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Tin Man Veto: Gov. Rick Scott’s 4-Year War on Legal Aid for the Poor

| September 9, 2014

Assuming you can afford it. (Visit Florida)

Assuming you can afford it. (Visit Florida)

By Martin Dyckman

When my old newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times, zinged Gov. Rick Scott with an editorial describing him as a man without a heart, an accompanying illustration put his face on the iconic image of the Tin Man in the “Wizard of Oz.”

That was too generous to Scott. Jack Haley’s character in the classic motion picture desperately wanted a heart. There’s no evidence that Scott does.


Consider how he reached deep into the $77 billion budget a few months later to veto a modest $2 million appropriation for civil legal aid to the poor. He’s swung that ax every year.

Facing the largest budget of his four years in office, Scott vetoed the least amount — $69 million — and spared plenty of election-year pork. So his gripe with legal aid wasn’t about economizing.

He didn’t explain it, leaving voters to infer such other motives as simple spite and sheer malice.

Scott makes no secret of his contempt for plaintiffs’ lawyers, which for the most part legal aid lawyers are.

The governor practiced law before learning that health care could make him exponentially wealthier, but he failed along the way to learn what it teaches about equal justice.

In Scottworld, law is a means to enhance wealth and protect privilege. As he sees it, legal aid lawyers are the enemy because it is often their duty to attack wealth and privilege. And when he needs a lawyer — which seems to be often –he doesn’t have to worry about how to pay the fee.

The law he refuses to fund specifically prohibits legal aid lawyers from engaging in class-action lawsuits. They can’t lobby. They can’t sue the state, any of its agencies or counties, or any college or university.

context floridaBut what they can and should do is still so vast that they can cope only with a part of the woes that beset people all the time: landlords who profit from code violations, shady companies that specialize in scamming the poor, elderly abuse, domestic strife, and so on.

Owing to Scott, Florida is one of only four states that don’t spare a penny either from appropriations or earmarked court fees for legal aid. New York provides $56.8 million. Even in Texas there’s $6.26 for every estimated person in need.

Florida used to make do on earmarked interest from lawyers’ trust accounts, but that source went dry in the 2008 banking debacle.

In a petition asking the Florida Supreme Court to raise Bar dues $100 a year to help legal aid, former Justice Raul Cantero and 522 co-signers estimated that “as much as 80 percent of the legal needs of the poor go unfilled” despite pro bono services by many lawyers.

Let me tell you about one such person. She’s Maureen O’Brien, a retired accountant who lives in a small condo at Clearwater.

She used to own one in Broward County but says she deeded it to a niece in return for a promise that the niece would care for her in another home and her name would be added to that title.

Some time later, her brother called and “he told me, ‘I looked everything up online and you own nothing.’ “

There was an angry quarrel. She says the family called paramedics and police and threatened to have her Baker-Acted.

When she complained to law enforcement agencies, they told her it was a civil matter only. She consulted a private lawyer who wrote some letters, but nothing came of them.

And when she eventually went to legal aid agencies, they told her she had a plausible case but that it was more than they could handle.

That’s not to say she could have won it, and I’m not judging who was right. But the case deserved to be heard.

Trouble is, it could have cost as much as $100,000 to pursue. That’s the estimate of Bruce Blackwell, executive director of the Florida Bar Foundation — parent agency for legal aid.

“The facts are pretty standard, and happen a lot to the elderly,” he said. “The difficulty for any legal aid organization … or any private lawyer is that the problem is multifaceted, involves competing family interests, multiple jurisdictions and agencies, and would likely consume a lawyer for perhaps three months of work from start to finish.”

I have some experience in that regard. A much simpler civil suit my wife filed over converted funds cost us $15,000 in legal fees. She was able to recover more than that, but what if we hadn’t been able to bear the expense?

Florida’s Constitution provides that “The courts shall be open to every person for redress of any injury. …”

There should be a footnote to that:

“If you can afford it.”

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives near Waynesville, N.C. 

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8 Responses for “Tin Man Veto: Gov. Rick Scott’s 4-Year War on Legal Aid for the Poor”

  1. NortonSmitty says:

    … and let the bile begin!

