Hanging up his political hat — if only for the moment — former congressman and politico Artur Davis has a new role as the executive director of Legal Services Alabama.
Serving low-income Alabamians in all 67 counties, LSA is a “public interest law group” that offers a number of free legal services on civil issues, such as consumer litigation, domestic violence cases and benefits challenges, as well as tax assistance.
It’s also one of the 134 independent nonprofit legal aid programs receiving federal funding from the Legal Services Corp. and the only such program in the state of Alabama, where nearly 19 percent of residents live below the poverty line.“I think the best legal service organizations around the country all have the perspective that we’re trying to fight poverty,” Davis told Lagniappe. “If you’re serious about fighting poverty, you have to understand that poverty has roots — people don’t just wake up poor. But if we can attack those roots working with other organizations, then we can really have an impact.”
For LSA, that impact is made in the courtroom, where Davis said attorneys fight for “people’s right to be heard.” In 2016, the organization worked more than 13,600 cases through its seven statewide offices, including the one in Mobile.
While LSA employs it own attorneys, it also passes funding to volunteer lawyer organizations that work with low-income residents at no cost or, in some cases, at a reduced rate. LSA serves those within 126 percent of the federal poverty line, which for a family of four is an annual income of roughly $30,600 and around $15,000 for an individual.
For those fleeing domestic violence or who need guidance in civil matters such as bankruptcy, paying for the services of a knowledgeable lawyer can be a benefit that, for many, just isn’t attainable.
“If you’re charged with a criminal offense you’re guaranteed a lawyer, and that’s a very important protection and an important part of who we are as a country. However, we have never guaranteed that right to representation in civil court,” Davis said. “Legal Services Corp. nationally and LSA exist so that we can represent those people who aren’t constitutionally mandated to have a lawyer but whose livelihoods — and I would argue the integrity of our system — rely on them having that representation.”
Davis said having access to an attorney can substantially improve outcomes, not only for LSA clients but for the entire court system, by preventing situations where those representing themselves might “create impediments to the resolution of a case, even when acting in good faith.”
During his stop in Mobile last week, Davis met with local LSA staff members and with other partnering organizations — Mobile Inner City Mission, Catholic Social Services, Housing First Inc. and others — all of which Davis said the organization depends on for fundraising, joint grant initiatives and client recommendations.
Anne Y. Brown, the supervising attorney in Mobile’s LSA office, told Lagniappe the local staff is excited about the “vision and leadership” Davis brings to the organization as a former U.S. Attorney, congressman and civil rights lawyer.
Only two months into the role, Davis said he’s already established a “high-impact litigation unit” comprising lawyers who have a propensity to pursue cases that “have a systemic impact on bad law and bad policies.”
He said his vision also includes LSA getting more involved in legal issues surrounding “educational access” as well as cases involving payday lending services, provided state legislators pass the long-discussed regulatory reforms for that industry.
After a defeat in the city of Montgomery’s 2015 mayoral race, Davis remained out of the spotlight until accepting the position with LSA late last year. When asked whether he has any lingering political ambitions, Davis said “one condition” of taking a job with LSA is that he “can’t talk politics in any kind of an official setting,” adding that an on-the-record interview is “close enough to count.”
“Ultimately, I went into politics to serve people, and right now this is a frontline of service in this state,” he added. “I think if you talk to any of the other congressmen in our state, they will tell you that a significant amount of the constituent services they provide are to people who really are just in need of some type of legal assistance. One of the things I learned as a congressman is that this is a huge, unmet need.”
That said, Davis acknowledged the work the organization can do is defined by the directives and funding that come from the federal government. Last year, the budget for the Legal Services Corp. jumped to $385 million and around $6.2 million of that came to Alabama.
However, early reports out of Washington suggest President Donald Trump’s budget recommendation will include substantial cuts and could follow a Heritage Foundation blueprint that would eliminate the Legal Services Corp. altogether.
“Make no mistake — we derive about 90 percent of our funding from that federal allocation. We’re completely dependent on it,” Davis said. “What might seem like a small cut on paper could translate to hundreds of thousands of dollars for our program.”
Despite the effect a cut of any size could have, Davis said he isn’t too worried yet, adding that the work LSA does is something “Democrats and Republicans ought to value.” The program has managed to secure funding for 43 years under presidents spanning Richard Nixon to Barack Obama. It’s also enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress for most of that time.
Finally, Davis added that the Heritage Foundation has “recommended Legal Service Corp. be abolished for about 35 years” and has “about an 0-35 track record, so far.”
“There’s a lot of recent prognostications that haven’t exactly come true politically, and we understand that, but I feel comfortable saying there’s strong support for the program, and I don’t think anything that happened in November changes that,” he said. “I like to think that support for veterans, seniors, victims of domestic violence and single mothers is something that extends well beyond one political party, and I’m confident that it is.”