“[I am] proudest of Legal Services because I recognized that it had the greatest potential for changing the system under which people’s lives were being exploited. I was proud of the young lawyers who turned down fat, corporate practices to work for the poor, and proudest of them when they dared to challenge state and federal procedures and win.”
—Sargent Shriver’s response when asked about which Office of Economic Opportunity program he felt most proud, in Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver.)
Legal services may have been the anti-poverty program of which Sargent Shriver was most proud. But it also made his job much harder.
He got a whiff of what was in store as early as the Spring of 1966 when the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) was in the midst of making its first round of legal services grants. The president of the California Bar urged him not to fund California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) because “it was giving lawyers to one side of an economic struggle.”
Sarge’s response? “Well, if the California Bar will guarantee no lawyer will represent the growers, OEO won’t fund lawyers for the farmworkers.” The bar association president didn’t have an answer to that, and Sarge signed the grant to create CRLA. (Incidentally, only a year later, the California Bar officially supported the refunding grant for CRLA.)
Shortly after being funded, the OEO-funded lawyers began challenging federal and state policies that hurt poor people—doing Sarge’s “proudest” thing. Some of these cases offended powerful politicians—especially when the lawyers representing those in poverty won. Bar association opposition was one thing; unhappy politicians were quite another.
Sarge, who was responsible for the success of the OEO, knew that controversy about the legal services program could adversely affect overall congressional support for the agency itself. A risk-averse OEO director would have been alarmed by the opposition many state and local politicians were expressing to legal services grantees who managed to offend one politician or the other, but not Sarge.
CRLA happened to be one of several programs that incurred the wrath of a prominent political figure. Governor Ronald Reagan, already a hero of the GOP’s conservative wing, urged his close political ally, Senator George Murphy, to introduce an amendment to the OEO Act that would have barred all legal services lawyers from being involved in lawsuits against federal, state, or local government agencies. If passed, this provision would have ended legal services lawyers’ ability to hold governments accountable for their treatment of individuals in poverty. Through a massive effort, Sarge and his allies were able to defeat the amendment, albeit at considerable cost in time, effort, and political capital.
By the Spring of 1968, when Governor Reagan made it clear he would veto CRLA’s refunding grant, the strength of OEO’s support for its legal services arm was not absolutely clear. As the OEO’s Legal Program director, I realized the future direction of the Legal Program depended a great deal on CRLA’s fate. If Reagan succeeded in killing CRLA, it would send a message to every other legal services grantee—don’t take your state government to court or you risk a similar fate. I was willing to go to any lengths and take any political risks to beat Reagan’s veto.
But for Sarge, it was a far different question. He had a whole agency at stake. The OEO, and the War on Poverty, were very much in jeopardy.
I needed to know what Sarge would do because it would determine our posture during negotiations. If he said he would override Reagan’s veto no matter what, we entered the game with an extraordinarily strong hand. If not, we would have to dance our way—shifting between bluffing and compromising, all while hoping for the best.
I scheduled a meeting in Sarge’s office, which I recount in some detail in chapter eight of my history of legal aid. Our meeting happened to occur while Congress was debating OEO’s future appropriation. Sitting at the conference table in his private office, I remained in suspense for a good 20 minutes, while he made and took calls related to the appropriations battle.
Finally, Sarge got up, sat down across from me, and asked what I wanted from him. When I explained the Reagan veto situation, he answered:
“If I didn’t override Reagan’s veto of CRLA, we might as well turn the country over to the John Birch Society.”
Armed with this commitment, we were able to persuade Reagan to back down from his veto threat. CRLA escaped unharmed. And, no other governor even threatened to veto a legal services grant that year.
On this occasion, and many others, Sargent Shriver demonstrated his commitment to people living in poverty. He not only urged people to take bold actions, but also backed them when they did.