Governor’s veto leaves many Alaskans without access to free legal help

This massive seal of the state of Alaska hangs on April 19, 2018, behind the dais where Alaska Supreme Court justices hear cases in the Boney Courthouse in Anchorage.
The seal of the State of Alaska hangs in the Boney Courthouse in Anchorage. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Among Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s recent budget vetoes was $400,000 for the Alaska Legal Services Corporation, a private, nonprofit organization that provides free civil legal aid to Alaskans. That’s a huge cut in state funding for an organization devoted solely to providing free legal aid to low-income Alaskans.

Nikole Nelson, executive director of Alaska Legal Services Corporation, says the civil justice gap is deep and broad, and it has a big impact on the community.

Private attorneys can cost several hundred dollars an hour. That’s out of reach for many Alaskans.

“There’s just a real lack of knowledge out there about how difficult it is for regular people to get access to civil legal help. And, this is a really complicated time,” Nelson said.

One woman, Rhonda, says her attorney came from Alaska Legal Services Corporation and she’s thankful for the legal help.

“The situation was very hard for me, emotionally,” she said.

Rhonda says her now ex-husband was an alcoholic and drug addict. He frequently became angry, verbally and emotionally abusive and threatened her with weapons.

In one instance, he threatened to shoot Rhonda and their young child when she tried calling 911. She escaped when he turned his back.

“I took that moment to get away from him. I grabbed my jacket and keys and just quickly slipped out, and got in the car and left,” Rhonda said.

He was arrested, but Rhonda says he repeatedly bailed out of jail and violated his conditions of release by contacting her.

A women’s shelter referred her to an attorney at ALSC who quickly drafted a long-term protective order and got it before a judge. Rhonda says the attorney also drew up a will so that if anything happened to her, then her child would be placed in the custody of a trusted and caring friend instead of her ex-husband.

ALSC provides services for people, like Rhonda, who need assistance.

They may need help, for example, escaping their abuser or filing for child support. Or, a senior may need help with a power of attorney, an Alaska Native veteran might need help applying for a land allotment, or a tenant faces eviction. Sometimes those landlord-tenant issues can even be resolved before going to court.

Nelson says all those needs fall disproportionately on people of color.

“About 45% of the individuals that we represent are Alaska Native people,” Nelson said.

Community education is also a big part of Alaska Legal Services Corporation. They run a regular call-in helpline on landlord-tenant issues and hold online clinics focused on pandemic rent relief and the eviction moratorium.

Ryan Fortson says it was satisfying working on tenant and domestic violence cases when he was at Alaska Legal Services Corporation earlier in his career.

“I wanted to get a position where I felt that I could make more of a difference and help people that needed help that couldn’t necessarily afford legal assistance,” Forston said.

Rhonda had a favorable outcome because she had an experienced attorney who knew the law and knew exactly what to do, and there’s research that essentially backs that up. Fortson is now an associate professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Justice Center. In looking at divorce and child custody cases in Palmer a few years ago, he says they discovered that a parent was more likely to get the custody arrangement they sought if they had an attorney and the other parent did not.

“On average, the lawyer is going to be able to have some influence on the court and on the final decision,” Fortson said.

In an opinion piece in the Anchorage Daily News, Gov. Dunleavy responded to critics who called his budget cuts “devastating” or “cruel”. He wrote that he had “put Alaskans first”, and his “highest calling is to Alaskans and Alaskan families”.

But Nelson says that’s exactly who Dunleavy is hurting. In a response also published in the ADN, she says Dunleavy’s veto brought their state funding down to its lowest level in 11 years.

“I think it’s the birthright of Americans. It’s supposed to be that we have liberty and justice for all, not just for those who can afford to pay for it,” Nelson said.

Nelson says they usually have broad bipartisan support in the Legislature. But she doesn’t know if legislators will override the Governor’s vetoes or restore funding during the special session.

“We already turn away one person for everyone that we represent for lack of resources,” Nelson said.

Cases like Rhonda’s with immediate health and safety concerns will still be a priority if the budget cut stands. But Nelson says over 800 additional Alaskans — including other domestic violence survivors, crime victims, parents, tenants, veterans and seniors — will all get turned away.

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