GOP Refusal To Restore Funds For Legal Services A Denial Of Justice For New Jersey’s Poor

Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee Vice Chair Brian P. Stack, D-Hudson, taking notes on the FY 2011 Budget on the Senate floor.

TRENTON – Senate Republicans today voted in lock-step to preserve the governor’s $10.6 million cut to legal services and clinics for the poor, a move that will prevent poor residents from being able to defend themselves from eviction, job discrimination and may even block victims of domestic violence from seeking justice against their abusers.

“Without proper representation, the legal rights of low-income New Jerseyans will be in serious danger,” said Senator Brian Stack, who led the effort to override the governor’s $10 million line-item veto for Legal Services. “Barring access to the courtroom to any resident is justice denied.”

“The lawyers of Legal Services are not ambulance chasers, they are not seeking profit – they are simply seeking justice for residents who are at the greatest risk of being taken advantage of,” said Senator Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic). “The governor is doing a tremendous disservice to residents who are in crisis, and the Senate Republicans are letting him get away with it. The only thing that makes this even worse is that the governor spitefully cut twice the amount that Democrats sought to put in, setting Legal Services backwards.”

The senators noted that the governor’s cut to Legal Services included not only the $5 million in additional funding Democrats sought in the budget the Legislature passed June 29, but also eliminated an additional $5 million the governor had included in his original proposal in February.

The governor also eliminated $600,000 in total funding for three legal clinics operated by the state’s law schools: Rutgers-Camden ($200,000 cut), Rutgers-Newark ($200,000 cut) and Seton Hall University ($200,000 cut). In clinical work, law students under the direction of a professor provide free legal services to poor residents, receiving course credit in the process. Students conduct research, draft arguments and present in court. State support for the clinics helps offset costs for research and investigation, and court and filing fees.

“The ability to have a lawyer by your side to fight your case and protect your rights is not a luxury,” said Senator and former Gov. Richard J. Codey (D-Essex). “Our legal clinics are a vital part of our system of justice, and have ensured that those who have the least can be on equal ground with anyone in a court of law. Justice is blind, but sadly, this governor has turned a blind eye to countless residents at the greatest risk of seeing their basic rights eroded, and who have no other way to fight back.”

Rutgers School of Law-Camden operates four legal clinics: the Child and Family Advocacy Clinic, Children’s Justice Clinic, Civil Practice Clinic, and Domestic Violence Clinic. The clinics provide legal services to the poor regarding public benefits, education, immigration, medical and mental health issues, delinquency problems, domestic violence, and other general, civil and non-criminal legal issues.

“Law clinics are not a bunch of students trying to be Perry Mason, they are training grounds for tomorrow’s attorneys and provide basic legal services to residents who otherwise would have no way to afford representation,” said Senator Fred Madden (D-Gloucester/Camden). “In one of the country’s poorest cities, the clinic at Rutgers-Camden has ensured that the scales of justice have remained balanced for residents.”

The clinical program at Rutgers School of Law-Newark includes seven clinics: the Child Advocacy Clinic, Community-Law Clinic, Constitutional Litigation Clinic, Environmental Law Clinic, Federal Tax Law Clinic, Special Education Law Clinic, and Urban Legal Clinic. The clinics provide services on issues of housing, consumer protection, bankruptcy, matrimonial and family law, employment law, Social Security Income benefits for children, disability law, special education law, and environmental law. The clinic is one of the first programs in the country to provide free transactional legal services and counseling to public interest oriented small businesses, non-profits, community development corporations and charter schools.

“Without this funding, Rutgers-Newark’s professors and aspiring attorneys will have to spend their time seeking out private funds, rather than providing an essential service to the community and vital training to students,” said Senator Bob Gordon (D-Bergen). “Residents who are being discriminated against will now face an even steeper climb to have their cases heard.”

Students at Seton Hall’s School of Law work in one of seven clinical areas: Civil Litigation, Civil Rights and Constitutional Litigation, Family Law, Equal Justice, Immigrants’ Rights/ International Human Rights, Impact Litigation, and Juvenile Justice. These clinics focus on education, housing, child support, domestic violence, discrimination, immigration, and many other critical issues.

The four override votes all failed by party-line 24-15 votes.