The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty was established in 1996 to deliver particular types of systemic legal advocacy that other legal service organizations in our state were barred from performing. In 1995 and 1996, opponents of civil legal aid in Congress imposed a number of restrictions on all legal service organizations receiving federal funding through the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). Grantees could no longer initiate or participate in class action lawsuits, engage in direct or grassroots lobbying on behalf of their clients, represent many categories of immigrants, conduct litigation on behalf of prisoners, or challenge welfare reform measures as unconstitutional or otherwise illegal.
Almost all state civil legal aid systems in the country responded to these changes by forming independent agencies that would not be funded by the federal LSC, allowing these groups to provide impact and systemic advocacy and litigation for people living in poverty. The New Mexico Legal Services Support Project, which had been offering training and litigation support to legal services programs throughout the state, was transformed into the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. Bob Ericson, a longtime legal service attorney, became the Center’s first Executive Director.
Bob was known as a meticulous, skilled, and compassionate attorney. His legal skills and leadership helped formulate the NM Center on Law and Poverty’s culture of excellent work, integrity, and service to poor New Mexicans. Under his tenure, the Center successfully challenged Governor Johnson’s illegal attempt to establish the state’s NM Works (cash assistance) program without legislative input. In 1997, the Governor vetoed reasonable legislation and pulled a substitute out of his pocket that would have been far less supportive of poor New Mexicans needing assistance. The Center, along with private co-counsel Joseph Goldberg, filed a petition for Writ of Mandamus on behalf of state legislators for unlawfully implementing the new welfare program without seeking legislative approval. The NM Supreme Court granted the Writ and the Center won Taylor v Johnson in dramatic fashion.
Mr. Ericson died shortly after winning the case, and Nancy Koenigsberg became Acting Executive Director while the Board searched for an executive director. Under Ms. Koenigsberg’s leadership, the Center successfully used administrative advocacy to improve access to the public benefits programs by winning important improvements to the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program and protecting the Medicaid program. The Center also provided important training to civil legal service attorneys.
In 2002, the Center’s Board of Directors hired Kim Posich to the position of Executive Director. In the ensuing years, while maintaining a strong focus on public benefits programs, the Center expanded its agenda to include addressing other critical issues impacting New Mexicans living in poverty, including expanding access to hospital care for uninsured, indigent patients; ending the unconstitutional exclusion of agricultural laborers from the state’s workers’ compensation system; addressing insufficiencies in the state’s education system; expanding civil legal services to underserved populations; and much more. Between 2002 and 2015, the Center grew to meet increased demands. For example, the Center’s budget expanded by more than $1 million and the number of Center staff increased by 300%.
Today, the Center stands as a vital resource for low-income New Mexicans. Through high-impact advocacy we regularly create positive changes in laws, programs, and policies across a broad range of issues that deeply affect New Mexicans living in poverty.