Speech to the National Legal Aid and Defender Association Annual Conference

Kansas City, MO | November 14, 1989

We are a dead society if we do not make every effort, both public and private, to lift people up from the bottom...It's a risky business, to be sure. The people we are helping to start up society's ladder may be troublesome; they may not fit neatly into some bureaucratic scheme; their problems may be controversial. But are not those the problems we should be about as a people?

Back in the very earliest days of OEO, I had an opportunity to visit a Legal Services Center that had just opened at the University of Detroit Law School, run by faculty and students. I met a couple there. They were returning from an appearance in a small claims court. The husband was 71 years old, his wife 67. They were accompanied by a law student who had helped them in court. They had just won a verdict for $68. I asked them how they felt, and the old man looked at me and said: "Mr. Shriver, this is the first time we have ever won anything, the first time we've ever had anyone on our side." Then tears began to fill his eyes. And he took my hand and kissed it.

Of course, I didn't deserve or earn that kiss. In truth, that old man wasn't kissing my hand; he was kissing the hand of justice. Justice that had touched him for the very first time in his life...Justice...one of the most basic necessities for a good society. For without justice, there can be no good society.

In the preamble to the United States Constitution, before that document refers to domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity --before all of that -- The Constitution says, "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice...

Thus, -- immediately after creating a more perfect Union, our founders listed Justice as the principal purpose of our new nation. Justice then was what the USA was all about. Justice is also what you are all about. And that is why I am glad to be with you to talk a little about how we got started, twenty-five years ago, building the structure necessary to provide equal justice for America's poor.

When I was called upon to create a "war against poverty" in 1964, I knew little about poverty. And I certainly don't claim to have had a vision about the importance of including legal services among the array of programs we were putting together. It was Edgar Cahn who had that vision. I was just open-minded enough to read what Edgar had written. And when I read his article called "The War On Poverty: A Civilian Perspective" in the Yale Law Journal, it didn't take five minutes for me to know that his article was profound and extremely important. Adam Yarmolinsky had recommended the article to me, so I asked Adam to get Edgar to talk to us.

Edgar came, alone, from his GS-15 slot in the Justice Department.... alone, somewhat small in stature, modest in demeanor, calm and reflective in speech. He impressed me immediately by the clarity and originality of his thought, and by his dedication to the achievement of justice for the
poor. I think I asked him on the spot to leave his well-paid job and join us in creating a new effort to establish justice for those in America who never had had any justice at all. He accepted the challenge without hesitation. We never discussed salary or titles. Only the vision enthralled us both.

I was 48 years old then in January 1964, and, frankly, I had grown up with some pretty traditional ideas. I had always believed, for example, that a government had the right to decide what kind of benefits it would provide for its citizens and under what circumstances. But pretty soon after we started the Legal Services Program, several things happened that began to change my thinking.

First of all, it amazed me how quickly things happened in Legal Services. Here were all these lawyers that I had not selected -- young, inexperienced, idealistic, but bright, bright, bright -- taking on huge bureaucracies, and winning. There was no doubt about the importance of what they were doing. In the first year some of their initiatives went straight to the Supreme Court; and they won them all. It was unprecedented. How these young lawyers, only in their twenties, could bring about so many innovations in the law, in such a short period of time, was then and still is a marvel to me.

One of the cases that made a particular impression was the one involving New York State where there was a residency requirement for receiving welfare. Migrants and others coming into the state couldn't get on the public welfare rolls. I had grown up thinking that states were well within their rights to establish their own standards in such matters. Otherwise, the progressive, generous states would be flooded by refugees, I thought, from the parsimonious ones. But then these bright young Legal Services lawyers came along and took that case right to the Supreme Court; and won it. That famous decision, (Shapiro vs. Thompson), cost Governor Nelson Rockefeller's Budget several hundred million dollars a year. But thousands of poor persons were helped immeasurably by that decision. And it was young lawyers who had the freshness of thinking and vision and courage to achieve that victory. They opened my eyes, and the eyes and hearts of many others.

Just for the record, this case was the first ever argued before the U.S. Supreme Court by any Legal Aid or Legal Services lawyer in U.S. history...Thank God, we won!

