Washington — Behind many of the controversial, trend-setting court cases of the 1970s has been a group of unique law centers that make up a virtual industry of "public interest" activism.
Most are liberal, but, lately, conservative groups have established firms such as the Washington Legal Foundation, which sued last year to block the repeal of the US-Taiwan treaty.
Regardless of ideology, the 100 or so public-interest firms now have a common concern: the drying up of money available for pursuing public causes in this period of economic uncertainty. Spokesmen for liberal law centers say apathy toward social reform is widespread and their firms are feeling the squeeze.
Right and left -- defenders of the poor and defenders of business -- public-interest lawyers met in Washington recently to discuss their difficulties and future strategies.
Proposals for coping with the money shortage included: banding together with several other groups to share computers, copying machines, and mailing facilities; handling their own public relations and making use of events such as movie premieres; using volunteers and part-timers from private law firms; affiliating with universities; and seeking to have defendants who lose public-interest cases pay legal fees as part of the settlements.
To a degree, several lawyers admitted, liberal- oriented public-interest law is a victim of its own success. The Carter administration has placed a number of former public-interest lawyers in key positions, thereby stealing the thunder of the law centers.
Gus Speth, formerly of the National Resources Defense Council, is on the President's Council on Environmental Quality. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a former assistant director of the American Civil Liberties Union, now is head of the government't Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
"In a Democratic administration, public-interest activity becomes administrative activity," observed Marsha Greenberger of the Center for Law and Social Policy.
"A president like [Ronald] Reagan would revitalize the movement," Robert Gnaizda of California-based Public Advocates said only half jokingly.
Ray Momboisse of the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation says he believes the liberal firms are losing financial support because they are not in court as often as in the past.
"Litigation has become lobbying to many of them," he said, "and they're getting what they want. They're feeling the effect of not going to court with the sensational cases." But, he added, the support of conservative public-interest legal groups "has grown steadily as people become more familiar with our existence."
Mr. Momboisse says his foundation, which specializes in land-use cases, "has taken the offensive" in the past few years, and he has found many of the liberal groups intervening in his suits.
Eleanor Norton of the EEOC says she believes public apathy toward liberal causes has come about because "the days of the prima facie case are over," especially in the area of civil rights. Employment discrimination, she points out, no longer appears simply as the denial of a job, but as unequal pay and unfair promotion policies.
And now that the voice of the consumer no longer is crying in the wilderness, says David Cohen of Common Cause, consumer protection agencies must themselves he protected. He says attempts to reduce the power of the Federal Trade Commission and other government regulatory arms present the most direct "danger to the public interest."
Still, a survey by the Council for Public Interest Law shows that, regardless of anxiety about the future, the public-interest law "industry" is larger than ever before. There were 16 firms in 1969; the roster now stands at 110. Expansion is greatest in areas involving the rights of children and the disabled , says Nan Aron, director of the council. Consumer and women's rights groups seem to be having the most difficulty finding support, she adds.
"There is no question but that we have to gear strategies to a declining economy," she says. "But the movement is alive, it has grown, and it's well institutionalized.