Political Animal


March 16, 2013 1:38 PM This just in: CPAC’ers support more publicly funded lawyers for the poor. In other news, hell goes Methodist.

By Kathleen Geier

Conservatives supporting publicly subsidized lawyers for the poor? At the CPAC conference, yet? Wait, April Fool’s day is still two weeks away!

Over at Ten Miles Square, David Dagan has filed a report that is surprising, to say the least. At a panel on wrongful convictions, participants including the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Mark Levin and the Constitution Project’s Christopher Durocher strongly advocated for more public resources for public defenders. More amazing yet, the audience didn’t come after them with pitchforks. According to Dagan, they responded with nods and words of assent, and even an “amen.”

Interestingly, just yesterday the New York Times published an incredibly depressing story about how the so-called right of poor people to a lawyer has become a heap of smoking ruins. One source is quoted as saying that “Most Americans don’t realize that you can have your home taken away, your children taken away and you can be a victim of domestic violence but you have no constitutional right to a lawyer to protect you.” According to the article, “80 percent of the legal needs of the poor go unmet.” What’s particularly gauling is, in spite of this huge unmet need for legal services, many lawyers and recent law school grads can’t find jobs.

At the CPAC conference, participants were supporting conservative and libertarian-type solutions to fill poor people’s legal needs, such as vouchers and what sounds like quasi-privatization (mediation in lieu of regular court hearings). Still, it’s quite remarkable to hear conservatives supporting any spending on the poor whatsoever. Last year in the WaMo, Dagan and Steven Teles published this excellent article, which described a growing movement on the part of some right-wing operatives against the prison industrial complex. The conservative anti-prison activists have been primarily motivated by the desire to slash state budgets (and, of course, neutralize powerful public employees’ unions). But of course actively spending taxpayer dollars on poor people is something else altogether.

It’s hard for me to see conservatives en masse following the lead of these activists and forcefully supporting significant increases in legal services for the poor. It’s just not in the DNA of American conservatives to support government spending on poor people, I’m afraid. If they scream bloody murder over essentials like food and health care, why would they feel differently about lawyers? And wouldn’t said lawyers then become that dreaded class of so-called government dependents that conservatives so thoroughly despise?

But who knows; maybe we just need to peal off a few conservatives and that would be enough to form a legislative majority to secure funding. The conservative anti-prison movement in general is quite fascinating, and I strongly urge that you read the Dagan/Teles article to learn more about it. Now, if we could only get more Democrats on board for prison reform. I fear that Democrats have held back on these issues because too many of them are scared witless that they will be painted with outdated “soft on crime” stereotypes. But I think they’re wrong. As is often the case, voters are probably ahead of the politicians here.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • c u n d gulag on March 16, 2013 3:08 PM:


    Bowl me over with a half a hummingbird's feather!

    Conservatives rethinking legal help for the poor, and prison reform?
    Now, THERE are two things I can finally agree with these Conservatives on!!!

    I'd love to see us stop the idiotic, and costly (both in lives and money), "War on Drugs," and the continued privatization of prisons.

    The "public" NY State Maximum Security Prison I taught college courses in, from the '77 until Reagan stopped the program in '81, was bad enough!

    I shudder to think of what some corporate prison is like!

    Kind of like "Bedlam" meets a Debtors Prison, run on 'the cheap' - with CO's (Corrections Officers) who make the ones I had to deal with when I was teaching, look like MENSA members, in comparison.

    And here I thought every last drop of empathy had been squeezed out of people, in modern Conservatism?

    This can't be right.
    There MUST be a profit motive.
    What's the profit motive?
    Conservatives don't do ANYthing without some profit motive?

    What am I not thinking of?

  • Bill D. on March 16, 2013 3:19 PM:


    BTW, that's galling, pronounced like "Gauling". The latter is what the French do. ;-)

  • David Martin on March 16, 2013 3:50 PM:

    A famous video by congressman Broun of northern Georgia condemns to hell those preachers who practice baptism by anything other than dunking. So there's lots of Methodists in hell.

  • Frank Wilhoit on March 16, 2013 3:55 PM:

    This tracks perfectly with the conservative delusion of persecution.

