Bringing justice to the people

By Rebecca Hagelin

You can’t work here at the Heritage Foundation for long without becoming extremely impressed with Edwin Meese III.

It’s not just what he has accomplished as, first, chief of staff to Gov. Ronald Reagan and later as attorney general and counselor to the president when Reagan was president. You watch him in meetings here – he’s our Ronald Reagan Fellow and the chairman of our Center for Legal and Judicial Studies – and it’s remarkable how often he’s the one who cuts right to the solution for the problem at hand.

I got to thinking about this as I was reading the latest book by another of the impressive people you meet around here, Lee Edwards. The book, “Bringing Justice to the People,” describes the 30-year history of the freedom-based public-interest law movement. Edwards, who has written more than a dozen books, including the authoritative history of the Heritage Foundation and biographies of President Reagan and former Sen. Barry Goldwater, is one of the most respected conservative scholars in Washington.

But as I’m reading this and thinking about Mr. Meese, I couldn’t help but think: What a shame there has to even be a freedom-based public-interest law movement. What a shame it has come to this.

As Edwards points out in this extremely readable book, the story begins in 1876 when the German Society of New York formed America’s first legal-aid organization. It provided assistance in landlord-tenant disputes and family law and helped discourage exploitation of German immigrants. Soon, hundreds of similar organizations, as well as criminal-defense agencies, popped up around the country, all supported by charitable contributions.

Decades later, with legal assistance for the poor still spotty, the American Bar Association formed a committee on legal aid and founded the National Association of Legal Aid Organizations, which worked through local bar associations to establish legal-aid societies elsewhere.

The movement mushroomed when the British established a government-financed legal-aid system and local bar associations here sought to ward off a similar outcome. In 10 years, they cut the percentage of cities without legal-aid offices in half. By 1960, 160 such organizations were spending $4.5 million a year of private money for legal help for the poor.

But in 1965, the government began to fund legal-aid offices, and by 1970, it was dispensing $42 million a year to 300 organizations. By 1994, the government entity that doled out these funds had become known as the Legal Services Corporation, and its budget had grown 10-fold.

Predictably, when government money became involved, the game changed. Radical liberal lawyers hijacked the noble agenda of legal aid and began to push for their own objectives – a “right” to abortion, the cleansing of God from the public square, the unjust taking of property in the name of protecting the environment and racial preferences in schools, contracting and other areas.

When radical lawyers, using literally millions of our tax dollars, began winning victories in court they never could have won at the ballot box, good men such as then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, Ed Meese and others realized that someone had to go to work serving the people in a new way – by stepping up to this challenge.

These Davids have done a brilliant job against an implacable and versatile Goliath. They have won the right for parents to choose their children’s schools or to choose to educate them at home. They have won the right for Christian youth groups to use school facilities to meet just as the chess clubs and Key Clubs and others do. They’ve leavened and humbled government’s approach to takings and eminent domain, and forced unions to quit using their members’ dues to back candidates those members don’t support. They’ve rolled back speech codes, unfair college admissions practices and affirmative-action programs.

What saddens me is that a good idea – ensuring immigrants got a fair shake from our legal system – morphed into such a terrible idea that these men had to devote their careers to fighting it. All because radical liberals saw a way to beat the system and weak judges began to see themselves as legislators and the Constitution not as a statement of principles but as a malleable document ever in need of their “updating.”

Thank God we have Lee Edwards to tell their story. Thank God for these men. And may the day arrive soon when their work is finished, their services no longer needed.