Rite of Spring
ABA’s lobbying push on Capitol Hill focuses on access-to-justice issues
Posted May 1, 2009 6:10 PM CST
By Rhonda McMillion
In an event that has become as reliable a ritual of spring in Washington, D.C., as the blossoming of the cherry trees lining the Tidal Basin, hundreds of lawyers representing the ABA made their way up Capitol Hill in late April to engage legislators face to face on issues of importance to the nation’s justice system.
But this year’s version of ABA Day in Washington had a special urgency.
The United States is mired in a recession that shows no signs of ending soon, and the legal system is feeling the financial pinch even as more individuals and families seek legal assistance on a variety of problems linked to the economy. Meanwhile, the new Obama administration and a 111th Congress with more than 60 freshman members are seeking to bring stability to the economy at the same time that they tackle a full slate of other issues—including many of great significance to the justice system.
“This year more than ever before it is crucial for Congress to hear directly from bar leaders as constituents,” says Laurel G. Bellows, a principal at Bellows and Bellows in Chicago who chairs the 2009 ABA Day planning committee.
Participation by state, local and specialty bars has been a key to the growth of the ABA’s annual lobbying blitz on Capitol Hill, which now spans three days. Some 300 bar leaders from around the country participated in this year’s event held April 21-23.
In 2006, the ABA established the grassroots advocacy awards to recognize lobbying efforts by bars and individual lawyers. In Washington, ABA President H. Thomas Wells Jr. of Birmingham, Ala., presented this year’s awards to the Alabama Law Foundation, the Chicago Bar Association/Chicago Bar Foundation, Richard T. Cassidy and Mark G. Sessions. Cassidy is a director at Hoff, Curtis, Pacht, Cassidy, Frame, Somers & Katims in Burlington, Vt.; Sessions is the owner of NovaTel Ltd., near San Antonio.
The ABA also recognized four members of Congress for their specific efforts to improve the U.S. justice system: Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Blanche L. Lincoln, D-Ark.; and Reps. Spencer T. Bachus, R-Ala., and Melvin L. Watt, D-N.C.
ABA Day is co-sponsored by the National Association of Bar Executives, the National Conference of Bar Presidents, the Young Lawyers Division and the Section Officers Conference of the ABA.
Reflecting current domestic concerns, ABA Day participants focused their lobbying efforts on access-to-justice issues, including:
Legal Services Corp. The LSC, which supports local offices that represent poor people on civil legal matters, has been woefully underfunded for more than 20 years. The ABA is urging Congress to reauthorize the LSC and approve a significant funding increase this year in light of the economic problems affecting more low-income families.
Group legal services benefits. The ABA is urging Congress to enact bipartisan legislation that would restore the favorable tax treatment for group legal services plans that are available to many low- and moderate-income workers through their employers. Under the legislation, the pretax status of legal services benefits would be made permanent.
Legal assistance for military families. The ABA supports legislation in Congress to guarantee that low-income members of the military and their dependents have access to legal assistance as an element of battle-readiness and morale.
Immigration cases. The ABA supports legislative proposals to help increase access to counsel and legal information for immigration detainees, which include increased funding for the Legal Orientation Program administered by the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review.
“With a new Congress and administration,” says Bellows, “this is an important time to establish relationships with new members and staff, so that we can continue to advocate to restore funding for the Legal Services Corp. and to help Americans struggling through this economic crisis to address their legal needs.”
This column is written by the ABA Governmental Affairs Office and discusses advocacy efforts by the ABA relating to issues being addressed by Congress and the executive branch of the federal government.
Rhonda McMillion is editor of Washington Letter, an ABA Governmental Affairs Office Publication.