Where Else Can the Poor Go?
August 17, 2017

Editor’s Note: In 1972, the Legal Services Program, still operating under the auspices of the Office of Economic Opportunity, stirred controversy in some quarters for lawsuits challenging acts by government officials and agencies. In response to a Wall Street Journal critical of the program, Sargent Shriver, who was running for Vice President alongside presidential candidate George McGovern at the time, released the following statement on the importance of legal services to ensuring equal justice for all. The text has been slightly edited for clarity.

OCTOBER 25, 1972


The Editor

The Wall Street Journal

New York, New York 10007

Dear Sir,

I have read with grave concern your editorial of Monday, October 16, 1972, entitled “The Legal Services Program.” Your comments seem to indicate that poor people should be afforded a different brand of justice than those able to secure private counsel. This philosophy, shared by the Vice President and apparently the President of the United States is inimical to the historic independence of the Bar, the role of our judicial system, and the Constitutional right of every American to fair and unfettered access to our courts.

In my view, the related issues of access by every citizen to the courts for redress of his grievances and the accountability of our government to its people, both through legal processes, are two of the basic issues facing this country in the next decade.

The Legal Services Program has been successful in allowing those who have been traditionally shut out of the legal system to begin to participate in the legal process and also to develop confidence in our government.

When I was Ambassador to France, one of the things about this country that most impressed Europeans was the Legal Services Program and the idea that through government financed lawyers the poor could challenge the legality of governmental actions.

In developing, the Legal Services Program, we involved the American Bar Association and every other major national bar group in the country. We built a program based on upholding and implementing the ethical ideals of the legal profession—including the duty to represent unpopular clients and unpopular cases and to give the poor not just a taste of justice, not semi-justice, but equal justice under law.

Your editorial suggests, and the Vice President specifically commented on February 8, 1972, that cases which are ”in controversy” should not be subject to review of the poor through Legal Services lawyers. I strongly disagree with that position.

In fact, I am convinced that public officials at all levels must be held more accountable to all our citizens, rich and poor, black and white, than ever before.

No eyebrows are raised or questions asked by this Administration or the press when business challenges regulations by government agencies like the Internal Revenue Service, Federal Trade Commission, Civil Aeronautics Board, the Interstate Commerce Commission and so forth. In fact, in many cases, this Administration and the press praise the independent review by the judiciary of various governmental actions.

Nor should the fact that a government official is elected, insulate him from judicial review. Governors, mayors, county commissioners, sheriffs and other elected officials have always been subject to judicial review. To advocate nearly 200 years after Marbury v. Madison immunizing official acts from court review would be a step down the road to Fascism.

Legal Services lawyers, like all other members of the Bar, are subject to disciplinary action if, in fact they ignore the interests, needs, and desires of their clients in quest of their own “individual theories”. In that regard, the Legal Services Program operates exactly as any other law firm or private practitioner. The client makes the ultimate decision about whether to go to court and what satisfaction he wants. This is as it should be because courts exist to do justice for all people, not a preselected few.

I am proud to say that in the seven-year history of the program, which now involves over 2,000 attorneys, there has never been a disbarment of a Legal Services lawyer. This program acted in over 1,250,000 cases in fiscal year 1971, the vast majority of which never are reported in any newspaper.

However, you indicate that this program has been heavily involved in issues which have only the most tenuous relationship to poverty. Cases reported by the “Commerce Clearinghouse,” the “Clearinghouse Review,” and other legal journals indicate that these lawyers are concerned with

Social Security, employment, health care, family problems, consumer issues, and a vast array of other cases which bear a direct relationship to the plight of the individual client. In fact, it might be instructive to look at the latest Supreme Court decisions which have involved the poor people represented by Legal Services lawyers. They concerned unfettered access to the courts and the prohibition against unconstitutional jailing of an individual because of his inability to pay a fine. In addition, it was a Legal Services Program which successfully brought the first lawsuit in the country challenging the unequal distribution of funds for public education in the State of California. The following statistics should be instructive:

  1. Of the 1,200,000 situations handled in fiscal year 1971, 96% involved individual client problems and only 4% concerned cases or activities which could be considered law reforms or class actions.
  2. The 2,000 Legal Services attorneys averaged 429 cases per attorney. The average cost per case is $58.
  3. The cases break down as follows:
    • Welfare and family (includes Social Security, categorical assistance programs, divorces, etc.)  37.0%
    • Consumer and employment 16.0%
    • Administrative law 11.0%
    • Miscellaneous (elderly, juvenile, economic development, health care, etc.) 22.0%
    • Housing 14.0%

Both Senator McGovern and I want to protect this historic American principle of the right of access to our judicial system for all Americans while protecting the independence of the Bar. I am grieved that the President, as a lawyer, is not sensitive to these concerns and in fact has opposed the most vigorous attempts by the Congress, led by members of both parties, to insulate the provision of Legal Services from political intrusion. Your editorial suggests that not only should be lawyers be subject to a political litmus test, but that government officials should remain unchallenged and unaffected by the concerns of private citizens.

To Agnew’s concern about law reform, I would ask him, if lawyers don’t take the basic grievances of poor people to the courts and legislatures where else can the poor go? Unlike most government programs that come under heavy siege, the Legal Services Program is attacked not because it failed but because it has succeeded.

Yours truly,

Sargent Shriver


First Person