Although it amounts to a mere sneeze in a gale compared to the entire state operating budget, Gov. Frank Murkowski's veto of a $62,500 grant appropriated to the nonprofit Alaska Legal Services Corp. was the correct move, Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, said Tuesday.
The corporation uses assorted grants and pro bono work by volunteer attorneys to handle civil cases for poor Alaskans. Cases include matters of family law, such as divorce, custody, child support and domestic violence, as well as cases involving housing, consumer issues, government benefits, health, wills and probates, Native allotments, subsistence and Indian or Tribal law. The agency does not handle criminal cases, accident claims, personal injury or wrongful death cases, nor does it represent prisoners.
Executive Director Andy Harrington, who works out of the Fairbanks office, said the loss of the state grant would pinch the agency's $3 million budget and conceivably could mean closing one of the eight offices around the state.
Twenty years ago, the ALS enjoyed a Legislative appropriation of around $1.2 million. Appropriation levels have declined steadily over time, Harrington said, but there had always been something.
State lawmakers this year, however, pushed the annual appropriation still closer to oblivion, cutting in half the $125,000 fiscal year 2004 grant. The governor's decision to eliminate the grant entirely didn't bother Wagoner.
"I totally agree on that specific issue," he said Tuesday. "If a person is indigent and is charged with a crime, they get an appointed attorney. A large majority of cases handled by Alaska Legal Services are civil and a large part of those are cases against the state."
He said he has a philosophical problem with the state funding an agency that may turn around and sue the state. Taking care of grievances between individuals and the state is what the Office of the Ombudsman is for, Wagoner said.
Harrington, who said the Ombudsman's office isn't being funded adequately either, took issue with the grant cut and Murkowski's justification that it wasn't a state responsibility.
"The governor hasn't had much experience at being an indigent Alaskan," Harrington said. "It's clearly the case that providing access to justice is very much at the core of what state government has to do."
Alaskans using the services of the nonprofit legal firm often face daunting odds and are at a distinct disadvantage without qualified legal help, Harrington said.
"Folks who come to us are those about to lose their shelter, they've had kids snatched by abusive spouses, they're losing their access to medical aid, or they're people ripped off by out-of-state big businesses," he said. "I'm proud of the fact that Alaskans support the Public Defender agency, but I wish Alaskans would do right by citizens who have not been charged with a crime."
Poor people don't get court-appointed lawyers in civil court as they might in the criminal justice system. Having no lawyer, they often represent themselves. Lack of familiarity with court rules and the law itself can serve to bog down court proceedings and even deny judges the information they might need to reach fair decisions, Harrington said.
"Access to justice on the civil side is at least as important as access to justice on the criminal side," he said.
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