EVERY ONCE in a while it becomes uncomfortably clear that Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer either doesn't fully understand or, if he understands, doesn't entirely subscribe to the difficult side of democratic government. The paternalistic streak that is his strength -- the source of much of his civic energy -- is also his great weakness. Never in his short administration has that been clearer than in the crabbed, repressive position he has now taken on legal aid.

The governor says, sure, he would be happy to continue giving state funds to the Legal Aid Bureau of Baltimore, which represents the poor, but only if the bureau promises in return that it will not sue the state. That's an offer that, were it accepted, would demean both sides. What if, as more than occasionally happens, the state turns out to be the entity the poor and their lawyers believe is denying them their due? Too bad, the governor is saying. Life on this plantation is not always fair; we only help the tame. The state of Maryland doesn't need to insure itself this way against its own poorest people.

The reason for giving legal aid to the poor is to guarantee equal access to the law. You either believe in that equal access or you don't. The arguments on the governor's side of this issue are well known. Ronald Reagan has made them for years in his effort, begun when he was governor of California, to abolish the federal program of free legal aid. Gov. Schaefer is right; there will always be some bellicose and perhaps ambitious lawyers in this program "who don't want to talk. Their attitude is, we sue." It's a pain in the neck. But the governor's alternative is to put a dollar sign on citizenship, an asterisk after the rights of poor people. It's a terrible way to do thing