White House budget proposal cuts legal services for low-income Alaskans

Some of Alaska Legal Services Corporation’s first attorneys. (Photo courtesy of ALSC.)

For the past 50 years, Alaska Legal Services Corporation has offered free legal help to low-income Alaskans. Cases have ranged from private matters, like guardianship designations and protective orders, to statewide issues such as building high schools in rural Alaska. President Donald Trump’s budget blueprint eliminates federal funding for legal services programs nationwide, which would have a direct impact on Alaskans.

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Alaska Legal Services Corporation started offering help with civil legal issues in 1967. Back then, volunteer lawyers fresh out of law school were sent around the state to work on cases like adoptions, divorces, and native land claims. One of the first was Chris Cooke, who arrived in Kotzebue in 1968.

“I don’t think there’d ever been a lawyer living in the community before, who was accessible to people,” he said.

The community taught him about life in the northwest Arctic, he said, and together they figured out the laws of the new state.

Eventually Cooke moved to Bethel to work as a paid staff attorney with the non-profit, and he started looking into issues around schooling. The state didn’t provide high schools in rural communities because of the cost, so students were forced to choose between leaving their families to attend boarding schools or stopping their education.

“You know the system made a certain amount of sense from a cost standpoint,” Cooke said. “But from a human standpoint, it didn’t.”

He was one of the original lawyers on the Molly Hootch case in 1972, which led to a settlement with the state and the construction of rural high schools.

“Sometimes you’re just serving the direct, immediate needs of an individual client that comes into your office,” said about his time with ALSC. “But sometimes serving those needs can also have a broader impact.”

The non-profit and its 12 offices around the state serve about 6,000 low-income Alaskans every year. They turn away half of the applicants who seek help because of a lack of funding. Just over a fifth of the organization’s $5 million annual budget comes from the federally-funded Legal Services Corporation.

This year’s White House budget proposal cuts funding for the Legal Service Corporation across the nation. The cut is promoted by the Heritage Foundation, a DC-based conservative think tank. Last year, Legal Services Corporation received $385 million. The Congressional Budget Office does not make recommendations about funding programs.

ALSC Executive Director Nikole Nelson said the proposed cut could have a significant impact in Alaska. “That’s our backbone core funding and we use it to leverage other funding which are keeping our rural offices open.” They also rely on local contributions and some state funding.

Nelson explained that unlike in criminal cases, in civil matters people do not have a constitutional right to legal representation. They have to find it themselves, but many cannot afford to pay an attorney.

Nelson said eliminating assistance options is unjust. “The rule of law and the way that a democracy operates is to make sure that the laws are enforced equally for all people, not just people who can afford an attorney.”

One of the people who turned to ALSC this past year was Hilda Jacobs, who needed custody of her 12-year-old grandson, Aiden.

At her home in east Anchorage, Jacobs walked slowly through her living room, oxygen cord dragging behind her. Her scoliosis reduced her lung capacity. “It’s hard to get around,” she said. “Takes me a hard time to catch my breath.”

But she gets by, she said, in part because of her grandson. “I’m very proud of him. He’s my baby,” she said, then laughed. “He doesn’t like to be called that.”

Jacobs has raised Aiden on and off since he was little, but without legal custody it was hard to get him to medical appointments or give him permission for activities at school. His mother lives across town and doesn’t have the means to care for him. His father is out of the picture.

Jacobs is on disability and couldn’t afford a lawyer on her own, so last May she sought the help of ALSC to get full custody of the boy. The process was finalized this winter. Without ALSC, “I wouldn’t have been able to get custody of him. And that would have broke my heart,” she said.

The organization also helps coordinate pro bono services with private attorneys and has AmeriCorps volunteers stationed at native hospitals and clinics around the state.