organization that has been working to elevate single mothers out of poverty and into a more sustainable lifestyle for 30 years. By providing training in life skills like nutrition and budgeting, as well as job training and job placement services, Climb Wyoming tries to set women on a path to earning higher income at steadier jobs. It operates six offices throughout the state.
Forty percent of single mothers lived in poverty in the state in 2014, according to census data cited by Climb Wyoming. A large majority of the women who participate in Climb see their average annual income nearly double two years after completing the program, according to the group’s data.
But a legal issue can be the first obstacle in the path to a better life for single mothers, said Ray Fleming Dinneen, who founded and directs Climb Wyoming.
The group engages with about 145 new single mothers each year, Dinneen said, and the majority of them have a legal issue they need to resolve. Some come with family law issues that are unresolved or an arrest record that can prevent them from working in certain fields. Or, there could be an issue in their past that that the client believes would hold them back, even if the legal reality is that it wouldn’t, she said.
Without legal aid, such problems can be a real or imagined distraction from focusing on career success and sustainability for their family.
“They just feel so helpless about being able to get past the legal issues in their lives,” Dinneen said. “They don’t get the help they need to know it really isn’t insurmountable.”
By working closely with the Legal Aid of Wyoming offices, Climb Wyoming is able to get its clients help understanding past arrests and overcoming legal hurdles, Dinneen said. On the flip side, often single mothers first arrive at Climb Wyoming through referrals from the legal aid offices.
To Dinneen, legal aid represents a link in a chain of partnerships serving the impoverished across Wyoming. “It’s a really strong system,” she said, “but legal aid funding makes up the base.”
More need out there
The state has a separate grant program run by Equal Justice Wyoming, a state office under the Wyoming Supreme Court. It gives money to organizations that increase access to the legal system. The money comes from a charge on state courthouse filings; thus the grant program avoided the budget cuts that have hit agencies receiving funding from the state’s cash-strapped General Fund.
Equal Justice Wyoming does not have enough funding to cover the money lost if Trump’s budget passes, Director Angie Dorsch said. Such a cut would put pressure on the state’s other legal services, as people would take their needs elsewhere if legal aid offices closed and reduced staff.
Already, Dorsch said, the state would need “many times more” than current funding levels to provide access to the court system to everyone in the state who needs it but can’t afford it.
Today, she said, “it kind of becomes a triage system — provide everybody the minimal level of assistance to get [him or her] through the court system.” The court system is seeing more people attempt to represent themselves, Dorsch said, which is problematic given its complexity.
Still the state’s commitment to equal access to justice is impressive, she said. She credits the Legislature for creating the grant program and re-approving its funding year after year. Many state lawmakers are familiar with the legal aid programs, she said, because their constituents call them asking for legal advice. Lawmakers can then direct constituents to Legal Aid of Wyoming or Equal Justice for Wyoming’s grantee programs.
Wyoming was a state that voted heavily for Trump. Dorsch said she hadn’t seen any statements on legal aid from Trump during the campaign that would have indicated he opposed the program. Still, she said, the budget he has proposed would damage many of the people who voted for him by stripping them of affordable access to the justice system.
“It affects everybody,” she said, because equal access “keeps our justice system strong.”
Macchia said even the higher-ups at the Legal Services Corporation in Washington D.C. were taken aback when Trump’s budget included eliminating the program. In a single sentence, the budget proposes eliminating funding for LSC along with 19 other government endeavors. “We never got any sort of explanation,” Macchia said.
Trump’s budget is designed to cut a wide variety of government spending and direct that money toward the military and homeland security.
“This budget blueprint follows through on my promise to focus on keeping Americans safe, keeping terrorists out of our country, and putting violent offenders behind bars,” the president’s accompanying message to the budget read.
In April, a delegation of people who support and are involved with the program will head to Washington D.C. to lobby Wyoming’s congressional delegation and encourage it to resist the cut.
The Legal Services Corporation was signed into law by President Nixon in 1974. He described it as a “workhorse” in the effort to secure equal rights for Americans, according to the agency’s website.
“Here each day the old, the unemployed, the underprivileged, and the largely forgotten people of our Nation may seek help,” Nixon wrote, referring to neighborhood law offices that could be supported by the program. “Perhaps it is an eviction, a marital conflict, repossession of a car, or misunderstanding over a welfare check — each problem may have a legal solution. These are small claims in the Nation’s eye, but they loom large in the hearts and lives of poor Americans.”
The last time the program faced a presidential threat was during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. He opposed the program, argued for its defunding and tried to appoint directors that were hostile to its goals, according to newspaper reports from the time. Though Congress cut the program’s budget in 1981, they resisted Reagan’s efforts to eliminate it.
In the past legal aid has largely enjoyed bipartisan support, which Machia said he believes will continue today. However, during his career he’s never seen an existential threat to the program like this. He worries that not as many senators and representatives today are attorneys, as compared to past congresses.
“They haven’t done the pro bono work that you do in law school,” he said. That experience familiarizes them with legal aid and its role in equal access to the justice system. “[They] don’t see why it’s really needed.”