The CLIR Hidden Collections project is now entering its second year. While work on the MALDEF records continues, we are pleased to report that the project team has also begun processing the records of California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. (CRLA).
Founded in 1966 with funding from the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), CRLA provides direct legal services to the low income rural population in California, particularly to migrant farmworkers. Even in its early years, CRLA was consistently recognized for providing high-quality legal services, both by its clients and by organizations such as the American Bar Association and the OEO itself. Despite its success (or perhaps due to its success), it has been forced to fight repeatedly for its continued survival. Of the many important events represented in the records now held in the Department of Special Collections at Stanford, the controversy over the 1970 veto by Ronald Reagan (who was then Governor of California) against the refunding of CRLA is particularly significant.
CRLA’s relation with Reagan had been tense ever since they successfully blocked his attempts to cut California’s welfare programs in 1967. On December 26, 1970, Reagan vetoed a $1.8 million OEO grant for CRLA’s 1971 refunding. His veto was based on a report compiled by Lewis K. Uhler, a former member of the John Birch Society, who had been appointed by Reagan as director of the state’s OEO, an appointment that seemed clearly aimed at undermining CRLA. Uhler submitted to Reagan a report entitled A Study and Evaluation of California Rural Legal Assistance, inc., which became known simply as the Uhler Report. The report listed 127 incidents of alleged CRLA misconduct, making no effort to acknowledge any of the organization’s significant accomplishments. The charges against CRLA, which included the misuse of OEO funds and intentionally inciting prison riots, ranged from misrepresentations to libelous and false.
Although Reagan’s veto was no surprise, the outrageous allegations contained in the Uhler Report were shocking and prompted CRLA and its supporters to launch an ambitious campaign to save the organization. CRLA demanded an investigation into Uhler’s charges and submitted a carefully prepared report of its own that refuted each incident cited in the Uhler Report.
Page 1 of CRLA’s Summary of Charges, in which CRLA refutes all 127 incidents of alleged misconduct cited in the Uhler Report (M0750, RG 8, box 29, folder 6)
The final say on the veto resided with the new director of the OEO, Frank Carlucci, who had been recently appointed by President Nixon to replace the outgoing director, Donald Rumsfeld. In response to the outcry against the veto, Carlucci formed a commission to investigate the claims contained in the Uhler Report. The investigations ultimately led to hearings held throughout California (in which Uhler himself refused to officially participate). After further investigation and careful consideration of testimony, the commission concluded that ALL the charges against CRLA were irrelevant or unfounded, and its OEO funding was extended. Political attacks on CRLA however were far from over and were renewed with vigor by Reagan during his presidency. CRLA’s successful overturning of the 1970 veto, however, highlighted its resilience to such attacks—a resilience and success it has continued to demonstrate throughout its nearly 50 years of operation.
The Uhler Report controversy was not only a formative moment in the history of CRLA, but significant to the history of legal services in general, for it exposed the vulnerability of legal services to politically motivated attacks. This controversy and its implications have been examined in numerous articles and studies, including the 1973 article published in The Hastings Law Journal by legal scholars Jerome B. Falk and Stuart R. Pollak, “Political Interference with Publicly Funded Lawyers: The CRLA Controversy and The Future of Legal Services.”
In addition to copies of CRLA’s responses to the Uhler Report, records related to this controversy held in the collection include news clippings, press releases, pleadings, hearing transcripts, correspondence, and commission reports, as wells as many letters of support for CRLA sent to Nixon, Reagan, and Carlucci from a wide range of supporters, including other legal service organizations, law schools, politicians, labor organizations, religious groups, and individual attorneys and clients.