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US Legal Aid Program for the Poor Experiences Rebirth Under Clinton

A SWEARING-IN ceremony that would seem routine at most federal agencies was a breakthrough for the Legal Services Corporation recently. Its 11 directors, who took the oath of office Nov. 8, are the first LSC board members confirmed by the Senate since 1985.

Authorized by Congress in 1974 to support lawyers who represent the poor in civil matters, the LSC has been a political football for a decade-plus. One result of the clash between corporation supporters and conservative opponents was that, since 1985, Presidents Reagan and Bush ``temporarily'' appointed LSC directors during congressional recesses, instead of through the confirmation process.

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They also appointed LSC board members with no legal-service background with the poor - another tradition broken by the Clinton team. Two new directors had served on the board; one is a former LSC staff lawyer. New board chairman Douglas Eakeley has chaired the Legal Services of New Jersey board of trustees.

``The commitment of these men and women to providing high-quality legal services for the poor is unmistakable,'' says John O'Hara, LSC president.

The confirmation of new directors isn't the only evidence of a new era. Congress is expected to appropriate $400 million for the corporation this year, up from $357 million. According to LSC officer Kenneth Boehm, the increase during budget cuts reflects Congress's acknowledgment that the recession has increased the number of people who can't afford legal services.

One big reason why LSC's fortunes have improved in Congress is that the agency has strong White House support. Hillary Rodham Clinton chaired the LSC board from 1978 to 1981.

The LSC funds some 320 local legal-services providers. Nearly 4,500 lawyers at these community groups represent poor clients, mainly in family, housing, government-benefits, consumer, and health-care matters. The LSC has special grantee programs for migrant workers and native Americans and is developing programs for Asians and other non-English-speaking people.

The LSC also distributes money for emergency needs, such as $300,000 to train Midwestern lawyers advising flood victims, and $200,000 for legal services in Florida and Louisiana after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

During most of the Reagan and Bush years, administration attitudes toward the LSC ranged from hostile to indifferent. Many conservatives in the White House and Congress regarded the corporation as a taxpayer-supported hotbed of liberal activism. Conservatives resented involvement of some legal-services lawyers in hot-button issues like legislative redistricting and abortion.

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Reagan tried to drop LSC funding in his 1981 budget. After Congress rebuffed the attempt, the administration began a guerrilla war against the corporation. Many Reagan-chosen LSC directors and officers lacked legal-service experience, and some were suspected in Congress and in the field of trying to dismantle the organization. It became an administration dumping ground, with 11 presidents in nine years.

The Bush administration was more benign. While many directors still lacked experience, they bore no blatant animus against the LSC mission. Mr. O'Hara praises departing board members and chairman George Wittgraf, who ``helped heal the wounds of the past.'' The board ``got the money out to the field and started some good programs.''

Even so, many people engaged in legal services said they felt little enthusiasm from the Bush team. That has changed.

But Republican administrations aren't solely responsible for the LSC's checkered past. Owing to disputes within its own ranks, Congress has failed to pass legislation reauthorizing the corporation since its 1980 expiration. (Congress still funded the LSC through a special procedure.)

Reauthorization bills have stalled over conservatives' attempts to put more limits on cases legal-services lawyers can litigate, provisions to tighten audit procedures, and a proposal to subject grants to competitive bids. After dying last year, these bills have been reintroduced.

No matter what happens with the conservative amendments, LSC officials say they are just glad to be back in the administration's favor. ``At least things have quieted down,'' Mr. Boehm says.

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