  2. Sherry Epley says:

    And the 1% continue to rule! “Equal justice under the law”? Only if you are wealthy enough to pay through the nose! This is horrible discrimination against what is left of the middle class, as well as the poor. . . which by definition is the vast majority of Floridians!

    Rise up. . . get out the vote. . . throw this tyrant and his cronies out! Rick Scott needs to go! VOTE in November for a better Florida!

    • Percy's mother says:

      I don’t know . . . I see plenty of the 99% (not the 1%) going to attorneys and obtaining legal counsel. So Sherry what are you saying? Are you saying that only the 1% can afford legal representation “Only if you are wealthy enough to pay through the nose”. There are plenty of attorneys in this town and I don’t see them going out of business. I don’t think Palm Coast is a city of the 1%. If that’s the case, how are all the attorneys in Palm Coast making a living? I read lots of comments on this site wherein posters are just spouting off generalizations with no real backup of facts (for instance, some mindless person a few days ago posted something inane about Rick Scott “stealing” people’s money . . . whose money in particular? when, how, what case?). In other words, it’s all mindless babble by people who can’t really think for themselves. How about getting educated as to the real facts and then making an intelligent educated comment?

      • NortonSmitty says:

        Hey Mom, lemme ask you something. Just where is it you see these 99% and their paid Legal Representatives lining up for Justice? You work in the Courts? If not, I think I know where you got all of your knowledge of the American Justice System. And I hate to break it to you, but it’s not really like what you see on Law & Order.

        But you are correct in that we never see the 1% except on TV, because they can afford such good Lawyers, by the dozen, that the prosecutors never want to take them on with their lack of funding. Not in a local court, not if you work for the SEC, EPA or FEC. From the DMV to the NSA, you got a lot of money to Layer Up, you are safe from Prosecution. Ask NWA. (Look ’em all up Mom) You know, this is pretty much the gist of this article.

        As far as our esteemed Governor Scott, there were some stories about his past if you looked real hard for them. Like this one from an obscure rag called the Wall Street Journal: https://duckduckgo.com/l/?kh=-1&uddg=http%3A%2F%2Fbiggerthanenron.blogspot.com%2F2009%2F03%2Fwall-street-journal-richard-scott.html or the Miami Herald: http://www.miamiherald.com/2014/03/05/3973857/rick-scott-oversaw-the-largest.html Mom, it was the largest fine for fraud every levied in US history on HCA/Columbia, the company Scott founded and ran during the fraud. Rick had left the company by the time the shit hit the fan, with over a billion dollars of, well some would say stolen money in his pocket. But the Bush DOJ decided not to prosecute him personally. Some say it was if he promised and bought the Florida Governorship, but who knows. And this was directly stolen from Medicare, you know, the program for the poor and old that Governor Rick says is to expensive and riddled with fraud. That’s funny! I mean like the story about the orphan who murdered his parents funny. I can’t believe you never read about any of this Mom!

        But Mommy Dearest, I gotta’ say if you are going to say aggressive and cynical shit like this ” In other words, it’s all mindless babble by people who can’t really think for themselves. How about getting educated as to the real facts and then making an intelligent educated comment?” regarding Ricky Boys theft history, I'[m thinking maybe you should study up on recent history.

  3. dave says:

    Rick Scott’s war on the poor continues. The man is heartless but more important is a danger to the future of Florida. As former Florida senator Bob Graham said “the state has no vision” with the current crop of politicians in control. Scott continues to make life hard for Floridians. His rigid conservative views and pandering to big money and corporations threatens the environment and future prosperity of all Floridians struggling here after the great recession.

  4. Sherry Epley says:

    Thanks Norton Smitty. . . YOU are a peach. . . and right on, as usual!

  5. Derrick R. says:

    Still he’s better than Two Timing flip floping Christ

  6. Sherry Epley says:

    Need evidence. . . this from the Brennen Center for Justice. . . just follow the link:
    http://brennan.3cdn.net/ed5d847dfcf163a02a_exm6b5vya.pdf

    From personal experience, the price for taking a complex civil case to court “starts” at between $20,000-$50,000. Who has that kind of money to seek “equal justice”?

    The wealthy not only live in a world of better housing and food, they also have better medical care (at “private” hospitals) and better justice. Think about the level of experience/talent of court appointed attorneys vs those who charge $300+ an hour.

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