Category Archives: civil rights

Farmers await assistance from Washington, while U.N. may look at migrant worker conditions

Supervising attorney Nathaniel Norton, client Janet Gonzalez

Delmarva Public Radio interviewed two Maryland Legal Aid experts about the living conditions of migrant farmworkers on the Eastern Shore. In a story about the federal farm bill stalled in Congress. Farmworker Program supervising attorney Nathaniel Norton and Human Rights Program director Reena Shah talk about the way migrants live and their efforts to get the United Nations  involved in human rights abuses. For the link to the interview, click here.

The relentless push to bleed Legal Services dry

From Remapping Debate, a short history of the Legal Services Corp., which funds legal aid programs across the country (including Maryland Legal Aid):

Ask people about the things that make America a “country of laws,” and one answer you will likely get is that everyone is entitled to be represented by a lawyer of his or her choice. But that promise has little meaning to more and more families at or near the poverty level. They’re among the millions of Americans for whom having a lawyer is a luxury beyond reach. Such families cannot afford a lawyer to defend them in an eviction proceeding, to fight a wrongful denial of veteran’s benefits, or to help get a restraining order to protect against an abusive spouse.

While the right of an indigent defendant to have counsel appointed for criminal cases is constitutionally-protected, there is no such right for lower-income people who need to bring or defend civil cases, leaving them with limited access to the justice system. Congress, however, created the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) in 1974 with the intention of providing high quality civil legal aid to poor and working class Americans — those in households at or below 125 percent of the poverty level (currently $27,938 for a family of four). And independent observers, including bar associations, sheriffs’ offices, and State Supreme Court justices, widely acknowledge that LSC-funded lawyers perform vital work for their clients.

“These are basic legal services for low income people to have a place to live, feed their kids, deal with an abusive spouse, deal with their education so their kids would have more of an opportunity,” explained Esther Lardent, president and chief executive officer of the Pro Bono Institute, a supporter of the LSC. “We’re not only helping those individuals but society overall — there’s a cost if you don’t help people’s situations improve.”

Despite its achievements, conservatives have consistently targeted the LSC, attempting to strip it of resources, and, at times, to abolish it. This pressure began in earnest in 1981, just months after Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency. Until that year, the LSC’s budget had grown consistently. Reagan was unsuccessful in his attempt to shutter the LSC entirely, but he succeeded in cutting its budget by 25 percent. In the following decade, under House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Congress hit the program with even greater constraints. The LSC has been hamstrung by major budget cuts and service restrictions under both Democratic and Republican presidents ever since.

The push against the LSC continues. Just last month, Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) proposed an amendment to the fiscal year 2013 House Appropriations Bill that would have ended all funding for the LSC. (The amendment failed, but garnered 122 votes.)

When asked about whether their constituents have been or would be hurt by cuts to the LSC, the LSC’s opponents in Washington don’t squarely answer the question. Instead, they claim the services LSC-funded programs provide are unneeded, and condemn the LSC as just another “advancement of Big Government,” as Representative Scott stated on the House floor.

In the face of such arguments, the LSC’s proponents have prevented its elimination. But they have done little to replenish, let alone expand, its resources. Similarly, the LSC’s advocates outside of government have been unable or unwilling to raise broader public awareness of the importance of the program and secure robust funding to deliver quality legal representation to the millions of Americans in genuine need.

To read the entire article, click here.

Voice of America looks at right to counsel in civil legal cases

A Voice of America story about the right to counsel in civil legal cases–and the lack of that right in the U.S.–focused on Maryland Legal Aid clients.

From the article:

Each year, millions of non-criminal cases in the United States are heard in civil court – cases involving child custody battles, housing evictions and other issues, including the case of Juliana Holmes in Baltimore, Maryland. Holmes’ estranged husband took away their three children when she was living in another state – and she could not afford a lawyer to get them back.

“He just took them out of the state of North Carolina so I moved here to follow my kids,” said Holmes.

