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Great Society’s Legal Aid for Poor Targeted by Budget Ax

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TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

It is a legacy of the Lyndon Johnson years that lived on while other seeds of the Great Society went fallow or died on the vine--flourishing, in fact, despite periodic political firestorms and charges from the right.

But after a 30-year roller-coaster ride, Congress is on the verge of drastically reducing legal aid for the nation’s 39 million poor people in the most dramatic change since the program was created as part of the War on Poverty in 1965.

The budget of the Legal Services Corp., the Washington-based umbrella and funding conduit for hundreds of legal services offices from California to Maine, would be slashed 33%, to $278 million; separate funding for migrants would be eliminated.

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Lawyers who receive any funding from the corporation would be prohibited from filing class-action suits, representing illegal immigrants, taking any attorneys’ fees, challenging new welfare laws or lobbying on their clients’ behalf before government bodies.

Moreover, under legislation approved by a House-Senate conference committee, federal funding would be abolished for more than two dozen high-powered legal services projects--including several based in Los Angeles--that specialize in areas such as consumer fraud, family law, health care and veterans’ benefits. In the committee’s compromise, funding also has been terminated for the Clearinghouse, the Chicago-based communications hub for the legal services community.

The effort to curtail legal services represents one of the more successful battles on the part of the new Republican majority in Congress to roll back decades of liberal reform begun during Johnson’s administration. It is a lightning rod for pent-up hostility, both an expensive commitment in a time of dwindling resources and a philosophical target for Newt Gingrich and GOP freshmen.

Lawyers for the poor are understandably anxious.

“It’s probably the most fundamental shift in how government deals with disadvantaged people at any time since the Great Depression. At the time when our clients need us most, the government is cutting back on the amount of work we can do for them and the kind of work we can do for them,” said veteran poverty lawyer John F. O’Toole, director of the National Center for Youth Law, one of the specialized centers that is losing all its federal funding.

O’Toole said he is particularly troubled that the cuts in legal services are coming at a time when there will be major reductions in long-standing federal benefit programs for the poor that have comprised the federal “safety net.”

The prospective changes represent a victory for such long-term opponents of legal services as the American Farm Bureau, which for three decades has railed against poverty lawyers’ vigorous advocacy for migrant agricultural workers. In Senate testimony last June, Dean Kleckner, the bureau’s president, characterized the Legal Services Corp. as “a rogue agency, beyond accountability and possibly beyond reform,” and indicated that his organization and others would favor its abolition.

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William Mellor, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, said “the changes will go a considerable way toward addressing the problems that made people concerned about LSC’s excesses.” Prime among them, he said, are class-action suits that have prevented government officials from changing welfare laws that Mellor views as overly permissive.

Others disagree. Gary M. Bellow, a Harvard Law School professor and a poverty law expert, said the looming changes would fundamentally undermine the purpose of the Legal Services Corp.--”to provide equal access to the system of justice . . . for individuals who seek redress of grievances.” Bellow said the changes would reduce the limited access poor people have to the civil justice system. He noted that numerous studies have shown that only 15% to 20% of the nation’s poor are able to get legal services.

“This is designed to reproduce the underfunded, understaffed, ineffectual, overwhelmed legal services programs that existed before 1965,” Bellow said. That year, the combined budgets of all the legal aid societies in the U.S. totaled $4.5 million, according to the National Legal Aid and Defender Assn.

“I feel really angry and really sad about this situation,” said Veronika Kot, who has been a legal services lawyer since she graduated from UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law in 1988.

In the past four years, Kot, of Alameda County Legal Services, has been the successful lead lawyer in two major class-action cases that are emblematic of the “impact litigation” that has brought comfort to the nation’s poor and fanned opposition from Legal Services Corp. critics. Both are suits that Kot could not file as a Legal Services attorney after the ban on class-action suits goes into effect.

In December 1991, Kot led a team of attorneys, including Clare Pastore of Los Angeles’ Western Center on Law and Poverty, that scored a victory for poor California women who need child care so they can participate in job training to get off welfare.

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A federal judge in San Francisco ruled that state officials had violated U.S. law by taking an overly restrictive view of which welfare recipients could qualify for child care funds. Judge Saundra B. Armstrong ruled that the Family Support Act of 1988 requires all states to guarantee child care to recipients of Aid to Families With Dependent Children in education or training approved by the state.

Among the beneficiaries of that decision is Natasha Jeffery of Oakland, who is the single parent of a 5-year-old girl. Jeffery, 34, said she went on AFDC two years ago after she lost her job at a glass company when it shut down. Jeffery said she applied for a state training program but was told she was too old.