Jim Gilhool who argued that case went on to a successful legal and public service career. For the last three years he has been Secretary of Education for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and to prove that courage and idealism still exist in the USA, he just quit that high-paying, distinguished Cabinet job to teach History to Junior High youngsters in one of Philadelphia's ghetto schools!

On another occasion, I got a phone call at OEO from Bill Wirtz, the Secretary of Labor. His Department was being bombarded with lawsuits from the California Rural Legal Assistance program contesting the legality of a Labor Department program importing seasonal cheap labor from Mexico to harvest fruit crops in California. The young lawyers at CRLA brought suit to require the employment of local labor before importing Mexicans.

So, on the telephone was Bill Wirtz, excellent labor lawyer, and law professor, my friend from our Chicago days when we both worked for Adlai Stevenson. He said to me, "Sarge, what the hell are you doing?" (I used to get a lot of "what the hell are you doing?" phone calls in those days.)

"You're preventing my people from doing their jobs," he said. And I said, "Bill, are you suggesting that I should try to prevent the Legal Services lawyers from pursuing possible remedies at law on behalf of those poor people in California? OEO was established to help the poor"...

There was a dead silence on the phone. Finally, Bill said, "Well, Sarge, I see what you mean," and slammed the phone down. And that was the end of the Department of Labor's protest against OEO's Legal Service lawyers. This is the example of an exceptional man of great learning in the law, experienced in Government, sensitive to human rights, but he had never really looked at the situation within his own Department from the narrow (if you will) viewpoint of the poor.

Those two stories exemplify that no matter how well motivated persons may be, how eager to do the right thing for the poor, we can have our senses dulled over the years. We don't really see. We need to be shown. In every society there is a tendency for those getting along pretty well not to be sensitive to the human problems the poor confront every day. That's a universal truth. It was true in Biblical times; it's true tonight.

In the 1964 Presidential campaign, Barry Goldwater said in West Virginia that he had traveled all across America and he hadn't seen any poverty. He told the truth. He hadn't seen any poverty. Like most of us, he had been driving on the freeways. Today, I leave my house in Potomac, Maryland, and drive ten miles to my office in downtown Washington. Enroute I see more Jaguars than poor people! I work in a comfortable office all day and then I drive back out the Parkway to Potomac. If I wanted to, I could honestly believe there is no poverty. But I know better; the War Against Poverty taught me that.

The point is that most of us are insulated from reality; we are restricted in our vision. We don't always see the human suffering around us. Whether it's me or Bill Wirtz or whoever, it's intellectually impossible to be continually on the cutting edge. We have to be shown the way.

For example, many people believe America is now enjoying prosperous times. George Bush thinks so. Many people believe Ronald Reagan was a successful President. But the number of poor people in America during the Reagan-Bush years has been the highest in twenty years!! Almost a whole generation of poor people created by Reagan and being perpetuated by Bush. The number of poor people has escalated under Reagan and Bush. Even under Nixon and Ford and Carter the record was better.

These depressing facts are another reason why a strong, well-funded Legal Services program is so vital. The purpose of the Legal Services program is so vital. The purpose of the Legal Services program when we started it twenty-five years ago was to deploy bright lawyers around the country whose job would be to keep their ears, their eyes, and their hearts open to the difficulties poor people have to face, and to make the rest of us see that pain and respond. It is an
exalted mission, a mission of maximum importance to the continued vitality of our democracy.

I've often said about the Peace Corps that I was the only draftee in the history of that great volunteer movement. Kennedy made me do it! And when it came to OEO, President Johnson made me do it! Not only did he want me to run the War on Poverty, but he wanted me to keep on running the Peace Corps. Waging war and peace at the same time. Talk about a split personality. Mahatma Ghandi in the morning. George S. Patton after lunch.

But I can't think of any public servant who ever was given greater opportunities. At both the Peace Corps and OEO, we started, from scratch, to build programs that would have profound effect upon the lives of countless millions of people, throughout the world in the first instance, throughout America in the second. We didn't have any blueprints; we did it as we went along. We weren't bogged down, at least in the beginning, in a lot of bureaucratic nonsense because there wasn't any bureaucracy. We put it together as we worked. We took it apart when it failed and put it back together. What a great way to run the government!

