Members of the American Bar Association flocked to Capitol Hill last week for ABA Day, an annual event that gives participants an opportunity to lobby their members of Congress for improved civil legal services, adequate funding of the judiciary and ample filling of judicial vacancies.
ABA representatives, including a small team from Wisconsin, visited congressional offices from April 17 to 18.
Positive news came from Wisconsin’s Senate offices on Wednesday, as both Senator Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin announced that they had agreed to establish a Wisconsin Federal Nominating Commission to fill vacant federal judge positions in the state.
Filling judicial vacancies was considered an ABA Day priority and important piece of Wisconsin’s lobbying agenda. Two of Wisconsin’s three vacancies are classified as judicial emergencies because the positions have been vacant for a substantial amount of time and have seen an overabundance of weighted filings. The ABA wanted advocates to make sure congress was cognizant of the importance of a fully staffed judiciary.
Full funding for Legal Services Corporation (LSC) was the target issue for all ABA Day participants this year. LSC is the largest single provider of funding to civil legal assistance programs in the United States. Wisconsin has two LSC grantees: Legal Action of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Judicare.
Katie Stenz is the public affairs coordinator with the State Bar of Wisconsin. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at (608) 250-6145.
ABA Day advocates were prompted to point out that funding for LSC has been significantly cut over the past few years. In 2010, funding was at an all-time high at $420 million, but is now funded at $340 million (post-sequestration). According to ABA research, Wisconsin has seen a 58 percent increase in the number of residents who qualify for legal aid since 2000.
The ABA noted that more than 15 percent of the state’s population qualifies for low-income legal assistance, and that this year, the program can only afford to assist those whose annual income does not exceed $14,362.
ABA participants also asked legislators to consider an increase in federal court funding for fiscal year 2014. Due to sequestration, the federal judiciary budget is down $350 million, which affects funding provided to the U.S. District Courts in the Eastern and Western districts of Wisconsin and the federal public defender system, which has seen $43 million in cuts in 2013.
The Federal Defender Services of Wisconsin – the agency whose lawyers represent criminal defendants facing federal charges – was forced to lay off 22 percent of its workforce due to cuts from the federal judiciary. Now the remaining employees must take 22 unpaid furlough days to make it through the rest of the fiscal year.
The Wisconsin group reported that they received encouraging responses from all the congressional offices they visited.