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.

Rebecca Hagelin

Rebecca Hagelin is a public speaker on the family and culture and the author of the new best seller, 30 Ways in 30 Days to Save Your Family.
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