The Reign of Howard Phillips

1973: President Nixon proposes dismantling OEO, appoints legal services critic Howard Phillips

In January 1973, President Nixon proposed dismantling OEO and appointed Howard Phillips as the acting director of OEO to head the effort. Even though the Administration was about to propose legislation that would eventually transition the legal services program out of the federal government and into a private, nonprofit corporation, Phillips, a vocal critic of the War on Poverty in general and legal services in particular, was determined to destroy the legal services program. He declared, “I think legal services is rotten and it will be destroyed.”

Phillips put legal services programs on month-to-month funding, eliminated law reform as a program goal, and moved to defund the migrant legal services programs and back-up centers. The federal courts eventually stepped in and ruled that because he had not been confirmed by the Senate, Phillips lacked the authority to take such action as acting director.

Phillips’ efforts to decimate legal services were ultimately thwarted by the courts. But his assault proved that legal services would survive only in a new structure, separate from the Executive branch and protected from vagaries of the political process.