Rep. Fred Upton reaffirms commitment to support for legal aid providers

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

U.S. Representative Fred Upton, the keynote speaker for One Billable Hour, a fund-raising luncheon for Legal Aid of Western Michigan (LAWM), told a roomful of legal aid supporters at The BOB Monday about the fight to continue funding for the national Legal Services Corporation (LSC).

LAWM and other legal aid agencies across the U.S. receive funds to help them represent their lower-income clients through grants from the LSC. Upton pledged to continue his support whenever such funding is threatened.

Upton is from Michigan’s 6th Congressional District, which spans the Michigan-Indiana border along the Western corner of the state. As detailed in the July 20 Grand Rapids Legal News, Rep. Upton co-chairs (with another Republican and two Democrats)  the Congressional Access to Civil Legal Services Caucus.

Introducing Upton was Harold Schuitmaker, a Kalamazoo-area (Paw Paw) attorney who has known both Upton and LAWM Board Chair Paul Vlachos, also a Kalamazoo attorney, for decades, and even knew both of their parents before them.

Schuitmaker, who said that both families have exhibited the highest ethics and compassion, is also the father of lawmaker Tonya Schuitmaker, now seeking the Attorney General nomination from the Republican Party. He added that Fred Upton grew up with dozens of foster children taken in by his parents, which “helps put a different perspective on life.”

Congressman Upton explained that the bipartisan Access to Civil Legal Services Caucus was formed in 2015 to protect the LSC, a private non-membership non-profit organization. Though a good percentage of LAWM’s funding is from donations, the LSC?provides substantial funds to Michigan’s legal aid agencies.

Rep. Upton said that not only was the caucus successful in countering the Trump administration’s suggestion of completely eliminating the LSC’s financial support, they actually managed to increase the available funding in the budget covering the next two years, through the end of FY 2019 on September 30, 2019.

“There were 190 of us – that’s not a majority, but close – who signed a letter asking for a robust budget for legal aid. Every one of the Michigan Supreme Court Justices wrote asking for the funding, and they should be given credit for that,” Rep. Upton said. “We know the facts here in Michigan in terms of legal aid’s mighty impact to help the truly less fortunate.”

Upton took the last few minutes of his discourse to talk about the urgent need for immigration reform in order to eliminate tragic stories such as the recent deportation of a three-tour veteran and father, and the plight of two sisters taken in by Bethany Christian Services, one of whom said she planned to kill her younger sister and then herself if human traffickers followed through with their threats to kidnap the girls.

The congressman said that he was very moved by the testimonials he heard from LAWM clients involved in two cases, Denise Stewart O’Neal and Renee Dover/Lisa Smith. “I have two district offices and their phones are abuzz all the time with constituent problems. I really appreciate being able to refer them to the lawyers at Legal Aid.”

Stewart O’Neal told of returning from a four-year stint in prison, a changed woman, to find that her husband would not allow her into the house. She could not have afforded to divorce him and recover her belongings from the marriage without the assistance of LAWM.

Her assigned pro bono attorney, Diane Wechter of Diane J. Wechter Attorney at Law PLLC, which focuses on family law and mediation/arbitration of family law cases, not only helped her obtain a divorce with fair terms and rescue the house her husband had failed to make payments on, but also gave the returning citizen valuable life advice. For example, she suggested putting the money from the divorce property settlement into staggered Certificates of Deposit so that Stewart O’Neal could budget and not just have “a big pile of money.”

Turning to Wechter, who accompanied her to the podium, Stewart O’Neal said, “God knows what you need and God will put the right people in your life at the right time. Ms. Wechter, you have been such a blessing to me. You have a beautiful heart,” and the two shared a warm hug.

The other testimonial came from Renee Dover, a young woman with mental disabilities, and her mother Lisa Smith. When Smith and Dover’s father were looking at retirement due to his health, they realized that the money they were contributing to Dover’s support would make that challenging. When they sought legitimate disability support for Dover, it was denied. “That was when we met our guardian angel, Mary Spiegel,” said Smith.

LAWM staff attorney Mary LaSata Spiegel, who is the managing attorney in the St. Joseph office, was able to get Dover her rightful benefits, and her father has now been able to retire. “Please continue to support Legal Aid of Western Michigan,” Smith said in closing to the hundreds gathered at the event.

Vlachos, who served as master of ceremonies, started out by congratulating local attorneys, saying that the average contribution (in money and time) throughout the state of Michigan was $26 per attorney, whereas in West Michigan it is $56 per attorney.

However, LAWM Executive Director Juan Salazar said that there is still much unmet need. As LAWM is closing in on 40,000 cases since its inception, Salazar said that they estimate they are only able to offer full help to about 19% of those who need it and are qualified. (This is slightly better than estimates by LSC?in 2017 that 86% of needs were unmet in the “poor” population, those at 125% of the national poverty level.)

LAWM, which has offices in Grand Rapids, Holland, Kalamazoo, Muskegon, and St. Joseph, services the whole western half of the state. There are over 30 staff attorneys, and more than 100 private attorneys volunteer their time each year to assist. (To join them, visit www.lawestmi.org and email Paul Abrahamsen.) 

After Rep. Upton spoke, LAWM Director of Community Collaboration Pamela Hoekwater told the attorneys that they can donate to the Access to Justice fund of the State Bar and have it go directly to LAWM if they specifically dedicate it to LAWM at the time of making out the check.

It is also possible to donate by visiting the website above and clicking on the Donate button on the home page, or by emailing Lacy Cook at lcook@legalaidwestmich.net.

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