Obama names conservatives to Legal Services board

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 22, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama this week formally nominated Sacramento-based attorney Sharon L. Browne to help lead the Legal Services Corp., whose activities Browne's fellow conservatives have long tried to restrict.

Another attorney formally nominated by Obama this week, Victor B. Maddox of Kentucky, is also a conservative. Maddox served as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Browne is a Republican and a principal attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, which promotes limited government. Even so, she voices support for the legal-aid program born amid Lyndon Johnson’s expansive Great Society.

“The Legal Services Corp. provides an important service to low-income Americans to help with everyday legal problems,” Browne said by e-mail Tuesday, adding that she was “honored” by the president’s nomination.

Well known within California's Central Valley, where federally funded legal-aid attorneys have long represented farmworkers, the Legal Services Corp. distributes funding among 137 organizations nationwide.

Recipients including California Rural Legal Assistance and the Fresno-based Central California Legal Services represent poor clients, primarily in cases involving family law, housing and consumer issues.

The legal aid program has also periodically angered farmers, GOP lawmakers and others who contend it has become too entangled in politics. When Republicans assumed control of Congress in 1995, lawmakers imposed new restrictions. Some members of Congress, including Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., backed efforts to dramatically cut its funding.

"Unlike the Legal Services Corp., we receive no government grant money," Pacific Legal Foundation attorney James S. Burling noted in contrasting the two organizations in 1997. "We believe no tax money should be used for cause-oriented litigation."

With its board of directors now chaired by prominent Fresno County rancher John Harris, the 36-year-old Pacific Legal Foundation says it “fights for limited government, property rights, individual rights and a balanced approach to environmental protection.”

A graduate of the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law, Browne joined the Pacific Legal Foundation in 1985. Her legal efforts have included opposing government programs that provide sex-based or race-based preferences in hiring or admissions decisions.

She would be one of 11 Legal Services Corp. board members. Board members periodically split over issues like what size budget to ask for, a review of recent board meeting transcripts shows.

“If I am confirmed, I hope to enhance the quality of the legal services provided, and ensure that the programs operate efficiently, effectively and with accountability,” Browne said Tuesday.

Though nominated by Obama, Browne owes at least some of her new role to Senate Minority Leader McConnell. Minority leaders have a major say in some Legal Services Corp. appointments, as the board is required by law to be bipartisan.

Obama formally submitted Browne's and Maddox's nominations late Monday. The Senate Judiciary Committee has not yet scheduled a hearing.

If history is any guide, the Republican nominees will be asked to affirm support for the Legal Services Corp. That’s what happened in 1983, when then-President Ronald Reagan nominated Pacific Legal Foundation trustee and California appeals judge Robert Kane. Kane dutifully assured senators he supported the legal aid program, notwithstanding his conservative background and Reagan’s own stated desire to eliminate it.

Obama, unlike Reagan, is a strong public supporter of the Legal Services Corp. He recently signed a Fiscal 2010 appropriations bill that provides a $30 million boost to the organization’s budget, raising it to $420 million.

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