Liberty and justice for Tacomans jeopardized

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor.
U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor.

For a disabled veteran on the Olympic Peninsula, living in a double-wide mobile home in a quiet community close to the ocean was all he needed. He spent 12 years enjoying the scenery and his neighbors, until one day when a notice came in the mail.

His landlord claimed that in two months, it was time to go. The landlord said that when the man vacated, he’d have to leave behind the title of his mobile home.

The veteran turned to an organization that many Washingtonians go to when legal assistance seems out of reach – the Northwest Justice Project.

With just one call to NJP’s CLEAR-Senior line, experts figured out that the landlord had violated the Manufactured/Mobile Home Landlord-Tenant Act.

The veteran got legal representation through NJP’s Aberdeen office and got to stay in his home with affordable rent, plus a new well for continued water service.

This story ended happily.

Unfortunately, if President Trump gets his way, the assistance that NJP provides to women, men, and families who couldn’t otherwise get legal help would be harder to come by. Under a Trump budget, this veteran’s story may well have had a very different ending.

The president proposes elimination of the Legal Services Corporation, an organization that has been a lifeline to countless individuals – from the veteran preyed on by his landlord in Aberdeen, to a woman seeking domestic violence protection in Tacoma.

The Legal Services Corporation provides vital funding to the NJP, enabling it to provide civil legal aid in 18 locations, including Tacoma. Nationwide, this program directs $450 million toward equal access to justice.

The president has proposed completely eliminating it; his budget zeroes out its funding.

Civil legal aid can make all the difference in getting people their proper day in court. If someone is facing criminal charges, they have a constitutional right to an attorney. There isn’t the same standard in a civil case.

So if you have to show up at Pierce County District Court on a civil matter and can’t afford an attorney – good luck.

This has serious consequences. It has consequences for the family on the Hilltop who can’t take time off work but needs to resolve a dispute over a mortgage or risk foreclosure. It has consequences for the senior living in South Tacoma facing harassment from a collector over a bill already paid.

A lack of representation has consequences for the domestic abuse survivor who has to deal with a whole host of issues in court – like protection orders or child custody.

According to NJP, it helped more than 3,000 individuals last year in the district I represent – including cases involving 1,207 children, 363 seniors and 173 veterans.

The federal government has been a good partner for NJP. But if Trump’s proposal is adopted, this local effort would no longer get any federal help. That means people in need of civil legal aid, here in Tacoma and all across our state, would get less help, too.

Each morning, Congress begins its session with a prayer and the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Those concluding words – “Liberty and justice for all” – stand for something.

Our legal system shouldn’t deny justice to working families and veterans. Those on fixed incomes shouldn’t be cut out of our legal system.

The president made a lot of promises to folks who have been left behind. But his recent budget proposal fails to hear their voices.

Congress should pursue a smarter path that truly embraces liberty and justice for all.

Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, represents Washington’s 6th Congressional District. He is vice ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee and serves on the Commerce, Justice & Science Subcommittee.