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Reagan's first veto might end legal aid for the needy

Congress and the White House are headed for a showdown -- and perhaps the first Reagan veto -- over a relatively small but highly controversial federal agency.

The President wants to abolish the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which provides legal aid for the poor. With strong support from lawyers, judges, and business officials, most lawmakers (including many Republicans) are holding firm for continuing the agency.

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House and Senate committees have bucked Mr. Reagan in voting continued funding for legal services.

In a letter to House Republicans this week, presidential counselor Edwin S. Meese III (a strong law-and-order man and former district attorney in California) said he would urge the President to veto any continuation of a federal legal aid program.

The issue is one that involves political philosophy more than economic savings. The LSC, in the seven years since its founding, has gained a reputation as an activist, semi-dependent agency that frequently goes to bat for the less influential against business and government. Targets of lawsuits by "poverty lawyers" have included landlords, utilities, and local social service and law enforcement agencies.

AS governor of California, Ronald Reagan rankled at LSC-funded lawyers who worked on behalf of farm workers and welfare recipients. He lost a legal fight to curb their efforts.

The President and other legal services opponents feel the LSC has been too vigorous in filing class-action suits.

Supporters point out that there are still only two lawyers for every 10,000 poor people, compared with 14 attorneys per 10,000 Americans on average. They also accurately note that the great majority of legal services work consists of noncontroversial cases and that fewer than 12 percent ever go to court. The fact that the LSC lawyers win more than 80 percent of their cases, proponents assert, proves that their work is necessary.

Most of the public apparently agrees with this view. About 83 percent of those polled by the New York Times and CBS News (including 79 percent of those who describe themselves as "conservative") said the legal services program should be kept at its current level, if not increased.

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The American Bar Association and more than 300 local bar associations have voiced their support, and this week 600 state and federal judges in California (including five state Supreme Court justices) petitioned Congress to continue the Legal Services Corporation.

Last week, 21 business executives (from such companies as Atlantic Richfield, General Electric, Dupont, and General Motors) did the same. In a letter to every member of the House of Representatives, they said: "All Americans must have access to our system of justice, regardless of their ability to pay."

In the face of such support for the agency, many Republicans have rejected the administration's position. There is a general feeling that in a time of economic trouble, when many social service programs are being substantially reduced, the poor need all the legal help they can get. There also is the perception that states would not fund legal services from the reduced block grants the President wants to provide.

"If block grant money were left to provide legal services, I doubt whether in my state it would be used for that purpose," said US Rep. M. Caldwell Butler (R) of Virginia. "There is too much competition for that money."

Notwithstanding its strong support on Capitol Hill, the LSC faces austere times at best. A House committee has reduced annual funding from $321 million to $260 million. In the Senate, the corporation's budget has been cut to $100 million in committee.

Reauthorization bills for the agency would prohibit class-action suits against government agencies, most abortion cases, those involving illegal aliens , and cases advocating legalization of homosexuality. Lobbying and union activities by LSC employees also would be limited.

White House officials call these changes "cosmetic" and pro mise a presidential veto in any case.

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