Testimony before the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare

Washington, DC | May 15, 1975

Thus if there was ever a demonstrated need for a generous, common effort of all Americans working through their Government to achieve a demonstrated goal of social justice, it is the common effort known as Legal Services For The Poor.

Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

I appear before you today in support of an effective program of legal services for all Americans and to comment on the nomination of Board members to the new Legal Services Corporation. I am sorry that Albert E. Jenner, Jr., the distinguished attorney from Chicago, Illinois, who was scheduled to appear with me today cannot do so because of an unavoidable demand for his appearance in court in Chicago, but he hopes to present his testimony to this Committee next week. Mr. Jenner and I are joined in the belief that quality legal services for all Americans, at reasonable prices, promptly, and conveniently, is a major, perhaps the most major, requirement of an equitable system of justice. And we both are long-time believers in and workers for the provision of legal services for the poor.

The Congress took a progressive step in 1974 when it enacted The Legal Services Corporation Act which begins anew the national effort to provide adequate legal representation for all citizens of our country regardless of race, color, sex, ethnic background, geography, or political persuasion. The first national effort to provide such services to the poor began in 1965 as a part of The War Against Poverty. Certain aspects of this initial effort are worth recalling now.

The program was started with bipartisan support. Distinguished lawyers like Lewis Powell of Richmond, Virginia, then President of the American Bar Association and now Associate Justice of the Supreme Court; Bernard Segal of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a former President of the American Bar Association; Orison Marden of New York, former President of the American Bar Association; William McCalpin of St. Louis; Maynard Toll of Los Angeles; John Cumiskey of Grand Rapids, Michigan; William Gossett of Detroit, Michigan are exemplary of the men and women who launched the original program. In fact, without the support of the American Bar Association and the leadership of Associate Justice Lewis Powell it would have been difficult indeed, perhaps impossible, to achieve the extraordinary initial success which within eighteen months quadrupled the number of lawyers working for poor people in America. Hundreds of neighborhood offices were opened in areas previously untouched by any lawyers. People who had never talked to a lawyer or been helped by an attorney were reached. The American system of justice became a new reality to millions of our citizens.

Republicans as well as Democrats can take credit for that epic-making new development, -- epic-making because it commenced a new era in the continuous centuries long effort to provide equal justice under law for every American.

The need for this service has been amply proven. Despite original suggestions from some sources that private, voluntary efforts on behalf of the poor were sufficient, the historical record now shows that millions of Americans cannot be served by private practitioners because those needing the services simply do not have the money to pay. Thus if there was ever a demonstrated need for a generous, common effort of all Americans working through their Government to achieve a demonstrated goal of social justice, it is the common effort known as Legal Services For The Poor.

Not only were individual Americans served by these initial efforts. The creation of the Legal Services Program in fact permitted, even fostered, the examination of institutions in our society which helped perpetuate poverty. As these examinations progressed, landmark legal decisions were rendered on behalf of the poor by the Supreme Court of the United States, by State Supreme Courts and by lower courts in all jurisdictions, both State and Federal, throughout the land. The record of successes achieved by lawyers representing the poor in the courts of the United States, both Federal and State, was almost unbelievable.

Although these lawyers were for the most part young men and women, they initiated actions on behalf of the poor and carried those cases to the highest courts of the land with success in the most inspiring and technically competent manner.

Of course, there are always those who disagree, but none of the criteria can deny the fact that for the first time in American history lawyers were made available throughout the country .to our fellow citizens who could not then and cannot now afford to pay for justice. Those early days were not without great personal sacrifices. Representatives from the American Bar Association and from State Bars gave hour after hour to create effective legal service programs at the local level all over America. Individual lawyers gave their time and experience freely in the joint effort to make legal services for the poor a workable concept. Private practitioners from some of the most distinguished law firms in America, including the original director of the program, Clinton L. Bamberger of Baltimore, Maryland, were lured from private practice to guarantee that legal services for the poor would be conducted in the most professional manner and according to the highest ethical standards.

I could not begin to recount the reasons why all these individuals gave their time, but I can tell you that without exception they had faith in America and in our ability always to improve our system of justice to respond to the needs of Americans, rich or poor. Most importantly, they recognized that any system of justice which provides practice only for the rich falls far short of the Constitutional guarantees. Men and women dedicated to the ideals of the Constitution made the Legal Services Program from 1965 onward one of the most inspiring episodes in the long history of civil and legal rights achieved by Western civilization.

In the light of this significant and unprecedented history, I need not dwell, Mr. Chairman, on the importance of selecting the best persons possible for service on the new Legal Services Corporation authorized by Congress in 1974.The members of this Corporation must be men and women dedicated to the concept of equal rights regardless of race, creed, sex, ethnic origin, political persuasion or income. They should have experience in this particular domain and their careers should reveal a profound commitment to the ideals of which the Legal Services Corporation are the current embodiment. Fortunately, a number of the President's nominations do include persons of such distinction. But at least one of the President's nominations, Mr. William L. Knecht, sad to say, demonstrates a total lack of understanding, in fact, a total opposition to the concepts of equity and justice of which the entire effort from 1965 onward has been based. We saw evidence of his lack of understanding of the concept of legal services when Mr. Knecht emerged as one of the principal architects in the much publicized efforts to dismantle the highly regarded California Rural Legal Assistance Program in 1971. As Counsel for the powerful California Farm Bureau Federation, he had a great deal to gain by the destruction of a. legal services program funded principally to serve migrant farm workers and the rural poor. In that regard, Mr. Knecht served as a voluntary prosecutor in the CRLA investigation. In that capacity he represented witnesses in testimony offered against CRLA at various hearings, and prepared a substantial brief on behalf of the California Farm Bureau Federation. He recommended to the Commission that CRLA be dismantled. As this Committee knows, the investigation of so-called CRLA misconduct and impropriety was ultimately dismissed as "irresponsible charges" and "without foundation" by the federal Commission of three Republican State Supreme Court Justices. Mr. Knecht reacted to these findings as a "whitewash" in September 13, 1971 in a letter to former President Nixon, which is part of this Committee's record. Mr. Knecht's involvement in the CRLA investigation is evidence of his commitment to the destruction of legal services and grounds for his disqualification.

