(This post was first published on WGBH News.)
by Lonnie Powers
There has seldom been a time when the wisdom of John Adams’s separation of powers among the three branches of government has been more obvious. The doctrine was a crucial innovation of the Massachusetts Constitution and was incorporated into the United States Constitution. The first two months of the new presidential administration have demonstrated the necessity of our system of checks and balances on arbitrary power. Thus far, only the judicial branch has acted as an effective deterrent to the administration’s extraordinary, unrestrained style of governance. The courts have courageously insisted on fidelity to the rule of law.
This was illustrated dramatically in January, when President Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants, refugees, and visitors from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the country. No warning or guidance was given ahead of time to federal personnel charged with enforcing the ban, which went into effect immediately after it was signed. As a result, legal residents of the U.S. who had been traveling overseas were detained or turned away at airports across the country.
Attorneys flocked to airports, providing free legal aid to individuals and families swept up in the ban. This legal assistance was, in many cases, the difference between people with visas and green cards being allowed into the country or having their lives and livelihoods cast into limbo.
Within days, the ACLU, state attorneys general and individual attorneys won injunctions against the ban in federal courts in Massachusetts, New York and Washington State.
Even with this important check from the judiciary, we have seen alarming cracks in the system. At some airports, Customs and Border Protection agents refused to obey court orders issuing a stay on the ban. And President Trump used his Twitter account to attack a judge who issued a stay on the ban, referring to him as a “so-called judge” and accusing him of putting the country in “peril” with his order. The tweets resulted in threats being directed toward the judge.
Nevertheless, when the Trump administration sought to implement a more narrow travel ban in March, the judiciary responded yet again. Attorneys General of Hawaii and Maryland won court injunctions to stop it, with judges ruling that the ban continues to impose a religious test on those wishing to enter the U.S. Opposition to the religion-based, unconstitutional travel ban is the starkest example yet of the important role our independent judiciary and strong legal profession are playing in the current political environment. They have been fighting on multiple fronts—and readying themselves for more work to come.
Attorneys general in numerous states have sued to prevent the Trump administration from dismantling the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which protects consumers by taking action against companies that engage in unfair, deceptive, or abusive business practices. They are also suing to preserve the federal program that reduces harmful emissions from trucks and to prevent the federal government from resurrecting a national accrediting agency that permitted for-profit schools, such as ITT Tech and Corinthian Colleges, to defraud students.
The Trump administration is also proposing to eliminate funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the federal agency that makes grants to civil legal aid organizations across the country. Just as attorneys helped cut through the chaos created by the Muslim ban, legal aid lawyers untangle smaller-scale but no less devastating non-criminal legal matters like home foreclosure, the denial of veterans’ benefits, dangerous working conditions, or domestic violence by negotiating on behalf of low-income clients or helping them navigate our complex civil court system.
With Trump’s proposed budget that seeks to drastically cut funding to, or eliminate completely, an array of federal agencies and popular programs that help underserved communities and low-income families and individuals, Americans who are already struggling to make ends meet will be squeezed even further. If a fraction of the proposed cuts are enacted, the need for legal representation within these marginalized groups will increase sharply. For families living one paycheck away from homelessness, or a child on the edge of catastrophic illness, civil legal assistance can have outsized influence on the ability to live independently and with dignity in the face of increased hardship.
Sensing the catastrophic potential of leaving low-income Americans to navigate our complicated legal, government, and regulatory systems on their own, the American Bar Association (ABA) is mobilizing the legal community in a grassroots campaign aimed at encouraging lawmakers to preserve the LSC and with it our country’s commitment to making access to justice available to all in our nation who need it.
As the last two months have taught us, the legal system is critical to our democracy.
Lonnie Powers is executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.