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JUSTICE, DOLLARS AND CONGRESS

Despite a last-minute move in the right direction by the House, Congress still has some work to do when it returns if the concept of equal protection under the law isn't to be further eroded when it comes to civil justice for the poor.

The Legal Services Corp., which helps fund Buffalo's Neighborhood Legal Services and 257 other programs around the country, is a constant target of right-wing lawmakers who apparently think Americans are entitled only to as much justice as they can buy.

Three years ago, the Republican-controlled Congress stopped legal services lawyers from pursuing class-action suits, effectively turning the poor into second-class litigants. This year, House members started out by trying to do even more damage, attempting to cut the corporation's $300 million budget by over 50 percent, a $159 million reduction that would have eviscerated the program. In a show of only moderate shortsightedness, the lower chamber ended up slicing only $50 million off the budget.

But that still would leave the program moving further in the wrong direction, as it has been since 1995.

In Buffalo, the House cut would translate into about a $155,000 reduction for NLS, if the cut were spread evenly across the nation. Local administrators call that "quite a big blow" for a program that already must stop taking calls by 9:30 or 10 a.m. each morning because it doesn't have the resources to handle any more new cases.

Targeted grants -- such as for domestic violence -- already make up the bulk of the NLS' roughly $2.5 million budget here. But the federal money is important because it allows the flexibility to meet whatever needs arise.

While the House wants to cut funding, President Clinton has recommended a $40 million increase. That still wouldn't restore funding to the $400 million level of four years ago, nor compensate for inflation. But it would at least acknowledge the important work these lawyers do for those who often have no place else to turn.

The Senate has come down in the middle, proposing to keep funding at this year's $300 million level.

Ordinarily, that might portend a compromise that would at least split the difference. But with House Republicans hating the program so much, nothing is assured without a firm White House stance.

Why the program infuriates the right-wing so much is anyone's guess. The program's lawyers handle domestic-violence cases, help the battered obtain orders of protection, help parents obtain child support, help the elderly when they get scammed by fraud artists and help poor tenants fight for their rights against slumlords.

That's not very radical stuff, by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it's a good bet that most in this country believe all Americans -- not just the well-off -- should have access to the courts to pursue such basic rights.

This year, the dispute was spiced by an audit showing that the program -- which closed 1.1 million cases last year -- reported handling 75,000 more cases than it actually did in 1997. Spokesmen say the problem resulted from efforts to deal with a rising caseload amid a constricted budget by referring more cases to other agencies, doing more telephone consultations and confusion over how to count such client encounters. They have rewritten the program's 20-year-old handbook and made other changes to eliminate the problem.

But in truth, the Legal Services Corp. has been under congressional attack since well before that bookkeeping problem surfaced. It shouldn't be, if the poor are to have any chance at what's supposed to be equal justice for all.

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