Funding Legal Services

March 21, 1991

The constitutional truth that all citizens have the same rights before the law is often obscured by the economic truth of the marketplace: not everyone can afford to stand up for his rights. That is the plank on which the Maryland Legal Services Corp. stands as it seeks to represent those for whom "enforcement of rights" can be a matter of survival -- the poor.

Yet there was state Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, accusing the Legal Services Corp., which is funded by the state, of biting the "hand that feeds" it by taking the state to court from time to time. Government exists to serve citizens, not to deny their rights. That's especially true when the rights are entitlements to essential services, which is the prime reason Legal Services files suit against the state. To argue that such cases should not go forward is to argue that the citizens represented should go without help.

The three Senate bills backed by Senator Baker would take $750,000 earmarked for Legal Services from interest on lawyers' trust accounts and transfer it to the public defender's office; shift $500,000 from the abandoned-property fund, earmarked for Legal Services, into the general fund; and shift $3 million from a new Interest on Title Accounts fund, also intended for Legal Services, and give it to Baltimore City.

Mr. Baker says he wants to balance the state's budget, but that's a facade to hide the clear enmity he has expressed against Legal Services. As for sending money to the public defender's office and Baltimore City, these moves are cynical attempts to play one needy group off against another. It should not be allowed to succeed.

Legal services for the poor has proven its worth time and again. The commission headed by Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, which studied 230,000 cases involving disputes over government benefits, established convincingly that use of lawyers dramatically boosts the success rate for appeals of denials of benefits. That means justified complaints are getting a fairer hearing. Cutting funds for legal services for the poor only leads to gross unfairness.

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