The ACLU and Rights of the Poor

Document Date: November 7, 2005

Defending poor peoples’ access to the courts is a high priority for the ACLU. In 1996 a conservative Congress led by Newt Gringrich slashed funding for the Legal Services Corporation and dramatically restricted the types of cases LSC attorneys could handle. Under Congress’ new rules, LSC lawyers could no longer represent poor people in class actions and they could not participate in any lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the newly passed welfare reform laws.

These restrictions, which deprive poor people of effective counsel, were challenged in court, and ultimately, the Supreme Court overturned the ban on challenging welfare reform laws, leaving for another day the final resolution of challenges to the other restrictions. The ACLU continues to lobby against the existing restrictions.

ACLU is also fighting for poor peoples’ right to effective counsel in criminal cases. Poor criminal defendants are entitled to effective legal counsel under the 6th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution, but in most states, the public defender agencies responsible for representing indigent criminal defendants are understaffed and underfunded.

Nationally recognized standards recommend that annual caseloads for attorneys not exceed 150 felonies, or 400 misdemeanors, or 200 juvenile cases. But in Pittsburgh, PA, for example, attorneys were being asked to handle between 600 and 1,100 cases per year. The ACLU brought a suit against Allegheny County, PA in 1996 and two years later, an historic settlement was reached requiring the public defender’s office to double in size. The ACLU brought a similar class action suit against the Connecticut public defender system which resulted in a favorable settlement in 1999.

Welfare laws and practices have often violated the rights of the poor, especially poor women and their children. The federal welfare reform law passed in 1996 is no exception. Under the law, states can deny welfare to any child born into a family already receiving welfare.

The ACLU is challenging these child exclusion laws in New Jersey and several other states as unconstitutional because they discriminate against children arbitrarily, based only on the circumstances of their birth, and they unconstitutionally coerce women’s reproductive decisions. The ACLU, working in coalition with other women’s and child welfare organizations, is also lobbying Congress to undo other serious flaws in the nation’s welfare laws that undermine the privacy and dignity of low-income families.

The promise of equal educational opportunity is a cornerstone of our democracy, but millions of poor and minority children in the US are receiving an inadequate education. The ACLU has brought several “educational equity” lawsuits charging states with violating their own state constitutional requirements that every child receive a “thorough and efficient” or a “minimum foundation of” public education.

In a suit against Louisiana, for example, we presented evidence that there were schools in which roofs leaked into classrooms, plumbing did not work, and fire code violations were pervasive. Some classrooms used science textbooks from the 1970s, and half the teachers were not certified to teach. Educational equity cases have also been brought in Connecticut, Alabama and Maryland.

Poor people face a myriad of problems in many areas of their lives. The Hyde Amendment, passed by Congress in 1976, excludes abortion from the comprehensive health care services provided to low-income people through Medicaid. Poor people with HIV are routinely denied access to homeless shelters. And the Supreme Court has ruled that a public housing tenant, who has committed no wrongdoing, can be evicted because a family member “engaged in drug related activities” off the premises. The ACLU is working to change these policies through litigation, lobbying, and public education.

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