We get a good bit of credit, even from Republicans, for having started Head Start. And we get credit for having started the Job Corps, and Foster Grandparents, and VISTA. And I get a lot of credit for having started the Peace Corps. But I think Legal Services is probably the most important program I ever started...Why? Because justice is the heart of a successful, civil society. Justice is the oxygen of a free society. Without liberty and justice for all, we don't have a life worth living. Justice is more important than health care -- because physical problems are less important than the psychological and spiritual pain that comes from not being treated fairly. Take away the sense of Justice and you have taken away a spiritual quality more important than bread!!!

Look at what's happening in Poland today. People are enduring incredible economic hardships; they are existing on less food in a week than you and I eat in a day. And yet their courage and their spirits are very high, because they are tasting freedom and justice for the first time in fifty years.

What's happening in Russia, and in fact throughout all of Eastern Europe today, is "the biggest story of this century". I just came back a few weeks ago from the Soviet Union. What I saw there is absolute amazing. Even the body language of the people is different.

I've been to the USSR twenty or thirty times, but this time, I was taken to visit a monastery in the heart of Moscow, - a monastery that had been destroyed by Stalin in 1927. Since Perestroika, in the last two and one-half years, it has been completely rebuilt. There's a church in the center with all the icons on the walls and all the candles burning. The Patriarch was there, and his face, his physiognomy, his bearing, his entire being, all bore witness to this new openness, this new freedom. The people who took me there were Communists; I didn't go with someone from the underground. And these people who were showing me this beautifully restored church were delighted because it is so inspiring it gives everybody joy... even to them, -- members of the Communist Party. They were breathing the air of freedom and justice and spirituality for the first time in 72 years!!! Power, too, was being restored to the Russian people, power to do what they
wanted to do with their bodies, minds, and souls.

Legal Services is the principal instrument in this country for releasing poor people from their bondage of powerlessness, from a true form of slavery. Legal Services brings the promise of liberty and justice alive for all poor Americans -- 32 million of our fellow citizens. But all of us cannot bring justice to the poor every day. We need a division of labor. But by helping Legal Services, we can participate, every day, in the unending task of creating a more perfect Union and establishing Justice for all.

Since the day we started, however, there has been someone, somewhere out there, gunning to shoot down Legal Services. Never before in the history of the Republic has one program of modest cost attracted such an impressive cadre of enemies.

First there was Spiro Agnew. In 1972, then Vice President Agnew wrote a scathing piece in the ABA Journal with the catchy title "What's Wrong With Legal Services?" Not at his alliterative best, Agnew referred to Legal Services lawyers as "ideological vigilantes." (Better that than "nattering nabobs of negativism" or "effete intellectual snobs".) We all know what happened to Agnew. A little nolo contendre and he was history, despicable history, but history. The "ideological vigilantes" live on, however, -- I think I see lots of them here tonight.

Then there's Howard Phillips who has been an angel of death trying to kill Legal Services, from within and without, since 1973. Probably Howie's greatest moment came in 1974 when he launched an effort to impeach President Nixon, not because he had trampled on the Constitution, not because he had lied to the American people, not because he had disgraced his office, but because he had signed into law the Legal Services Corporation Act of 1974. Nixon continues apparently as a welcome White House advisor, even today; but Howie natters on, most recently about the former Conservative Congressman from Virginia, Caldwell Butler. Phillips and his associates apparently succeeded in killing Butler's chances to be nominated to lead Legal Services. But Legal Services lives.

And there was that illustrious Senator from California, George Murphy, who tried time and time again to repeal the provision in the OEO Act that allowed the OEO Director to override a Governor's veto of a Community Action grant. That would become particularly significant here in Missouri in 1969 when Governor Warren Hearnes vetoed a grant to the Legal Aid Society of St. Louis and was overridden by one of my successors. When I was OEO Director, I must say that I took Senator Murphy's attitude rather personally. But then I said to myself, "Sarge, what do you expect from a tap dancer?" Senator Murphy is no longer with us and neither is OEO. But Legal Services lives on!!