  • Keith M Ellis on March 16, 2013 5:08 PM:

    I flat don't believe that this represents anything more than a fringe opinion within conservatism, CPAC panel notwithstanding.

    My guess is that this is a narrow conjunction of interests of libertarians and the fringe that is presently fearing jackbooted government arrests.

    These ideas when presented to CPAC and conservatism at large, however, would undoubtedly produce jeers and anger at the idea that poor criminal defendants are anything other than guilty and that money should be wasted for their benefit. There is almost nothing more fundamental to red-blooded American conservatism than the faith in the righteousness of police and prosecutors and that those they arrest and charge are almost without exception guilty. There are few that conservatives distrust more than criminal defense attorneys, perhaps especially so public defenders. This will not change.

  • RepubAnon on March 16, 2013 8:24 PM:

    Keith Ellis' thoughts are mine as well: conservatives would undoubtedly support government-funded lawyers - but only for the deserving. For example, the conservatives would undoubtedly support government-funded legal help for:
    * opposing gun control laws
    * seeking injunctions to prevent a woman from getting an abortion
    * seeking to require prayer in schools
    * any other cause near and dear to the conservative soul

    They certainly would NOT support government funded lawyers that might team up with bleeding heart liberal judges that might fail to convict some poor person of a crime. After all, they were arrested, so they must be guilty... if not of the crime they were accused of, then some other crime they got away with (or were plotting).

  • Diana W on March 16, 2013 8:28 PM:

    It's pretty obvious why this is happening. The racial composition of the U.S. prison population is changing. It used to be predominantly African American. Now, more and more white people, both men and women, are being incarcerated. Much of the increase is due to arrests involving the rapidly growing meth industry, which is predominantly operated by white people, many of them poor, uneducated, and living in rural areas with little opportunity for either jobs or education. They aren't the only people involved in meth, but they are a significant part of it. They turn to meth manufacturing as a way to make money. Needless to say, they have no resources for legal representation if they are arrested. As incarceration, on top of poverty and lack of opportunity impacts this population, they turn to their natural allies for help. The Democrats have done little or nothing to address this issue. The GOP won't either, but they have to start somewhere.

  • joel hanes on March 16, 2013 9:42 PM:

    Conservatives rethinking legal help for the poor, and prison reform?

    These are conservatives.
    The tacit subtext is "for religious white folk -- you know, for decent people".

  • exlibra on March 16, 2013 10:35 PM:

    Diana W, @8:28 PM has it pegged, and the "mystery" all solved. I live in the rural area (though in town) of a southern state. We have about 10-15% blacks (in the "cities", none larger than 7K; fewer out in the county), maybe 1% "all other minorities", and the rest are the whiter shade of pale. "My" free clinic sees one Indian family, two Hispanic ones, and maybe two-three black ones. At the weekly "community table" (free dinner), the only blacks you see are the two volunteer high school servers. Ditto for people who show up to pick up food there -- all whites. The weekly paper, reporting arrests, has 15-20 every week, mostly for drunk driving, check kiting and drugs. Since, by now, I've learnt the family names of most denizens, I know that those, too, are mostly white. IOW... Any money that goes towards getting the indigents lawyered up is not gonna go to "those people". So, yes, conservatives could be "for it"; for sure they know, personally, more jailbirds than gays.

    Besides... Obama hasn't proposed it yet :)

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on March 17, 2013 3:19 AM:

    There are some really good hypotheses upthread. The first thing to my mind was that they're just worried that they won't get to carry out all the executions they'd like because some meddling court might overturn or stay some for incompetent defense.

    But that rarely happens, and they have the SCOTUS stacked enough to appease their lust for blood, so the other ideas are probably right.

  • bluestatedon on March 17, 2013 8:16 AM:

    The paranoid nuts at CPAC are preparing for the onslaught of jack-booted U.N. thugs imposing Agenda 21 on the good white folk of America, and they're simply anticipating the legal need they'll have for defense attorneys.

  • paul on March 18, 2013 9:21 AM:

    Also, remember who "poor people" are in the CPAC view of things. Teachers making $60K a year are rich, but business owners and professionals making $250K a year are poor. And I bet some of them would very much like help, say, defending against EEOC or OSHA or USDA enforcement.