ANNAPOLIS, JULY 22 -- Usually, Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer does battle with lawyers. But today he found himself in a show of good will expressing gratitude to the representatives of the legal community gathered before him.
"When I opened my mouth on this, you could have really let me have it with both barrels," Schaefer said at a ceremony to announce an agreement with organizations paid by the state to provide legal care for the poor, abused and handicapped.
Actually, the agreement requires few changes in the way the organizations conduct business and is far from Schaefer's original plan to withhold state funds from legal aid groups unless they pledged not to sue the state.
If legal aid groups were happy with the conciliation, Schaefer appeared happy to have the issue behind him.
Legal experts had said Schaefer's plan was the first by any state to make funding of legal services for the poor contingent on an agreement that state agencies not be sued. Some legal aid lawyers said such a restriction could cripple their ability to represent their clients vigorously.
The negative outcry to his plan from the legal community and newspaper editorial boards pushed Schaefer "into a corner" and made him appear callous to the rights of the disadvantaged, he said.
"I want everyone to understand it was not my intention to undermine the legal rights of our citizens -- the mentally ill, abused, elderly, retarded," Schaefer said.
Schaefer said he understood that there are times when state government is unresponsive to the needs of the disadvantaged and the only recourse is the courts. "That I am perfectly aware of and support," Schaefer said.
"I am a lawyer," he said, adding, "You may not know it by the way I've talked about lawyers."
What Schaefer said he wants is more negotiations before the problems become lawsuits, and the agreement would make formal the practice of notifying state government of a potential legal problem and giving the state an opportunity to try to resolve the issue without going to court.
Legal Aid Bureau Executive Director Charles H. Dorsey Jr. called the agreement one of "protocol . . . with an emphasis on communication."
In addition, the plan drawn by Attorney General J. Joseph Curran -- who Schaefer said "saw his governor in trouble" and offered to help -- would clearly define which legal services are to be provided by the agencies funded by the state and calls for development of a policy for waiving attorneys' fees when the legal services programs are successful in cases against the state.
Attorneys' fees have not been much of an expense to the state in the past. The Maryland Disability Law Center, one of the groups that receives money from the state, has received only $15,000 in such fees from the state in the last four years. The Legal Aid Bureau has received none, Curran said.
Schaefer said at today's news conference that he did not discuss his original plan with legal aid groups before the Board of Public Works approved it last month, and admitted that most of the problems he had said he encountered with "ambitious" young lawyers who would rather sue the government than negotiate had occurred while he was mayor of Baltimore.
Schaefer said his original message had been misconstrued and took responsibility for that, but said it is only inactive governors who never receive adverse publicity. They, Schaefer said, "get no publicity at all."