Broken Promises

The federal program providing lawyers for the poor is heading for destruction. Cynically, White House and Office of Economic Opportunity reactionaries are breaking up the nonpolitical structure of the Neighborhood Legal Services program in preparation for its ultimate disintegration. The 2400 lawyers representing poor people in consumer, landlord, employment, family and governmental problems throughout the country will either leave their jobs or be under political control to avoid controversial or important lawsuits.

The principal White House minion supervising this dismantling is 32-year-old Howard Phillips, acting director of OEO, whose interest in the poor and sick is not much greater than that of King Kong. The cruelty which this successful legal aid program is being subjected to has visibly shocked the elders of the conservative American Bar Association. The ABA wants the program continued independent of political interference whether from federal, state or local governments. As a result, the White House this month abolished the ABA-sponsored advisory committee to OEO which was supposed to shield the legal services program from such political meddling. ABA President, Robert Meserve, deplores this demise but seems to be unable to rally his associates strongly behind this modest $71 million service to citizens.

It is instructive to review briefly the course of events which now jeopardizes one of the most constructive and far-reaching social innovations of the Sixties. For what is happening to legal services will likely soon happen to other programs for the elderly, children who need day care, the mentally retarded, juvenile delinquents, the hungry.

The attack on legal services began, predictably, with Vice President Agnew about a year ago. And just as predictably, his wild, unsupported smears were widely reported in the media but subjected to no challenge as to their veracity. Here is a sample of Mr. Agnew’s bellowing: A destitute mother of five can’t get legal help with an eviction notice but a middle class dropout can get legal counseling in setting up his underground newspaper.

As usual, the Vice President’s speech writers wallow in everything but the facts. The record of legal services supports precisely the opposite of what he describes. Poverty lawyers have served millions of poor people in their difficulties. They have pioneered in the courts and obtained decisions which overcame local and state governmental lawlessness, expanded the rights of consumers, tenants, and workers and advanced more just procedures to give citizens fair notice and hearing by government bureaucracies. These are precisely the reasons Mr. Agnew wants political control over the poverty lawyers. He favors the wealthy elite and does not like governmental injustice to individuals challenged successfully in court by 0E0-funded lawyers.

Last week, Theodore Tetzlaff, director of OEO’s legal services, was fired because he complained about Phillips’ placing new men hostile to legal services in charge of portions of the program. He also objected to an order by Phillips limiting grant renewals to the 260 programs around the country to 30-day extensions. This move will make it difficult to plan any long-term legal actions at the grass roots and will certainly lead to resignations and further breaking up of the program.

In May 1971, President Nixon told Congress: Much of the litigation initiated by legal services has placed it in direct conflict with local and state governments. The program is concerned with social issues and is thus subject to unusually strong political pressures.

Even though surrounded by controversy, this program can provide a most effective mechanism for settling differences and securing justice within the system and not on the streets. For many of our citizens, legal services has reaffirmed faith in our government of laws. However, if we are to preserve the strength of the program, we must make it immune to political pressure and make is a permanent part of our system of justice.

Congress will do well, as it ponders how it is going to save the poverty law program, not to forget the President’s words even though he obviously has.

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