Congressional Efforts to End Restrictions on Legal Services Activism Will Foster Drug Crime in Public Housing

projects photoCongressional Democrats have made clear that they intend to remove restrictions on the ability of legal services lawyers, funded by the Legal Services Corporation, to engage in controversial political advocacy. On March 26, Senator Tom Harkin introduced a bill that ends such restrictions. Likewise, at an April 1 hearing of a House appropriations subcommittee, several Democratic congressmen called for lifting restrictions on ideologically-motivated lawsuits.

One of the results of abolishing these reforms, enacted by congress in 1996, will be more drug crime in public housing. Currently, legal services lawyers are prohibited from representing individuals being evicted from public housing for drug use. For years, legal services lawyers perversely contributed to rampant crime in troubled public housing projects by systematically thwarting efforts by authorities to kick out tenants who engaged in illegal drug activity.

Removing the restriction on drug-related eviction cases will most certainly unleash an avalanche of litigation. Even with the restriction in place, there have been instances of legal services lawyers brazenly violating the rule.

A recent Minnesota story is a case in point.

In May 2008, a state appellate court dismissed a lawsuit filed by Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services opposing a public housing authority’s efforts to evict a woman for smoking crack cocaine.

The case concerned Deanna Ewig, a tenant of the Saint Paul Public Housing Agency. Ewing had been a resident for only two or three months when the agency learned that Ewig was smoking crack cocaine and allowed guests to smoke crack cocaine in her apartment. The housing authority initiated eviction proceedings on the grounds that Ewig had violated the terms of her lease, which prohibited “any criminal activity, including drug-related criminal activity.” At her eviction hearing, Ewig admitted that she had smoked crack cocaine in her apartment at least two times.

However, Ewig’s legal services lawyers argued that because Ewig is addicted to cocaine, she has a disability under the federal Fair Housing Act which means that she is entitled to a reasonable accommodation of that disability. Thus, the Saint Paul Public Housing Agency’s decision to evict her was discriminatory.

Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services won the first round in this court battle in 2007. Despite Ewig’s admission that she engaged in illegal drug use, a state district court held that the eviction was illegal because it violated the Fair Housing Act. The housing authority appealed the decision. Agency director John Gutzman said they had no choice but to appeal the decision. The agency, he said, has a “very low tolerance for illegal activity and especially when it’s thrown in our face.”

The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination against any person in the rental of a dwelling “because of a handicap.” In reviewing the case, the state appeals court observed that the courts have held that recovering drug addicts are handicapped under the act. However, the act’s definition of “handicap” contains an exception that such a handicap “does not include current, illegal use of…a controlled substance.”

Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services argued that Ewig’s crack use was a relapse that should not be considered “current” illegal drug use.

The appeals court rejected this argument as “absurd.”

The court held that: “Interpreting a federal anti-discrimination law to excuse illegal drug use produces an absurd result. The act’s definition of handicap “(wa)s not intended to be used to condone or protect illegal activity.”

If congressional Democrats are successful in overturning the restrictions on LSC-funded activism, the absurd result will be taxpayers forced into subsidizing the representation of drug criminals.