Maryland Attorney General Stephen Sachs told a a Senate subcommittee yesterday that "there is no stain on the record of the Reagan administration uglier" than its attempts to end federal legal services to the poor.
Sachs told the Appropriations subcommittee on state, justice, commerce and the judiciary, which is considering the budget of the Legal Services Corporation, that killing the program would leave more than 30 million Americans without access to the courts.
The president has tried in his fiscal '82 and '83 budgets to eliminate all funding for the program, but Congress has refused to agree. The Legal Services Corporation, established in 1974, funds law offices throughout the country, including 14 in Maryland, that provide free legal counsel to the poor.
The corporation is seeking $265 million for fiscal 1983 -- a 10 percent increase over this year's appropriation, but about $50 million less than under the last Carter administration budget. One proponent said yesterday that the program has "tremendous support" on Capitol Hill and is expected to survive the funding threats.
The president of the American Bar Association and former senator Hugh Scott (R-Pa.), representing a group of legal services advocates, joined Sachs in defense of the program.
But others called for the subcommittee to refuse to appropriate the funds. Howard Phillips, director of the Virginia-based Conservative Caucus, called legal services a "massive boondoggle for the legal profession" and a program that through "constant pressure for more welfare and more social spending, enormously increased the burden on the American taxpayer."
Sachs, however, argued that legal services offers the poor their only access to representation in routine legal matters, such as injury at work, divorce and eviction, and in dealing with "a complex web of regulations governing welfare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance and all the other support services that even the administration regards as a 'safety net' for the poor."
Last year's cuts in the federal legal services budget forced its Maryland arm, the Legal Aid Bureau Inc., to consolidate offices, cut back on staff and face a heavy backlog of cases, executive director Charles H. Dorsey said in a telephone interview. Dorsey's $5.2 million budget dropped to about $4 million this year.
In Montgomery and Prince George's counties, he said, Legal Aid was forced to consolidate two offices, located in Silver Spring and Hyattsville, into one now in Langley Park. "It certainly poses a problem for the poor in more remote areas, who have a longer distance to drive to get services," Dorsey said. However, he said the gap in funding was lessened by a grant from the Montgomery County government and an offer of some free legal service from the local bar association.
But the impact was greater in other counties and the cuts are coming at a time when "bad economic conditions are increasing the demand for legal services" by the poor, he said.
Sachs argued that the Reagan administration was working a double injustice on the poor.
"To cripple or destroy programs which feed and house and educate and heal the nation's poor is bad enough," he told subcommittee chairman Sen. Lowell Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.). "But this administration, by seeking to ration justice as well, would strip its critics of the means to fight back. That tactic is familiar, and terribly unfair. In sporting arenas it is called hitting and holding. On the streets it's called mugging."