WASHINGTON — Conflicting sentiments surround the federal agency that helps provide legal services to California farm workers and the poor.
Some lawmakers now hope to boost funding for the Legal Services Corp. and lift some longstanding 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. "I don't really see anything that that group does as being worthwhile."
Established in 1974, the Legal Services Corp. currently 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 the Fresno-based Central California Legal Services, the Sacramento-based Legal Services of Northern California and the well-known, statewide California Rural Legal Assistance.
President Barack Obama has proposed nudging support to $435 million next year, while some congressional Democrats want much more. A House bill backed by 51 lawmakers — none from California's Central Valley — would authorize an increase to $750 million.
"We need to ensure that resources are available to provide legal services to those who cannot afford adequate legal representation," the bill's author, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., testified earlier this year.
Equally significant, the bill would remove many legal aid restrictions imposed in the mid-1990s. These include restrictions on prisoner lawsuits, drug-related eviction lawsuits and class-action lawsuits, among others.
Several years ago, for instance, Central California Legal Services was preparing legal action against a local slumlord. It would have been efficient to file it as a class action, Central California Legal Services executive director Chris Schneider noted, 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."
But Sharon Browne, a Legal Services Corp. board member and attorney with the conservative Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, cautioned that class-action lawsuits are both "time consuming and resource intensive," and she identified the class-action ban as one she wants retained.
"Class-action lawsuits have a tendency to be more politically driven," Browne said Friday.
The combination of continuing controversy and a tight Capitol Hill calendar all but guarantees the legislation won't move this year.
Critics certainly want to keep the bill bottled up as long as they can. They still seethe, for instance, 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 all Legal Service Corp. funding.
The proposed funding cutoff was a largely symbolic gesture, one opposed even by many Republicans.
"In the current economic climate, the need for legal services is increasing and not decreasing," said Browne, whose appointment to the Legal Service Corp. board was sponsored by congressional Republicans. "Everyone is entitled to equal access to justice."
In the short run, lawmakers still could use the agency's annual appropriations measure to peel back some of the legal aid restrictions. Last year, for instance, lawmakers lifted the restriction on collection of attorney fees.
Legal aid groups hope this helps. Schneider said that prior to the attorney fee ban, his Fresno-based organization stood to collect $200,000 in fees. The added money could fund additional 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.
All told, 11 California legal aid groups receive about $43 million annually from the Legal Services Corp. Some of their tasks are higher profile than others.
In early June, for instance, Central California Legal Services urged Merced officials to reconsider plans to close homeless shelters. More often, the legal aid attorneys quietly handle run-of-the-mill matters like landlord-tenant disputes, with the Fresno- based organization representing about 6,000 clients last year.