Attacks on Ronald Reagan from the diehard wing of the reactionary right would likely be much fiercer were it not for the occasional bone he throws it. Such a chewable is the Legal Services Corp.
The program that provides lawyers for the poor has been loathed, smeared and savaged by right-wing obsessives since it began in the mid-1960s. The reactionary right--as opposed to open- minded conservatives in Congress and state legislatures who have been firm supporters of Legal Services--sees the program's lawyers as fomenters of social turmoil and purveyors of down-with-the-system radicalism: stop the program and you stop the chaos.
Despite his backoffs from other Far-Right compulsions, Reagan has stayed with the true believers on Legal Services. He tried to eliminate the program in California, but some judges overruled him. Last year he asked Congress to kill it. He was refused. He is asking again this year. With 25 percent of the Legal Services budget already cut, about a fourth of the 1,400 neighborhood offices now being closed and 2,000 of a current staff of 6,200 lawyers to be dropped this year, Congress, which has always backed Legal Services, will likely say enough is enough.
Denied quick elimination, Reagan is comforting the right by coming back with a scheme for slow elimination. In December and January during the congressional recess, he appointed a new Legal Services board that has severely demoralized the already weakened agency. Only one of the 10 new members had ever worked professionally with Legal Services lawyers. Others confess to knowing little about the program. Some are known to have low regard to the philosophy behind it.
The attitude of one of the board members gives an idea of the bleakness. George E. Paras is a former California judge whose recent well-publicized attacks on a one-time colleague on the bench are crude even by the standards of the Far Right. Paras released a letter he wrote to Judge Cruz Reynoso, a former Legal Services director in California and now on that state's supreme court: "Your problem is that you feel it is your obligation to be a professional Mexican rather than a lawyer. Thus you must remain true to the ideals consistently tossed about by the leaders of the so-called Mexican movement. You must ever champion the 'oppressed,' meaning those who so designate themselves, such as criminals, handicapped, welfare recipients, demonstrators, 'minorities,' and miscellaneous other have-nots."
When a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asked for a fuller explanation, Paras obliged: "You know, there are such things as professional blacks, or professional Greeks, professional Dagos, professional Jews--people who put their ethnic origin ahead of everything else. That's what I meant."
Until Thursday, it appeared that Paras and the others would be turned loose on Legal Services without being confirmed by the Senate. They were recess appointments. But groups like the Equal Justice Foundation--which join the American Bar Association in supporting Legal Services--had been arguing persuasively that the appointments may be illegal because the recess nomination process, as outlined in the Constitution, was meant for emergencies. The illegality was pressed in a suit filed Thursday by some former board members.
On the same day, the White House mulled it over and decided to send the names to the Senate after all. (An ex- congressman who had voted against the program was dropped and a Florida lawyer added). The Senate may or may not be up to telling the lackluster board nominees that the poor deserve better. But even if a few or all of the board are rejected, the larger gloom remains. The program --including its outstanding record and its diverse supporters--is still under seige by Reagan and the Far Right that he means to comfort with that seige. For the poor, it means that they are being picked on again.