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War on Legal Services

FEW things make conservatives see red like the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). They sputter at the very thought of the quasi-independent federal organization that dispenses about $300 million a year to 325 providers of legal services to the poor. Their gripe: that the LSC, rather than helping individual poor people with everyday legal problems, is a deep pocket for legal and political activism by the Left. Since 1981, conservatives have done more than just fume. The LSC board, controlled by Reagan appointees, has waged war against their own organization. They have fought unsuccessfully to defund the LSC, imposed rules to shackle grant recipients, and paid outside lawyers for an opinion that the organization is unconstitutional.

The terms of 10 of the 11 directors have expired, but the incumbents continue to serve until their successors are appointed and confirmed. The LSC chairman and the board-appointed president reportedly are lobbying the White House for a ``reform'' slate of new directors - people who will continue the fifth-column sabotage. And who, incidently, have almost no experience with legal aid.

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It's hard to escape the conclusion that those running the LSC and their would-be successors don't just disapprove of alleged abuses, but rather are, at bottom, plain hostile to jeans-clad lawyers for the poor. Though they claim to stand on principle, there's something inescapably mean-spirited about their cavils.

Perhaps LSC funds have been used for purposes beyond the body's proper scope. We're not convinced, for instance, that taxpayer money should pay for suits contesting the drawing of political districts or for certain class-action suits aimed at social engineering. (Nothing we've heard remotely compares with Republican hanky-panky at HUD, though.)

But misapplication of funds poses a management problem; it doesn't discredit the entire organization. The answer is better auditing, not guerrilla war.

Seven months into his presidency, it's time for Mr. Bush to end this unseemly spectacle. He should get the new LSC board into place by appointing competent, disinterested, experienced men and women who share a fundamental commitment to legal aid for the poor. Sure, they should be clear-eyed, skeptical, tough-minded, like all good executives. But they shouldn't confuse legal services with class warfare.

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