WASHINGTON — Conflicting sentiments surround the federal agency that helps provide legal services to California farmworkers and the poor.
Some lawmakers hope to boost funding for the Legal Services Corp. and lift some long-standing restrictions on its work.
Others consider the agency a bastion of liberal activism and want it curtailed.
No region has a bigger stake in the political outcome than the Central Valley, home to thousands of Legal Services clients as well as some of the federal program's most vocal critics.
"All they do is bring frivolous lawsuits forward and engage in a radical environmental mentality," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia.
Established in 1974, the Legal Services Corp. receives $420 million a year from the federal government. It distributes money to 136 legal aid programs nationwide, each serving low-income populations.
The funding recipients include Fresno-based Central California Legal Services, Sacramento-based Legal Services of Northern California and Rural Legal Assistance, which is statewide.
President Barack Obama has proposed nudging support to $435 million next year, but some Democrats in Congress want much more. A House bill backed by 51 lawmakers — none from the Central Valley — would authorize an increase to $750 million.
The bill would remove legal aid restrictions imposed in the mid-1990s, including on prisoner lawsuits, drug-related eviction lawsuits and class-action lawsuits.
Efficient or time-consuming?
Several years ago, for instance, Central California Legal Services was preparing legal action against a slumlord. It would have been efficient to file it as a class action, said Chris Schneider, the group's executive director, but the federal restrictions meant 132 separate lawsuits had to be filed.
"That's ridiculous," Schneider said Friday. "We don't want that, the other party doesn't want that ... and the court doesn't want that."
When prisoners write seeking help, as Schneider indicated happens several times a week, "We just write back and say we can't help."
Sharon Browne, a Legal Services Corp. board member and attorney with the conservative Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, cautioned that class-action lawsuits are "time-consuming and resource intensive," and identified the class- action ban as one she wants retained.
The combination of continuing controversy and a tight Capitol Hill calendar all but guarantees the legislation won't move this year.
Critics want to keep the bill bottled up as long as they can. They still seethe over how federal legal aid funds allegedly subsidized a campaign a number of years ago against large San Joaquin Valley dairy farms. Last June, Nunes and Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, joined in an unsuccessful effort to eliminate Legal Service Corp. funding.
In the short run, lawmakers could use the agency's annual appropriations measure to peel back some of the legal aid restrictions. Last year, lawmakers lifted the restriction on collection of attorney fees.
Legal aid groups hope this helps. Schneider said that before the regulation, his organization stood to collect $200,000 in fees. The added money could pay for more staff and the added authority could aid in courthouse negotiations, he said.
"Right now, we have to approach things with one arm tied behind our back," Schneider said.