Meeting the Poor's Legal Needs

RECENT studies in Massachusetts and other states reveal that only about 20 percent of the noncriminal legal needs of America's poorest residents are met. Every day thousands of our most powerless people are evicted from their apartments, have government benefits cut off, lose their immigration status, or futilely seek divorce, child custody, or child support without the help of a lawyer.

It's against this backdrop that we view the continuing political battles that engulf the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which channels funds to more than 300 legal-aid providers at the local level. When the need for poverty lawyers is so acute, it's disgraceful that the federal government has all but abdicated leadership in making the legal system work for the poor.

This month the Bush administration, for the third straight year, appointed 10 members of the LSC's 11-person board while Congress was in recess (the 11th member also sits by virtue of an unexpired recess appointment). The administration resorts to this blatant misuse of the president's recess-appointment power - intended for the short-term filling of federal vacancies when Congress is out - partly out of fear that the Senate will reject appointees thought to be indifferent to legal services for the poor.

The Senate isn't blameless. When President Bush finally submitted the names of the LSC directors for confirmation last year, the Senate Labor Committee never scheduled hearings.

Meanwhile, the LSC continues to operate without an official authorization bill, as it has for a decade. Introduction of the bill has been delayed in anticipation of a fierce fight between supporters of legal services for the poor and "reformers" anxious to fence in poverty lawyers.

Hostility to legal aid among some conservatives is rooted in an image of radical lawyers who spend their days, at taxpayer expense, in political activism rather than helping poor people resolve day-to-day legal problems. A glance at the case docket of any local legal-services provider should disabuse fair-minded critics of that stale notion.

Things have improved since the Reagan administration sought repeatedly to abolish LSC and, when that failed, stocked the board with enemies of legal services for the poor. The current, more moderate board has taken steps to improve strained relations with the field of grantees, and this month the board voted to request a nearly 50 percent increase in the corporation's funding, after years of little growth.

Even so, poverty lawyers at the local level still say they detect at the LSC little real enthusiasm for legal aid. Additional money would be welcome, these lawyers acknowledge. But they say that the corporation also could be doing far more in terms of being a national voice for legal services, and to launch programs to improve the training, excellence, and efficiency of lawyers for the poor.

The LSC leaders will, in turn, take their cue from the Oval Office. Mr. Bush?

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