Hearing Begins Evaluation of Need for More Civil Justice Services
ALBANY - Lacking a Gideon-like mandate that would require government funding for one of his signature issues—civil legal services—Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman has only the power of the pulpit to bolster his annual hat-in-hand approach to the Legislature.
On Tuesday, Lippman began the yearly process of seeking funding to address unmet civil legal needs by holding the first of four hearings aimed at garnering the evidence necessary "to get the legal services funding we need to continue the progress we have made in New York." Later this fall, he will issue a report to the Legislature, outlining a funding request.
The government is not obligated to devote funds for civil legal services for the poor, as it is for criminal legal services under the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), so every year Lippman holds hearings demonstrating the need for funding and takes his case to the Legislature.
Under Lippman, funding for civil legal services has grown substantially. This year, $55 million—$40 million from court appropriations and $15 million from IOLA funding—was devoted to the cause, but every year is a new challenge.
"There are plenty of inadequacies in terms of criminal representation," Lippman said in an interview after the Albany hearing. "But, at the very least, there is a law that says everybody gets represented. That's the law. On the civil side, there is no such requirement."
Lippman said until there is a "civil Gideon," his mission is to figure out "what we can do, without that constitutional mandate" to secure as much funding as possible for civil legal services.
Statewide, Lippman said only 20 percent of the need is being met. The Legal Aid Society in New York City, which provided assistance to about 100,000 needy clients, is turning away 89 percent of the people who seek help, according to attorney-in-chief Steven Banks.
"It is my special responsibility as chief judge, and our responsibility as the judiciary, to take this head on," Lippman said. "If we are not going to do it, no one else will. Without equal justice, without access to justice for all, we might as well close the courthouse doors. There is no reason for them to be open if inside they are not going to have a level playing field."
Lippman said he does not know how much money he will request for civil legal services in the next fiscal year, which begins on April 1. He said the request in the budget he submits Dec. 1 will be based partially on what comes out of the four hearings.
At the first hearing, witnesses including state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, Albany Law School Dean Penelope Andrews, Rensselaer City Judge Carmelo Laquidara, Albany Family Court Judge Margaret Walsh, business leaders, veteran advocates and clients brought a perspective different from that of providers who have a financial stake in securing funding.