But last March she did qualify for another training program called NET that was specifically created as a result of Armstrong’s ruling. In May, she enrolled in the Fremont program, which will qualify her for eight types of jobs upon completion of the one-year program, Jeffery said. NET pays for six hours of child care five days a week while Jeffery is in school.

In the second case, Kot convinced a state court judge in October that Alameda County violated state law when it slashed monthly general assistance to the county’s poor from $300 to $221. That decision is on appeal, a process that could last years. But under the proposed new restrictions, Kot has to resign from the case by July 1 or Alameda County Legal Services could lose its federal funding.

Critics say Legal Services lawyers have pursued a liberal social agenda rather than tend to the real needs of the poor.

At a September hearing, Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), one of Legal Services’ most vocal opponents, lambasted the agency for having “filed a lawsuit against every state in the union that is trying to implement welfare reform by requiring welfare recipients to work.”

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He said numerous organizations opposed “any attempt to restore or increase funds” to Legal Services, including the Farm Bureau, the Traditional Values Coalition and the Christian Coalition, whose leader Ralph Reed has accused the agency of being anti-family because of its work in divorce cases.

Legal Services Corp. President Alexander Forger said the criticisms were overblown and off the mark. “We represent clients, not causes,” he declared.

Forger said he was mystified about why the Christian Coalition “seeks our termination because we enable poor women to obtain divorces, frequently by reason of spousal abuse or abandonment.”

Alan Houseman, a veteran poverty lawyer, acknowledged that victorious class-action suits against government officials and private businesses--though they represent less than 1% of Legal Services work--are controversial, particularly “in today’s climate when poor people are not favored with sympathy by much of the public, and advocates who speak on their behalf run the risk of offending those in power.”

Former Republican Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire said that he had looked into complaints of the agriculture industry “pretty carefully several years ago” and found that Legal Services lawyers representing farm workers were conducting themselves properly, “representing their clients very aggressively” and had a “phenomenally successful track record” in court unmarred by sanctions of any kind.

President Clinton, whose wife Hilary Rodham Clinton once chaired the Legal Services board, has said he favors a $415-million budget for the agency and opposes the proposed restrictions. But even the most optimistic Legal Services supporters do not anticipate that they will get much more than the $278 million during the haggling over the federal budget.

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“This goes much deeper than the cuts made in the early years of the Reagan administration,” when the agency’s budget was chopped 25%, said Loyola Law School professor John O. Calmore. He and others emphasized that the changes will be far broader than barring Legal Services lawyers from filing high-impact class-action cases.

They also will mean a significant reduction in the programs’ ability to do the less controversial day-to-day work of helping poor clients forestall questionable evictions, pursue minimum-wage violations, halt domestic violence and combat unscrupulous door-to-door sales practices.

In anticipation of the cuts, Legal Services programs all over the country--including dozens in California--have started laying off employees. For example, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles now employs only 25 lawyers, less than half of what it had at its peak in the 1980s.

At Pacoima-based San Fernando Valley Neighborhood Legal Services, Executive Director Neal S. Dudovitz said he has had to lay off two lawyers and six support staff members. “It will certainly limit us,” said Dudovitz, whose program represents clients from Glendale to the Antelope Valley.

Among the services he will be forced to cut back are assistance to individuals the agency has been helping since the January 1994 Northridge earthquake. The work has ranged from attempts to get food, shelter and medical attention to facilitating more long-range needs for repair and replacement of damaged housing.

The cutbacks are expected to hit migrant farm workers particularly hard. “These cuts will be more devastating to us than most other legal aid programs,” said Ralph S. Abascal, who has worked at California Rural Legal Assistance since 1967.

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Abascal said California Rural Legal Assistance could easily lose a third of its 50 lawyers because it is funded from the $2 million the agency currently receives for migrant work--a grant that is scheduled to evaporate next year. And he said the agency could lose another dozen lawyers because of the overall Legal Services budget cut.

The vast funding reductions and the prohibitions on the types of cases Legal Services lawyers can do will place increased responsibility on private lawyers to take up the slack, said Laurie D. Zelon, president of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., who has been attempting to find attorneys to take over cases that Legal Services lawyers have to jettison because of the new rules.

She said the private resources could be increased, but that there is no way they can replace the federal money.

“At our best,” Zelon stressed, “we were only meeting 20% of the legal needs of the poverty population. . . . Legal assistance can mean the difference between being on the streets or in shelter; it can mean the difference between medical care for a life-threatening situation and no care, and it can mean keeping children with their families.”

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