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The Bar Bulletin
Jax Daily Record Thursday, Nov. 1, 201808:47 AM EST

Commentary: Social justice issues should count in elections

Cast your ballot with consideration.

By Donny MacKenzie, The Florida Bar Foundation executive director

As a momentous election in Florida approaches, the airwaves are filled with candidates making grandiose promises or hurling derision at opponents.

“Wedge” issues designed to evoke emotion seem to be once again at the top of political strategists’ playlists.

Noticeably absent from those ads and solicitations is any meaningful discussion about social justice issues and efforts to address Florida’s dirty little secret: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are close to 3 million Floridians living in poverty, about 14 percent of our population.

One in six children in Florida are negatively impacted by poverty and 80 percent of Floridians can’t afford a lawyer when faced with civil legal issues.  

Another fact that goes largely unnoticed is that Florida is one of only two states that do not have state funding for civil legal aid.

And if Idaho passes legislation to help fund civil legal aid, Florida will be the only state in the nation that has decided that its children, elderly, veterans and others less fortunate don’t merit assistance from the state when confronted with civil legal issues.

It is inconceivable that so many candidates for statewide and local offices are not addressing the issues of poverty, social justice or access to justice issues in their campaigns.  

While those facing a criminal charge are guaranteed legal counsel if they can’t afford representation, those with a civil legal issue must go it alone if they cannot afford a lawyer. Simply put, low-income people fall further and further behind when facing legal issues.

A Colorado Center on Law and Policy study found that renters who lacked legal representation were evicted from private housing 68 percent of the time. Meanwhile, those who were represented by an attorney were evicted only 6 percent of the time.

Eviction and foreclosure not only tear at the fabric of a family, but also lower neighborhood property values, reduce property tax rolls and increase the crime rate in the affected neighborhood.

Saving a veteran and her or his family from losing their home often saves the veteran’s job and effectively saves a taxpayer.

Funding civil legal aid is not a partisan issue. In fact, the Florida Access to Civil Legal Assistance Act was signed into law by Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, in 2002. Every year thereafter until 2015, the Florida Legislature voted to fund the act.

But after four consecutive gubernatorial line item vetoes beginning in 2011, the Legislature simply stopped appropriating such funding.

Similarly, efforts are made each year by some in Washington, D.C., to defund Legal Services Corporation.

It was signed into law by President Richard Nixon, also a Republican, and provides limited federal funding to designated legal aid providers, including seven in Florida. 

It is unfair that our justice system is accessible only by those with enough money to hire someone to help them endure the process.

Merits, not money, should be the deciding factor when it comes to justice.

For the good of our great state and country, we must find ways to provide meaningful access to justice to everyone.

That includes the poor, the disabled and destitute, the elderly, veterans and countless other survivors, many of whom are our friends, family members, employees, co-workers and neighbors.  

One way to start finding a better way is to vote. Candidates who thoughtfully consider these important issues should be thoughtfully considered.

Candidates who espouse divisive or collateral positions or who fail to address the societal and financial consequences of ignoring the poor and less fortunate will not get my vote.

Donny MacKenzie is executive director of The Florida Bar Foundation, a public charity established in 1956 to foster law-related public interest programs.

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