Committee Aggressively Making Wide Search To Replace Thomas Ehrlich In Prestigious Position

PERHAPS THE BEST, and certainly the most prestigious, job in public interest law will officially become open May 1, when Legal Services Corporation President Thomas Ehrlich leaves to take a high position with the Carter administration.

Ehrlich, an urbane, skillful practitioner of the art of diplomacy in politics, has had a remarkable success during the almost four years he directed the federally-funded public corporation.

The legal Services Corporation funds 335 legal services programs operating out of 900 offices in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Micronesia. Since Congress created the corporation in 1974, in an effort to give it a permanent, semi-independent status somewhat insulated from politics, the program has enjoyed steady growth.

A search committee, headed by Washington lawyer Steven L. Engelberg, already has begun looking for a replacement. The committee is supposed to return by June 1 with a list of nominees for confirmation by the corporation's board of directors, who are appointed by the president with Senate approval. The 11-member group will select Ehrlich's successor.

According to Engelberg, the committee is "aggressively" seeking a replacement, rather than passively waiting for applicants. The board also is accepting nominees from the public at large, whether the candidates send in his or her own name or someone else does it.

What is remarkable about the corporation is not so much the way it has grown-from a budget of $92.3 million in fiscal 1976 to $270 million in 1979-but that it is here at all. There were days, back in the early 1970s, when the budget was only $60 million and the future of U.S. aid to legal services for the poor was very much in doubt.

Legal assistance to the poor is one of the lasting legacies of Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty. Sargent Shriver, first director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, convinced the American legal establishment in the early days of the poverty program that a nation claiming to have the law as its bedrock could not function with any degree of equality unless all of its citizens had access to the system. We still have not reached that point, but the movement appears to be in that direction.

During the headier days of the Nixon administration, the legal services program was one of the favorite targets of political conservatives. On the one hand, they wanted the poor to "work within the system" and to show a proper respect for law and order. On the other hand, critics of the program saw no reason why the federal government should be paying out money so that the poor could-among other things-haul federal officials into court as a way of airing grievances.

If we really mean business about wanting the poor-those who cannot afford to pay out of their own pocket when they wnt to object to an arbitrary or unfair law or regulation-to work within the system, then its seems fairly clear that greater society has to provide a mechanism to open the legal system to the indigent. A society founded on law has to make the law available to all of its citizens.

If that sounds too saccharine, here's another argument that does just as well. Washington and other major cities around the country are filled with lawyers and law firms representing the privileged of our society-General Motors, Exxon, United States Steel, Coca Cola and thousand of lesser corporations and businesses-all of whom want the government to do or not to do something that will help or hurt them. All of that legal work, along with three-martini lunches, gets passed off as a business expense, which qualifies as a deductible item under federal tax laws. So the federal government is subsidizing-albeit indirectly-corporate attacks on federal laws and regualtions. If it's fair for the rich, why not the poor?

Laying out the argument now seems a little quaint, as unnecessary as stating why women should have the vote. The Legal Services Corporation appears to be riding high at the moment. Walter Mondale sponsored the legislation that created the corporation when he was in the Senate, and he has maintained an interest in the corporation's well-being. The American Bar Association continues to give the program strong support, and it still gets bipartisan backing in both houses of Congress.

There's nothing automatic about the corporation's success. Engelberg points out that an attempt in the House to cut funding for the corporation failed last year by one vote. He believes that support for the program is still strong, but that a threat is always present beneath the surface-the same urge to cut the poor off from the legal representation that can channel their grievances and frustrations into courts of law rather than the streets.

that's one good reason why finding the right person to continue the work is important