On July 25, 1974, President Richard M. Nixon signed the law creating the Legal Services Corporation. The law gives strength and a never-ending commitment to America’s promise of equal justice for all.
LSC today is the single largest source of funding for civil legal assistance to the nation’s poor, an innovator in technology and a model for partnerships that help low-income Americans maintain livelihoods, keep a roof over their heads and escape violence.
The LSC Board of Directors marked the 35th anniversary of the law’s enactment on July 24, 2009, at an observance at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas. The surroundings evoked the importance of access to schools, to civil rights, and to the civil judicial system.
LSC’s journey to permanence and independence began years before President Nixon signed the LSC legislation.
The government’s quest to provide civil legal assistance to low-income Americans took shape during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on poverty” and the creation in 1964 of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) as an executive agency. The president named Sargent Shriver, the director of the Peace Corps, to head the OEO. That year, Edgar and Jean Cahn wrote “The War on Poverty: A Civilian Perspective” in the Yale Law Journal, arguing that neighborhood law offices and neighborhood lawyers should be a part of an anti-poverty effort. Edgar Cahn worked as Shriver’s executive assistant, and Jean Cahn joined the OEO staff as a consultant from the State Department.
A year later, OEO launched its Legal Services Program, which had won the support of the American Bar Association, led by Lewis F. Powell Jr., who would later serve on the United States Supreme Court. F. William McCalpin, who was appointed to the LSC Board of Directors in 1977, recalled the importance of Powell’s support for legal aid in an oral history on file at the National Equal Justice Library, a part of the Georgetown University Law Library. “Everybody from Sargent Shriver down thought that it was extraordinarily important that the American Bar Association get behind the legal services program, that it would give it a credibility and an acceptance around the country that it wouldn’t otherwise have…. There isn’t any question that while, I guess, the Cahns and Shriver can claim to be the parents of the federal legal services program, Lewis Powell has certainly got to be the godfather.”
The OEO program provided a testing period to learn about funding legal services for the poor. As with many new federal initiatives, the OEO Legal Services Program weathered skepticism and encountered controversy. Within nine months, 130 OEO legal services programs were being funded and many had the support of state and local bar associations.
However, actions by local legal services programs also generated complaints in cities and states during the late 1960s, and the OEO program was up for White House review in 1969, in part because the legislative authorization for appropriations for OEO was running out, and the underlying Economic Opportunity Act was scheduled to expire in 1970.
President Nixon, who took office in January 1969, sent a special message to Congress in February, saying that “the blight of poverty requires priority attention” and asking Congress to extend appropriations for OEO.
Out of public view, an advisory group, known as the Ash Council, had sent President Nixon a memo recommending creation of an independent corporation to receive funds from Congress to distribute to local legal aid organizations. The president made the memo public in February 1971 and in May sent a special message to Congress proposing establishment of the Legal Services Corporation.
President Nixon’s message described the federal legal services program as “a workhorse” in the effort to secure equal rights in America. The neighborhood law office was the crux of the program, the president wrote.
“Here each day the old, the unemployed, the underprivileged, and the largely forgotten people of our Nation may seek help. Perhaps it is an eviction, a marital conflict, repossession of a car, or misunderstanding over a welfare check—each problem may have a legal solution. These are small claims in the Nation’s eye, but they loom large in the hearts and lives of poor Americans.”
President Nixon’s message also sounded the theme of independence for LSC. The proposed legislation sent to Congress had three major objectives. “First, that the Corporation itself be structured and financed so that it will be assured of independence; second, that the lawyers in the program have full freedom to protect the best interests of their clients in keeping with the Canons of Ethics and the high standards of the legal profession; and third, that the Nation be encouraged to continue giving the program the support it needs in order to become a permanent and vital part of the American system of justice.”
Bipartisan legislation, called the Mondale-Steiger bill, had been introduced in March 1971 to create a legal services entity. “If the poor and the powerless do not have free access to our legal system, government by law is a failure,” Democratic Sen. Walter F. Mondale said during a September 8, 1971 floor debate.
In that debate, Republican Sen. Robert Taft Jr. said in support of the proposal, “I feel that our society today has come to recognize, on a far broader basis than ever before, the desirability and necessity of providing adequate legal remedies to all our citizens for wrongs, real or imagined, for the full exercise of rights they have under the law; and I think the bill goes a long way in that direction.”
Before the year ended, however, the president decided to veto a large package of legislation that Congress had approved that would have established LSC. The veto was aimed at a national child care program, which the president opposed, but President Nixon also signaled that he strongly disagreed with a legal services provision that would have limited his power over appointments to the LSC Board.
The veto set off months of behind-the-scenes negotiations. The legislative effort to establish LSC was pursued again in 1972 but was dropped because an agreement could not be reached between Congressional supporters and the President over the selection of the Board. The effort was renewed in May 1973, when President Nixon proposed a bill and when members of Congress came together to resolve their differences. “It is significant to note that Time magazine stated the President personally labored over the language of this bill for four hours before it was submitted to Congress,” Rep. Earl F. Landgrebe wrote in the June 1973 “minority views” section of the House report on the LSC legislation.
Leaders in the effort to resolve differences over the legislation included Democratic Sens. Mondale, Alan Cranston and Edward M. Kennedy and Republican Sens. Taft and Jacob K. Javits and Republican Rep. William A. Steiger.
“The establishment of the Corporation will mark a new, sincere, nonpartisan dedication to the provision of equal access to justice for all our citizens,” Sen. Kennedy said during floor debate in December 1973.
Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. added, “The bill in short provides assurance to the low-income community of a meaningful commitment by our government to the principle equal justice under law.”
“Far too often,” Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey said, “living in poverty means not having access to information about the legal system.”
The legal services program, Sen. Mondale said, “is designed to assert the rights of the poor under the Constitution and under the law before the courts of the land. It is undeniable that those whom it serves, the nation’s poor, have often been denied many adequate opportunities to assert their legal rights before the courts and under the law of the land.”
By summer of 1974, the legislation was ready for a vote.
“This bill is the result of carefully extended bipartisan consideration within the committees in the Senate and in the House. It represents three years of effort and compromise,” Sen. Gaylord Nelson said on July 10.
Six days later, Sen. Javits said, “We at least now have a bill which is as close to anything the President has ever asked for as any person, including the President, could require. So we are voting on the merits.”
The House approved the LSC legislation on July 16 and the Senate gave its approval on July 18. President Nixon signed the LSC Act on July 25, 1974.
The new law declared that Congress had found “there is a need to provide equal access to the system of justice in our Nation” and that “there is a need to provide high quality legal assistance to those who would be otherwise unable to afford adequate legal counsel.”