Nobody has been present longer, or tried harder to kill Legal Services, than Ronald Reagan and his ubiquitous colleague, Ed Meese. Legal Services has been a rather large burr under both their saddles since their days in Sacramento when Governor Reagan vetoed the annual grants to California Rural Legal Assistance. He characterized CRLA lawyers as "a bunch of ideological ambulance chasers doing their own thing at the expense of the poor." "Ideological ambulance chasers" was a precursor to Spiro Angew's "ideological vigilantes".

I realize you all know this story by heart, but I love to tell it so much that you're just going to have to bear with me.

The Reagan Administration in California itemized 157 charges of misconduct against CRLA. A panel of three retired, Chief Justices of state Supreme Courts, all of them Republicans, was appointed by OEO to investigate the charges. There was a full hearing; I was Ambassador to France by then, but I came back to testify at the hearings. Ultimately this distinguished panel of judges found all, not a few, not some, but all of the 157 charges raised by Reagan to be wrong.

That was one of those glorious days that are sprinkled liberally throughout the history of Legal Services. But, Reagan had a long memory, and he and Meese would carry their vendetta with them to the White House and to the Justice Department, nine years later. We're still struggling against their legacy --- and their appointees to the Legal Services Corporation.

Were Reagan and Meese evil? I don't know. Were they ignorant? Absolutely. They had a narrowness of vision that would not allow them to see the suffering their policies caused.

They also weren't particularly courageous.


I was in Ireland four or five years ago. My wife and I went to dinner with the Foreign Minister and his wife. There were eight or nine of us at dinner. One of the guests was Bill Clark who had worked for Reagan in California and later in Washington. He leaned over to me during dinner and said, "I wonder if you remember speaking with me during the controversy around Legal Services in California. I was special assistant to Governor Reagan, and I spoke with you one day when you called the Governor about what was happening with CRLA. The Governor had vetoed the proposed grant and you wanted to explain your position to him." I said, "Did the Governor know about our conversation?" And he said, "Oh, yes, he was right there listening because we had you on a speaker phone." And I wanted to say to him, "Well, then, why didn't he just pick up the phone and talk to me instead of hiding behind you."

Unfortunately, there are still a considerable number of people whose outlook is represented by Reagan. They have no sense that they are striking at the heart of democracy. They aren't evil;
they're ignorant. Their experience has been so narrow that they aren't sensitive to the suffering around them.

Ronald Reagan has clearly been the most, anti-Legal Services political leader in the USA through this entire period, but he hasn't been alone. About three weeks ago there was an
op-ed piece in the Washington Post written by Peter Flaherty of the Conservative Campaign Fund and Elizabeth Whitley of the American Farm Bureau entitled "We Don't Want To Kill Legal Services".

These people and their confederates who have formed themselves into something called the Legal Services Reform Coalition are the very same people and organizations who have been fighting to destroy Legal Services since the program began. Now they talk about wanting to "reform" Legal Services. Howard Phillipps is a member of the Legal Services Reform Coalition! Paul Weyrich and Phyllis Schiafley are members of the Legal Services Reform Coalition. With "reformers" like them, no one needs assassins to kill Legal Services.

What these people want to do, make no mistake about it, is to limit justice, to take away fundamentally the most profound spiritual basis for democracy. They are putting economic interests ahead of justice. They consider Legal Services as some sort of evil germ infecting democracy. They want to constrict, to strangle, to kill the growth of equal justice that should be nurtured and made to blossom throughout this land.

These are the same people, remember, who were allowed by the White House to veto Caldwell Butler for Chairman of the Legal Services Corporation Board because they felt he had been too supportive of the program while he was a Member of Congress. These so-called reformers, and those carrying their water for them in the Congress, cannot be allowed to tear apart this program. We must continue to fight them at every turn. They must not win.

It is particularly interesting to me to see the increased presence of the American Farm Bureau in their councils of war. The Farm Bureau has always been among our foes -- believing, as they seem to, that their members, essentially farmers who buy insurance from them, would be infinitely better off if nobody ever told a migrant farm worker that he had certain rights under the law. It was the California Farm Bureau, interestingly enough, that instigated all of the charges against CRLA which resulted in Reagan's vetoing the program's grant in 1970. And it was the Farm Bureau's lawyers who represented the interests of the Reagan Administration before the panel of judges that ultimately threw out all of those charges.

