CRLA Controversy

California Governor Reagan vetoes CRLA grant

In December 1970, Governor Reagan announced his decision to veto the $1.8 million grant to CRLA. The California veto was not the first time that a Governor had vetoed a grant to a legal services program. Governors in Florida, Connecticut, Arizona, and Missouri had all vetoed refunding applications from legal services programs, and the governor in North Carolina had vetoed a grant to a statewide legal services program sponsored by the state bar association. Governors in North Dakota and Mississippi had prevented programs from being established because they threatened to veto the programs. The CRLA fight, however, dwarfed these other disputes.

When Governor Reagan announced his veto, he cited “gross and deliberate violations” of OEO regulations. In January 1971, the director of the California Office of Economic Opportunity, Lewis K. Uhler, released a 283-page report, which was to serve as a justification for Reagan’s earlier veto of the annual grant to CRLA.

The Uhler report itemized some 150 charges of alleged misconduct by CRLA, including disruption of prisons, disruption of schools, organizing labor unions, criminal representation, and representation of ineligible, over-income clients.

OEO’s blue ribbon commission reports CRLA doing its job; Reagan withdraws veto

In response to this report, OEO appointed a blue ribbon commission composed of three retired State Supreme Court justices from states other than California to examine and determine the validity of the charges in the Uhler report. Despite Uhler’s refusal to present evidence to the commission and his demands that testimony be given in executive session, the commission conducted public hearings on all of Uhler’s charges and heard evidence from 165 witnesses from across California. Much of the anti-CRLA testimony came from the California Farm Bureau, an organization of agricultural employers, which was frequently at odds with CRLA and the farmworkers it represented.

The commission’s work culminated in a 400-page report that found the Uhler report’s charges to be totally unfounded and concluded that “CRLA has been discharging its duty to provide legal assistance to the poor…in a highly competent, efficient and exemplary manner.” The commission recommended that CRLA be refunded. After the report was issued, OEO Director Frank Carlucci and Governor Reagan engaged in intense negotiations, and Reagan ultimately agreed to withdraw the veto. In exchange, OEO agreed to award the state $2.5 million to start a demonstration judicare program and to place some restrictions on CRLA, even though the commission’s report had cleared CRLA of all charges. In the end, however, the judicare program was never implemented because of disputes over the evaluation criteria.

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