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Sharon Browne's legal aid spat

Liberal critics are fighting her nomination by Obama to the board of the Legal Services Corp.

February 24, 2010

Liberal groups and the American Bar Assn. are opposing President Obama's nomination of Sharon Browne, an attorney at the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, to the board of the Legal Services Corp., which oversees legal aid for the poor. So far, however, the critics haven't made a persuasive case.

No more than six members of the corporation's 11-person board can come from the same party, and Browne was recommended for a minority seat by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The Alliance for Justice, a coalition of liberal groups, says Browne doesn't meet criteria established by Congress, including support for the principle that the poor "have full access under law to comprehensive and effective legal services," and a commitment to keep the corporation free of political control.

Some of the groups' arguments smack of guilt by association. For example, they note that the Pacific Legal Foundation challenged an ABA-supported program that provides funds for legal services by pooling client accounts in a way that generates interest that wouldn't be earned by individual clients. But Browne wasn't involved in that case, and in written answers to questions posed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, she said she supported a Supreme Court decision that allowed the program to continue. She also endorsed a recent initiative to allow legal aid attorneys to collect lawyers' fees, a source of additional funds for legal aid.

Many of the alliance's criticisms deal with Browne's affiliation with the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation and her positions on issues such as affirmative action, extension of the Voting Rights Act and bilingual education. We too disagree with some of her views, but the cause of legal aid for the poor isn't well served by an assumption that only liberals need apply.

More troubling is the criticism of Browne by the ABA's Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants. As it does with prospective federal judges, the lawyers' organization conducts confidential interviews with individuals familiar with a nominee's record. That process led it to conclude that Browne failed to meet the criteria for board membership established by Congress and the ABA itself. The ABA doesn't elaborate on its reasons for rejecting nominees, nor will it release Browne's answers to its questionnaire.

In recent years the ABA generally has conducted its evaluations in a nonpartisan way; for example, it has rated both Democratic and Republican Supreme Court nominees as well qualified. The Senate committee should hold public hearings to allow the Alliance for Justice and the ABA to expand on their criticism of Browne and afford her an opportunity to reply.

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