So don't ask me to believe for one minute that anyone associated with the American Farm Bureau has suddenly discovered the efficacy of Legal Services and has gotten together with Howard Phillips to try to make those services better. These people don't want a level playing field for poor people; they want to destroy the only hope for equal justice that migrant workers and other struggling people have.

But enough of the villains. There have also been more heroes than I could ever name in this still unfinished saga. I've already mentioned Edgar Cahn who was convinced, long before most of the rest of us, that lawyers were essential to give a voice to the poor in the design and implementation of all the other programs that we envisioned at OEO. He was right, of course, and we all owe him an enormous debt for holding firm to his vision and making the rest of us see the light.

But despite his vision, and despite my willingness to be responsive to his ideas, clearly this never could have happened without the support of the organized bar. They were the people who not only saw the vision, but knew how to make it a reality.

Now, I realize that those of you who work as public defenders may have reason to quarrel with a number of the decisions of made by Justice Lewis Powell when he was on the Supreme Court and more recently with the recommendations of the Ad Hoc Committee on Federal Habeas Corpus in Capital Cases, which he chaired. But I must tell you that it was our good fortune
that Lewis Powell was president of the American Bar Association in 1964 when we were beginning to put together the elements of the War on Poverty.

He saw the practical possibility of this idea, and through much patient and time-consuming effort, he persuaded the ABA to go on record in support of federally-funded Legal Services.

From that day to this, through a succession of Presidents and many changes in priorities, the ABA has been a leader in the struggle to provide high quality legal services to America's poor. State and local bar leaders, also, have fought to protect and strengthen the program over the years, and their support has never been more important than in these last nine years. It is not an overstatement to say that without the steadfast support of the organized Bar, the Legal Services Corporation might not have survived the tense years of the Reagan Administration. ABA Presidents from Chesterfield Smith to Bob Raven, as well as up-and-coming Bar leaders like Jack Curtin and JoAnne Garvey, have been outspoken in their support and have never been afraid to put themselves on the line for Legal Services. We will be forever in their debt.

There was another young lawyer coming up through the ranks of the ABA when we started Legal Services. As a close adviser to Lewis Powell in those critical early days, as Chairman of the ABA's Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, as Chairman of the Board of the Legal Services Corporation who continues to believe, deep in his soul, that he is still the only lawful Chairman of that body, and now as your president, Bill McCalpin has never stopped fighting for equal justice. I am here tonight to salute Bill, to thank him for his dedication to the cause of justice, and to wish him Godspeed as he takes the reins of NLADA at what is sure to be yet another critical juncture in the life of Legal Services.

If I were to go on and name all of those men and women who have contributed to this great cause over the years -- people like Clint Bamberger and Earl Johnson who really got the program up and running -we would be here for a very long time and I would be in a lot of trouble for leaving someone out. I'm not going to do that. I want to talk instead about what you have accomplished in these first twenty-five years.

You, and hundreds of other- young and aggressive lawyers, paralegals and lay advocates just like you in every corner of this country, have changed the face of the law-as-it applies to poor people. And you have done it, not out of some elitist notion of what the world ought to be, nor in pursuit of your own ideological agenda, as some allege. You have done it because some poor person, some individual poor person, or a group of poor people as the case may be, had a problem that profoundly affected their lives, a problem that could be solved only by making the law of this land work for that individual exactly as it does for me and for you, for Michael Wallace and Terry Wear. You have done it all in the name of Justice!

And what have you gotten for your success? Aside from the undying gratitude of your clients and the ever-growing respect of your colleagues throughout the legal profession?

You certainly haven't gotten rich. You haven't found yourselves with lots of disposable income or unallocated time on your hands. You may not have seen your kids as much as you would like. And, for the past eight years, you have had to endure one continual kick in the teeth from, to steal a phrase, "a bunch of ideological ambulance chasers doing their own thing at the expense of the poor."

