Don't go back on justice for the poor

The Reagan administration recently proposed that the Legal Services Corp. be eliminated and all federal funding for civil legal services be terminated. Under the President's proposal, if local legal services programs are to continue , the financing must come from state or local sources. Legal services for poor people could not survive such a shift, particularly in the states where it is most needed.

In crafting "a more perfect Union," the first purpose expressed by the Constitution's framers was to "establish Justice." That aim is stated in the preamble even before the need to "ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare. . . ." Without justice, there can be no domestic peace or general welfare -- in short, there can be nothing worth defending.

The federal government took great strides in the 1960s and 1970s toward establishing justice in this country for poor people as well as those who can afford to hire an attorney when faced with a civil legal problem. Federal funding of civil legal services for poor people began in 1964. A decade later Congress passed the Legal Services Corporation Act. That Act shifted federal funding of civil legal help for poor people from the Executive Branch -- where it had become an issue of bitter partisan politics under President Nixon -- to an independent entity, the Legal Services Corp., charged with supporting civil law enforcement, independent of partisan political pressures.

In the intervening years, Congress approved the corporation's plan to ensure that a least two lawyers are available to enforce the civil laws on behalf of every 10,000 poor people -- not an adequate level of support but a sound beginning. Last year, more than a million women and men living in poverty were helped with their civil legal problems by one of 323 local programs funded by the corporation throughout the country, including the superb one in Los Angeles.

Only a small percentage of those problems went to court. Most were routine affairs -- except to the people involved: illegal evictions were stopped, social security payments were provided, blacks and Hispanics gained equal opportunities for employment, and in scores of other ways the rights of poor people were protected. In each of these matters, a local legal services program -- supported by the corporation -- was a civil law enforcement agent. that is what legal services for the poor people is all about: evenhanded law enforcement to "establish Justice."

Legal services programs regularly represent poor people who have grievances against local and state -- as well as federal -- government actions and inactions. As a consequence they are often in direct conflict with local and state governments. When the law is not enforced on behalf of a poor person -- whether the fault lies with a state governor or a minor bureaucrat -- legal services lawyers are there to represent that person. In doing so, they represent all of us by ensuring that the legal system is not skewed in favor of those who can afford a lawyer.

In this light, it is hardly surprising that some state and local officials want to eliminate legal services for the poor or impose restrictions on suits against local and state agencies. President Reagan took that position when he was governor of California. Those officials would prefer to operate without the need to defend their actions if charged with violating the law. Many landlords, shop owners, and employers feel the same way; it is easier for them, too, if tenants, customers, and employees cannot protect their legal rights.

No communist country in the world would tolerate public funding of suits against the government and others accused by poor people of unlawful actions. But that funding, and the protection it provides for poor people, is the essence of our constitutional system.

All persons, rich and poor, must abide by the law. They must also -- if justice is to be maintained -- be able to invoke the law's protection if the need arises.

Funding for an independent professional legal services program must continue. The administration's proposal should be defeated by Congress.

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