The Gestation Period

1971: Idea of independent LSC proposed in legislation

Within the organized bar, the Nixon Administration, the Congress, and the legal services community, the idea of an independent legal services entity began to take root. In 1971, an ABA study committee headed by Jerry Shestack and the President’s Advisory Council on Executive Reorganization (known as the Ash Council) both recommended the creation of a private, nonprofit corporation, separate from the federal government, to receive funds appropriated by Congress and distribute them to local legal services programs.

A bipartisan group in Congress led by Senator Walter Mondale (D-MN) and Representative Steiger (R-WI) introduced authorizing legislation in February 1971. In May of that year, President Nixon introduced his own version of the legislation, which proposed creation of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), calling it a new direction to make legal services “immune to political pressures…and a permanent part of our system of justice.” At the same time, Nixon’s bill proposed a number of restrictions on legal services advocates that were not in the Economic Opportunity Act. These included prohibitions on lobbying, organizing, and political activities by staff attorneys.

December 1971: Nixon vetoes an LSC bill

In December 1971, President Nixon vetoed legislation that Congress had passed establishing LSC. His veto was primarily based on the fact that the legal services provisions were part of a larger package of legislation containing a national child care program,which he opposed. However, he also vetoed the bill because the legal services provisions sharply circumscribed the President’s power to appoint the LSC board and did not include all of the restrictions on legal services advocacy that Nixon had sought. This legislation would have given the President power to appoint all the LSC board members, but it also would have required 11 of the 16 board members to be appointed from lists supplied by various interest groups, including the ABA, the American Trial Lawyers Association, and NLADA. Congress did not have enough votes to override the veto. Legal services supporters supported the bill because they feared that a board appointed solely by the President would inevitably include people who would work to undermine or fundamentally alter the program and its mission.

1973: Nixon proposes new LSC bill, Senate produces compromise bill

In May 1973, President Nixon again proposed a bill to create the LSC. The President was fresh from re-election and was not feeling as much pressure to please everyone as he had during the campaign, so this proposal contained additional restrictions on legal services programs and their advocates. The House Committee wrote exceptions to these restrictions, but the original restrictions were reinstated following debate on the House floor. In the end, 24 restrictive amendments were appended to the bill, limiting the types of cases legal services attorneys could take, restricting lobbying and rulemaking, limiting class actions, and eliminating training and back-up centers. The back-up centers were a favorite target of conservatives because they were seen as the breeding ground for legal services activism and the incubator for law reform efforts.

Action in the Senate, however, had a much different tone. A unanimous Labor and Public Welfare Committee produced bipartisan legislation that carefully preserved the ability of the legal services program to provide the full range of representation to all eligible clients. Like the House bill, it allowed the President to appoint all of the board members, but the appointees would have to be confirmed by the Senate. And most importantly, it had the support of the Nixon Administration, since White House staff was involved in the negotiations to craft the bill.

Despite the Administration’s support, conservative members of the Senate did not fall into line behind the bipartisan bill. A group of conservative Senators engaged in a filibuster by introducing more than 120 amendments to the bill establishing LSC. There were three cloture votes to cut off debate over a three-month period before the Senate finally considered the legislation. In the end, only a few of the proposed amendments were adopted by the Senate,and, with the exception of a prohibition on some abortion litigation, the restrictions that passed would not have represented significant barriers to the full representation of eligible poor people.

The Conference Committee produced a bill that was closer to the Senate bill than the House version. The restrictions that remained in the Conference bill dealt with representation in cases dealing with non-therapeutic abortions, school desegregation, selective service, and some instances of juvenile representation. The bill also imposed restrictions on outside practice of law and political activities by staff attorneys. However, the Conference bill did preserve the back-up centers and maintained the ability of legal services advocates to represent eligible clients before legislative bodies and in administrative rulemaking.

1974: At Nixon’s insistence, final LSC Act includes Green amendment

The Conference Report passed both houses, although the vote in the House was very close. Nevertheless, conservatives made their continued support of President Nixon in the impeachment hearings contingent on his veto of the LSC bill unless an amendment that they thought would eliminate the back-up centers was added to the bill. The President demanded that the LSC bill include the so-called “Green amendment” (named after Rep. Edith Green, a conservative Democratic Congresswoman from Oregon). However, the actual language of the Green amendment was not successful in eliminating major impact litigation and national advocacy and only placed certain limited restrictions on training, technical assistance, and research. Therefore, LSC supporters did not withdraw their support of the bill even though the Green amendment was added. President Nixon signed the bill into law on July 25, 1974.

(See Legal Services Corporation Act of 1974, Pub. L. No. 93-355, 88 Stat. 378, 42 U.S.C. §2996 [1994]). The Legal Services Corporation Act of 1974 was one of the last bills that President Nixon signed into law before he resigned from office in August 1974.

Related oral histories

Bennett, H. Michael — Interview by Alan Houseman, 2004 May 27
Was the lobbyist to get the LSC Act through Congress.

Houseman, Alan — Interview by Victor Geminiani, 1991 Oct 31
Was the assistant lobbyist to get the LSC Act through Congress.

Garment, Leonard — Interview by Jim Flug, 2002 Jul 24
Was Counsel to President Nixon during efforts to get Nixon Administration support for the Senate bill, which brought on moderate Senate Republican support.

Meeds, Lloyd — Interview by Robert Rhudy, 2002 Jul 18
Former congressman. Was one of many who played a major role.

Pollack, Ronald — Interview by Alan Houseman, 2018 Mar 02
Only a small portion of his interview covers LSC creation.

Shestack, Jerome — Interview by Alan Houseman, 2002 Aug 08
Was a major player in the ABA at the time.

Smith, Chesterfield — Interview by Martha Bergmark, 2002 Aug 09
President of the ABA and led ABA efforts to suppor creation of the LSC.