The Reagan-appointed leadership of the Legal Services Corporation has been a disgrace from day one. Beginning with that fellow who replaced Bill McCalpin as chairman and proceeded to charge the taxpayers for his time driving back and forth from Indiana because he was afraid to fly. "Four feet and a snout in the trough," I believe an honest Republican Congressman from Virginia called him. Then there was Donald Bogard and his private club membership and the president who allegedly filched the Twinkies and succotash from a suburban supermarket. If we
weren't talking about something as serious as equal justice for America's poor, that whole scene would have made an hilarious sit com. As it was, it was one of the saddest spectacles in recent Washington history...worse than the financial mess at H.U.D., worse than Samuel Pierce. And those past atrocities were just the warm-up for the current crop -- the savage six who have controlled the board for the past four years. Their attacks have ranged from Clark Durant's plea for representation of the poor by "entrepreneurs," to hiring lobbyists to slash their own pitiful budget, to Michael Wallace's challenge to the constitutionality of the Legal Services Corporation, a notion entirely without merit which the Corporation has so far spent more than $100,000 trying to prop up.

And all the while these people have engaged in their relentless campaign of harassment and destruction, heaping regulation upon restriction in an effort to gut the program they are all sworn to uphold, while wrapping themselves in pious rhetoric about how very much they want to serve the day-to-day needs of individual poor people.

What is wrong with America that we aren't shouting from every rooftop for this to stop? What's wrong when we don't adequately fund this program that provides simple access to justice for the poor people of America? Why can't we find a national will to once again say, and believe, that we can eliminate poverty in this country?

We did believe that, you know. When we launched OEO a quarter century ago, we really did believe that we could attack the causes and alleviate the effects of poverty in America. We made substantial measureable progress, too. But our war was the only war in U.S. history where the budget was cut in the middle of the war! Since those days, sad to say, our government hasn't even tried. Look at Head Start, for example, successful by any measure in helping children from low-income families develop, learn and grown. But today Head Start is able to serve only 16% of eligible children nationwide. The Job Corps, always a particular favorite of mine, can serve only three percent of the 1.3 million teenagers officially counted as unemployed, even though every dollar invested in the Job Corps returns $1.45 in benefits to society.

And, of course, you know all too well the hard numbers on Legal Services: A 40% cut in real dollars since 1981, 80% to 85% of the legal needs of the poor going unmet. That, my friends, is tragic.

And still we wait for President Bush to appoint a new Board of Directors for the Legal Services Corporation, eleven people who will take seriously their oath and who will work with you to ensure that your clients continue to receive the highest quality representation. Is it too much to ask that when we sit down for Thanksgiving dinner a week from Thursday we might be able to thank the President of the U.S. for finally sending to the Senate competent and compassionate nominations for the LSC Board?

We are a dead society if we do not make every effort, both public and private, to lift people up from the bottom. That is what the War on Poverty was all about. The goals we set for ourselves
 twenty-five years ago are no less relevant today. It's a risky business, to be sure. The people we are helping to start up society's ladder may be troublesome; they may not fit neatly into some bureaucratic scheme; their problems may be controversial.

But are not those the problems we should be about as a people? Isn't that what it means to be a caring nation, to reach deeper into ourselves to find ways to help every American achieve equality and justice and dignity? That's what America was all about when we began this monumental journey. And that is what you are all about today.

You are the true survivors. You have weathered every storm with your vitality and your idealism intact. Battered perhaps, but still in one piece. You have become an irreplaceable thread in the
 basic fabric of our democracy. You now know that, by the rightness of your mission, you can withstand the worst assaults of your enemies. You know that your cause is just.

And so I think again of that old man in Detroit twenty-five years ago who had tasted justice for the first time in his life. For me, that was a rare and wonderful moment that I will remember all my life. For you, all of you, that kind of moment happens all the time, for that is the way you
 have chosen to live your lives: helping to lift up from the bottom of society those who need only for someone to be on their side. What a joyful way to practice law! What a joyful way to live! I commend each and every one for your devotion to the cause of justice. I know you will continue, through your practice and through your lives, to show the way to a just and better America.