Mr. Chairman, it is my opinion that Mr. Knecht is unfit to serve on the Board on the basis of his past opposition and criticism of legal services, criticism which he has not hesitated to vocalize publicly in every conceivable forum that would air his views. I hesitate in the interest of time to list all of Mr. Knecht's views on legal services and other matters but I believe it important to describe some of his more intemperate and irresponsible statements, remembering that this individual is asked to share in directing the nation's legal services to the poor:

  1. Mr. Knecht says that an independent Board plan for OEO lawyers is "intolerable" without local Control responsible to the electorate. He goes on to argue that an independent board would allow programs to continue to build a power structure to serve their own ends, a power structure he equates with some judges and elected officials.
    "It would not be hard to nominate from the ranks of our judges, some who ought to be hostages of the prisoners at San Quentin or Attica and there are some government officials, state and federal, elective and appointive, who ought to be there with them." (Letter to President Nixon, Sept. 13, 1971)
  2. He writes that "proposals to remove taxpayer supported organizations from the reach of the taxpayers is a form of action meriting swift and sure condemnation," and says that if the program is put in an independent corporation "we will have reached the stage where the ballot box will no longer suffice and active revolution will be required to amend programs such as these. We are on the road to dictatorship." (Letter to Editor, Enterprise, Chico, California, Sept. 18, 1971)
  3. Mr. Knecht has written that "We are already suffering from an aristocracy and tyranny of judges and to borrow a phrase from the earliest days of the last century, ‘lawyers infest our land like the swarms of locusts in Egypt'."
    "Removal of CRLA and its fellow travelers from the political arena will leave the American taxpayer helpless and deny him the protection that his role as tax- payer demands." (Letter to the Editor, Sacramento Bee, Fresno, California)
  4. He opposed client consultation in determining program policy: "I think it is clear from the experience in California that under such arrangements the program would end up entirely in the hands of the clients who are supposed to be represented by the program itself." (Letter to the Editor, Bee, Fresno, California, Dec. 24, 1971)
  5. He has spoken against an independent program, and particularly against more money for it. "$100 million more for this kind of nonsense is absolutely irresponsible, and I do not see how any congressman or senator could hold up his head much less his hand in support of such a program." (Letter to the Editor, Free Lance, Hollister California, February 22, 1972; Letter to the Editor, Telegram Tribune, San Louis Obispo, Calif., Feb. 23, 1972; Letter to the Editor, Saturday Review, New York, Feb. 28,1972)
  6. He lacks a certain sensitivity about the poor:
    "I think it is safe to say that there is hot a single member of the Farm Bureau nor any officer nor an employee of Farm Bureau who does not have all the human emotions of pity, sympathy and charity towards the less fortunate."
  7. He seems to envision the challenge of legal assistance as threat to the status quo:
    "It is time for all citizens to learn to ask questions. It even appears necessary that people will have to choose up sides and lend their support to their friends who are willing to speak out and raise questions." (Letter to the Editor, Free Lance, Hollister, Calif., March 6, 1972)
  8. He views the independence of the Corporation as an entity which is diametrically opposed to the public interest:
    "It should be a cause of considerable anxiety to every taxpayer to know that Congress may establish a corporation so remote that nobody can review its activities or policies when its principal purposes will be to move into the legislative halls." (Letter to the Editor, Press, Riverside, California, April 8, 1972)
  9. Mr. Knecht seems to believe that the only criteria to be applied by this Committee are those which appear in section 1004(a) of the Act, and he considers irrelevant the Report of the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare. (Statement of William L. Knecht to the State Bar of California Board of Governors, February 12, 1975)

It should be clear from the foregoing statements, that are only a small part of the record, that Mr. Knecht is not qualified to serve on the Board. His total lack of demonstrated objectivity on the subject of legal services; his injudicious and inflammatory remarks; and total opposition to the principles embodied in the legislation make him an unsuitable nominee. His appointment would be an insult to poor people, an embarrassment to our great legal profession and a defeat to the concept of "equal justice under law."

I might add, Mr. Chairman, that Mr. Knecht's own remarks on the Committee's criteria appear as tacit admissions that he is unqualified to serve. Thus he has sought to repudiate this Committee's criteria for Board membership as criteria which he could never hope to meet. If we are to ignore the criteria this Committee set out, we are to ignore the entire purpose of this legislation -- to insure that poor people are provided attorneys who have the ability to function in the same manner as those attorneys representing individuals who can afford counsel -- without undue governmental interference and with no political interference. Mr. Knecht has said again and again that he does not believe in an independent corporation, nor in the absence of political interference. One must conclude that this is why he makes light of the Senate criteria. While there may be disagreements about how a program should function, there can be no disagreement about the basic philosophy of the program. We would not have delivered as we did in the '60s had we faced Mr. Knecht's belief in a politically controlled program and, I can assure you from my experience with this program, the intent of the Corporation Act will not be fulfilled if Mr. Knecht is allowed to assume a position on the Board. .