Nichol: Weird legal aid maneuver another instance of high-handed NC lawmaking

Perhaps the largest gap between our words and our deeds occurs in the legal system. Despite our paeans to equal justice, huge percentages of Americans are locked out of the civil litigation process because they can’t pay the fare.

To briefly make the point, last year the World Justice Project’s massive Rule of Law Study, reviewing adjudication practices across the globe, again gave the United States an “F” in access to justice – placing us last among the 20 wealthy democracies. The authors explained “socioeconomic status matters far more in the U.S. than in other countries.” Poor people are placed at massive and debilitating disadvantage.

So I was disappointed, though not surprised, when late in the last legislative session, without explanation or fanfare, North Carolina’s already-modest support for legal aid was cut substantially.

More recently, though, when poring through the dense language of the budget bill, I found something that took me aback. Beginning in October, “as a condition of continued funding,” Legal Aid of North Carolina is required “to file a quarterly report to the chairs of the Appropriations Committees on cases filed (and providing) detailed information of investigations” undertaken by their respective offices.

The “investigations” report “shall include a list of site visits by legal aid personnel with sufficient information, even in the case of confidential (matters), to identify the nature of the visit and type of site visited.”

There’s a good deal that’s weird about this.

First, the law seems to demand that lawyers for poor people violate attorney-client privilege by offering “confidential information” up to the government.

Second, three major service providers receive state funds to represent poor folks in North Carolina: Pisgah Legal Services (Asheville), Legal Services of Southern Piedmont (Charlotte) and Legal Aid of North Carolina (statewide). The new reporting requirement applies only to the last – LANC.

Third, all of our legal services offices are swamped, understaffed and able to serve only a small percentage of those who seek their protections. They aren’t administrative or enforcement agencies of the government. “Site visits” and “detailed” field “investigations” aren’t part of the portfolio.

So, what gives?

The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee who introduced both the cuts and the creative reporting requirement is Brent Jackson of Autryville. He’s the Senate’s only farmer. The News & Observer reports: “Jackson Farming grows, packs, ships and brokers fruit and vegetables grown in this and several other states.” The Republican senator has “benefitted heavily from agribusiness financial contributions and has become their flag-bearer.”

And what, you might ask, does that have to do with Legal Aid of North Carolina? LANC runs a federally funded program called the “Farmworker Unit” – a statewide project committed to providing high quality civil legal services to migrant and seasonal farmworkers in North Carolina. The Farmworker Unit, according to its website, represents individual farmworkers, advising them of their rights and helping them get what the law requires. Shades of Cesar Chavez. Mystery solved.

Pisgah Legal Services and Legal Services of Southern Piedmont don’t have farmworker programs. This explains their free ride from reporting demands (though, of course, they were treated to the budget cuts).

Jackson apparently has a thing for the Farmworker Unit. He’s also delighted to use the powers of government to find out what his adversaries are up to.

This is potently illustrative of the high-handedness that now skews North Carolina government.

If you don’t like the way some folks vote, make it harder for them to cast their franchise.

If you don’t like the outcome of local elections, pre-empt the powers of municipal and county governments.

And if farmworkers win a case or two, take away their lawyers and exclude them from the justice system.

It’s not enough that the poorest and most marginalized have almost no rights. It remains crucial, apparently, to assure they can’t actually exercise the thin protections they do have.

It has become almost trademark: the powerful and connected, using their privilege, deploying the levers of state authority to step on the necks of those at the bottom. Excluding even the fundamentals of participation, in rejection of the American promise.

Huey Long might not have liked the substance of our legislature’s decision-making. But he sure would have admired the process.

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor at the UNC School of Law. He doesn’t speak for UNC.