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Legal Aid Remains a Hostage to Ideology

THE federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which was battered by conservative assaults during the Reagan administration, remains a hostage to ideological critics of legal aid to the poor under a new board of directors appointed by President Bush. The most recent demonstration of the LSC's rightward tilt is the election Aug. 9 of David H. Martin, a former Reagan administration official with no prior experience in legal aid, as president of the quasi-private corporation. Each year LSC funnels around $300 million in federal funds to local programs to provide legal aid for the poor.

The Bush-appointed board that selected Martin to manage the LSC's day-to-day operations passed over candidates with greater experience in legal aid. Board chairman George Wittgraf said Martin would come to legal-services issues with ``an open mind'' because he hadn't been involved with the issues.

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Despite bipartisan backing on Capitol Hill and from establishment groups like the American Bar Association, the idea of providing broad discretion along with federal funds to local legal-aid programs remains anathema to the New Right and one powerful interest group, the American Farm Bureau Federation. They have formed a deceptively titled Legal Services Reform Coalition, which is intent on limiting the kinds of cases that legal-aid programs can undertake and burdening the grant recipients with new regulations and greater interference from the LSC's conservative management in Washington. Martin had the backing of coalition members for the LSC presidency.

As with Martin's election, the board that Bush installed in January has largely carried out the bidding of the ``reform coalition,'' many of whose members - like the Farm Bureau - supported Reagan's unsuccessful attempts to abolish the LSC.

The board has backed moves to impose financial penalties on legal-aid programs for taking on - and winning - controversial cases, like defending free speech rights of demonstrators from a Central America peace group in Texas or attacking curbs on family-planning funds in California.

It has lined up behind a regulation, recently struck down by a federal judge, to keep legal-aid programs from representing poor people in suits to redraw district lines to get a greater voice in state and local governments.

And it has endorsed the Farm Bureau's call for new restrictions on legal-aid lawyers in representing migrant farm laborers, traditionally one segment of the poor most subject to abuse at the hands of their employers.

On paper, at least, Bush appeared to have picked a board that would approach legal-services issues with no ideological agenda. Ironically, however, the board has proved to be less diverse than the final Reagan-appointed board. That board included three members with actual experience in local legal-aid programs and two representatives of client groups that backed them in efforts to block the board's conservative majority.

By contrast, none of the Bush-appointed directors has actually worked for a legal-aid group. Four are current or former officials of state or local governments, which are frequently the target of legal-aid suits.

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The two seats allotted to client groups went to a Minnesota homemaker active in the anti-abortion movement and a Mississippi woman who says she has worked with the disadvantaged but can't point to specific work with civil rights groups or organized charities.

The board was tilted further to the right in May when the Farm Bureau forced the resignation of moderate John Erlenborn, a former Republican congressman, by pressuring his Washington law firm over an alleged conflict of interest with its agricultural clients.

Martin, who is not subject to Senate confirmation, will take office in late September. LSC board members have avoided the confirmation process so far by virtue of recess appointments. The likelihood of hearings during this session of Congress is diminishing.

For the underpaid lawyers who have opted to represent the poor rather than pursue more lucrative legal careers, the result of this standoff in Washington is likely to be continued uncertainty and distraction. For the poor themselves, that may mean less effective legal help in the kinds of cases that can bring about broad improvements in government programs and industry practices.

The poor, and their lawyers, have little clout in Washington. For now at least, with the Bush administration's acquiescence, their interests have been subordinated to political ideology.

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