NY Times editorial: Legislature should approve legal aid increases

Listen to Judge Lippman
March 13, 2011

Acknowledging New York’s deep fiscal crisis, Judge Jonathan Lippman, the state’s chief judge, has reluctantly agreed to make cuts in his $2.7 billion budget request, including a reduction in the number of people working for the court system. But he is refusing to back down on his call for a $25 million increase, to $40 million, in support for civil legal service programs that help low-income New Yorkers faced with foreclosures, evictions, domestic violence and other serious legal problems.

His commitment comes at a time when Republicans in Washington are determined to slash the federal contributions to these essential programs.

Judge Lippman knows what he is up against politically but is undaunted. In a recent talk at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in Manhattan, he described the shocking need for help out there — and the cost to justice and the judicial system if it continues to go unmet.

He told of state courtrooms that are “standing room only, filled with frightened, unrepresented litigants — many of them newly indigent — who are fighting to keep a roof over their heads, fighting to keep their children, fighting to keep their sources of income and health care.” And he cited the astonishing fact that in New York City 99 percent of tenants in eviction cases and 99 percent of borrowers in consumer credit cases have no lawyers.

“What is at stake,” he said, “is nothing less than the legitimacy of our justice system,” adding that the rule of law “loses its meaning when the protection of our laws is available only to those who can afford it.”

Judge Lippman offered a final practical reason for increasing spending on civil legal services: preventing unwarranted evictions, avoiding foster care placements, helping clients get access to federal benefits and easing court delays will carry real economic benefits for the state. He is right on all counts. The Legislature should approve the increase.

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