Legislation seeks to overturn 150 year-old prohibition on hiring lawyers

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Legislation seeks to overturn 150 year-old prohibition on hiring lawyers

Legislation to allow veterans to hire an attorney as they seek benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs picked up strong support Thursday. The positive reaction came during a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

The legislation (S. 2694), sponsored by Chairman Larry Craig (R-Idaho), seeks to overturn a policy begun during the Civil War.

Under current law, all 24 million living veterans are prohibited from hiring legal counsel to help them navigate the Veterans Affairs system. It is only after a veteran has spent months and even years exhausting the extensive VA administrative process that the veteran then may retain a lawyer a process that often takes 3 or more years to complete.

“Particularly for veterans of today’s All-Volunteer Force, the current paternalistic Civil War-era law is completely outdated. These highly-trained, highly skilled veterans have the ability and should have the right to decide for themselves whether to hire a lawyer,” Craig said…

     

The Idaho Republican noted that many veterans have written in support of the bill, including one from New Jersey, a decorated disabled military retiree who served in Vietnam. He wrote:

“Murderers, rapists and pedophiles can hire an attorney; why are veterans treated as third, yes third class citizens?”

Among those who spoke out Thursday in favor of changing the law was former Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, Donald Ivers, as well as Rick Weidman of the Vietnam Veterans of America and Barton F. Stichman of the National Veterans Legal Services Program.

“Freedom to seek counsel of one’s choice has long been a hallmark of this nation’s system of justice. That those who have given much in defense of that system are denied that freedom in pursuing claims arising out of their service is, at best, highly contradictory,” Judge Ivers said.

Under current federal laws and court rulings, criminal defendants, illegal aliens, and enemy combatants have the right to have legal counsel. Veterans are the only group which does not enjoy that privilege.

“It makes no rational sense to deny them this right,” Stichman said.

That sentiment was shared by Rick Weidman, who spoke to the committee on behalf of those in his organization.

“Vietnam Veterans of America strongly and unreservedly supports S.2694 by convention resolution,” Weidman said. “We urge its endorsement by this committee and passage by both houses of Congress.”

In the House of Representatives, two bills similar to Sen. Craig’s have been introduced, one (H.R. 5549) by Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman of a subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and (H.R. 4914) Rep. Lane Evans, the top Democrat on that same committee.

Despite the strong support Craig’s legislation has received, the Department of Veterans Affairs voiced opposition to the bill during the hearing. That drew a strong rebuke from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) who is co-sponsoring the bill with Sen. Craig.

Other co-sponsors of the bill include Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, Jim Jeffords (I-VT), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).


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