Holmes eventually got joint custody of her children with the help of a private organization called Maryland Legal Aid, which provided her with a lawyer at no cost.

Trish Cochran was her attorney. She’s among a growing number of lawyers and judges who think the right to an attorney, for critical civil cases such as these, should be a basic legal right in the United States. Right now, it is not.

“People have a constitutional right to their children; a right to have just some place to live; to have access to the resources that are available. It’s just that people don’t always have the savvy [knowledge] to get the resources that are there for them,” said Cochran.

To read the entire article and watch the video, click here.

Belafonte preaches to the choir at Legal Aid’s 100th gala

Entertainer and human rights activist Harry Belafonte

From Maryland Legal Aid board member Erek Barron, Esq., in the Daily Record:

“The Maryland Legal Aid Bureau celebrated its centennial anniversary Saturday night in Baltimore and keynote speaker Harry Belafonte struck a beautiful chord. Both Belafonte and Legal Aid Executive Director Wilhelm Joseph actually sang together on stage,” Barron wrote in the “Generation J.D.” blog.

“Belafonte entertained the crowd but also offered serious sentiments stemming from his experience as an international human rights activist,” Barron continued. “The message was right on time for an organization reenergized around a human rights framework.

“Belafonte acknowledged that he was ‘preaching to the choir.’ But he quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, saying, “it’s important that you preach to the choir because if you don’t they could stop singing,” Barron wrote.

To read the entire post, click here.

(From left to right, Pamela and Harry Belafonte, Taria and Erek Barron.)


Tom Perez at 10th annual Murnaghan Lecture

U.S. Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez

The 10th annual Murnaghan Lecture, sponsored by the Public Justice Center, is 6 p.m. Wednesday, September 21, at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. This year’s lecturer is Tom Perez, a long-time friend of Maryland Legal Aid and currently the U.S. Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. Perez will discuss priorities, challenges and accomplishments of the division since he was sworn in in 2009. The lecture is free. For more information, 410/685-7664 or email

Legal Aid executive director interviewed by Daily Record

Legal Aid Executive Director Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr.

Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr., Maryland Legal Aid’s executive director, is featured in a print and video interview in today’s Daily Record.

“My dream is to have access to justice as available as milk and bread at the 7-Eleven,” [Joseph]  said during a conversation last week with Daily Record reporters and editors.

Using Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” as a guideline (all people are entitled to freedom of speech and of worship and freedom from want and from fear), Legal Aid is trying to attack the roots of its clients’ problems, making its advocacy more broad-based.

“It’s really about creating a society where we are more conscious about justice, where we behave in a way that is more respectful to people and inequities,” Joseph said.

To read the interview and see the video, click here.

Md. Access to Justice Commission supports “civil Gideon”

The Maryland Judiciary announces in a press release: “A ‘civil right to counsel,’ also referred to as Civil Gideon, extends the right to be represented by a lawyer in civil cases that deal with the most basic of human needs, such as shelter, sustenance, safety, health or child custody.

In a new report, the Maryland Access to Justice Commission notes that only about 22 percent of the civil legal needs of poor and low-income Maryland residents are being met. The Commission estimates that each year in Maryland, nearly 350,000 people appear in court proceedings involving basic human needs cases. These Marylanders, mostly individuals and families with low incomes, come to court without the benefit of counsel and usually without help from the existing voluntary legal services system. . . . The estimated cost for a program that assures lawyers for critical civil cases is $106.6 million, the Commission notes in the report.

The Commission also urges that the creation of a right to counsel initiative should not divert existing funding away from the current civil legal services delivery system, which includes approximately 35 organizations in Maryland providing some legal services in civil matters. The report tries to envision the amount of additional funding required to fulfill the mandate of a civil right to counsel in these critical types of cases. ‘Implementing a Civil Right to Counsel in Maryland,’ is part of the Commission’s latest annual report, which was published this month. It’s available online through the Commission’s website.