A year ago, the Legal Services Corporation looked to many like a moribund agency, one that came close to disappearing off the chart of the federal bureaucracy.
Since then, the agency has endured one unpleasant development after another. They have included:
* The continuing opposition of the Reagan administration, which would still like to abolish the agency.
* A furor over seven appointments to its board of directors, which could take effect immediately because Congress was in recess. The board met hurriedly the next day, Dec. 31, and some critics suspected that the appointees would try to prevent the corporation from spending any money.
* The announcement by Dan J. Bradley, as he stepped down as the agency's president, that he is a homosexual. That did nothing to endear conservatives to the corporation, but many observers say the announcement had little if any effect.
Disclosure of a letter in which George E. Paras, one of President Reagan's nominees to the board of directors, criticized a Hispanic judge for trying to be a "professional Mexican rather than a lawyer." Paras provoked further controversy when he clarified his statement: "There are such things as professional blacks, professional Greeks, professional dagos, professional Jews, people who put their ethnic origin ahead of everything else."
The irony is that instead of weakening the victim, the adversity seems to have built character. And while the agency is not exactly well, it is still very much alive.
An outgrowth of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, the corporation provides funds to legal aid programs for the poor around the country. The programs do not help criminal defendants, but rather people in divorce cases, tenant-landlord disputes, battles over utility cut-offs and similar problems.
Over the years, the lawyers employed by the corporation also have become involved in controversial causes--abortion funding and the rights of migrant workers and prisoners. Often publicly funded lawyers won victories in these areas, not just for their clients, but for large numbers of people through class-action suits.
Such activity antagonized many conservatives, including Reagan when he was governor of California. After becoming president, Reagan sought to eliminate the corporation. But Congress prevailed and appropriated $241 million for fiscal 1982--25 percent less than the corporation had in fiscal 1981.
Because of the budget cut, the number of field offices has been reduced from 1,475 to 1,182. The number of attorneys--whose average salary is $17,700--decreased from 6,337 to 4,564. Many offices must choose only the cases they consider most urgent.
But observers inside and outside the agency think Congress will continue to support the corporation, ensuring that it will continue to exist.
"I think the corporation will be around. There's no doubt about it," said Gerald M. Caplan, the corporation's acting president. "It's part of the bureaucratic landscape. The questions are funding level and restrictions on us. . . . They're important matters, but they are not life-and-death matters."
Many others agree, although they stress that budget cuts and restrictions on activities--such as class-action suits--could impair the corporation's effectivenes. Many say it is too early to tell how the board of directors, appointed by Reagan, will act after they are confirmed by the Senate.
Several watchdog groups that vigorously support the corporation object to some of the nominees. With one exception, they are are the same people Reagan named as recess appointees to the board, and thus have been guiding the board since their appointments last December.
The most controversial nominee is Paras, whom Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (D-Mo.) described in committee hearings as a "disgrace" and a "14-karat bigot." Another controversial nominee, Marc Sandstrom, has dropped out and resigned his recess appointment.
Paras' nomination seems to be in serious trouble. Before a vote on the nominees last week by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, the White House called Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and asked that the vote on Paras' nomination be deferred. The committee approved the other nominees, though one squeaked through by a one-vote margin.
Hatch defended Paras, conceding that his words were regrettable but denying that he is bigoted. Hatch said Paras felt strongly that the judge was more committed to his ethnic group than to legal principles, and wanted to reprimand him.
Some corporation supporters say they will be able to live with the Reagan nominees. Debby Stashower, a spokesman for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, said she found it encouraging that the nominees supported continuation of the corporation and a higher level of funding for it next year.
"I don't think they plan to come in with hatchets and be a wrecking crew," she said.
Stashower and others also were encouraged when the board chose Caplan, a Legal Services supporter with some background in the area, to be acting president. The board is searching for a permanent replacement, but Caplan said the search had been placed on hold pending confirmation of the nominees.
LeaAnne Bernstein, special counsel to the search committee, said 342 resumes had been received for the position. Caplan said more would be sought.
"There are some absolutely wonderful applicants," Bernstein said, "totally competent individuals who are well-known inside and outside the legal services community."
But Bernstein and others acknowledged that the corporation's recent difficulties, as well as uncertainty about its future, probably has kept some potential applicants from sending in resumes.