A statue of Ronald Reagan has found its home in the basement Rotunda of the State Capitol. I believe such a tribute – in a building that belongs to all Californians – should be reserved for a person who represents all Californians, be they farmworkers or corporate farm owners, poor or rich, and those who belong to all ethnic and racial groups.
The statue’s unveiling was celebrated by many Reagan admirers and even endorsed by The Sacramento Bee editorial board. However, it prompted me to revisit one of the most ferocious legal battles of my career. The reader can judge whether Reagan deserves to be honored in light of his dishonest and deceitful efforts to destroy a nonprofit legal services program dedicated to serving the rights of the rural poor.
California Rural Legal Assistance began appearing in California’s agricultural valleys in August 1966. The legal services program was part of the federal Office of Economic Opportunity’s war on poverty. Its mission was to provide full service to farmworkers statewide. It recruited top legal talent and was funded with sufficient resources to counter the legal and political power of government and corporate farm owners who affected so much of the lives of the rural poor.
I joined California Rural Legal Assistance in 1968 and became director in 1969.
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Just one year later, then-Gov. Reagan vetoed funding for the legal services program – a move that essentially stripped poor people of their economic, political, legal and social bargaining power.
The veto was not a surprise. Among Reagan’s most ardent political and financial supporters were the corporate farm growers. He was also determined to cut state expenses. It did not take long for fierce legal battles to result between his interests and that of our clients.
California Rural Legal Assistance clients were challenging agribusiness, welfare departments and housing authorities. In 1967, our Marysville office challenged budget cuts at the Yuba County welfare department. In the space of two months, our clients filed 28 administrative appeals – and won 27 of them. Meanwhile, the county board protested to Reagan, alleging harassment of its officials.
In late summer of 1967, the program’s clients challenged the Reagan administration efforts to cut state Medi-Cal programs by $20 million. Reagan falsely announced that the program was running a $20 million deficit. The California Supreme Court ruled in favor of our clients, essentially declaring the cut was illegal.
As the political attacks against the legal services program escalated, our supporters countered and bolstered our cause. Thanks to support from prominent public figures and highly favorable features in The New Yorker, Time magazine and other publications, California Rural Legal Assistance’s cause was celebrated nationwide.
Before his veto, Reagan had appointed Lewis K. Uhler, a classmate of mine at UC Berkeley’s law school, as director of the state Office of Economic Opportunity. Uhler was tasked with documenting why funding for California Rural Legal Assistance should be vetoed.
Uhler refused to make his report available to California Rural Legal Assistance. Eventually, a Washington reporter shared a copy with us. Uhler listed 127 charges – including a preposterous claim that the legal services program instigated prison riots.
Eventually, President Richard Nixon became involved. Nixon issued a six-month grant to California Rural Legal Assistance and appointed a high-level commission to make an impartial review. The appointees were highly respected retired or sitting state Supreme Court justices – all Republicans.
The commission’s 201-page report not only cleared CRLA of all charges, it held the legal services program as a model law firm that provided “legal assistance to the poor under the mandate and policies of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 in a highly competent, efficient and exemplary manner.”
With respect to Reagan’s charges as stated in the Uhler Report, the commission was highly critical, stating that the report did not “furnish any justification whatsoever for any finding of improper activities by CRLA.” It also found “the California Evaluation has taken evidence out of context and misrepresented the facts to support the charges against CRLA,” calling the attacks against us “totally unjustified.” The commission concluded, “These charges were totally irresponsible and without foundation.”
Reagan’s character showed his lack of respect for the truth and disdain for legal and constitutional rights of the poor. He was prepared to cut off federal funding for rural poor people to have access to justice and willing to be untruthful to reach his political goals.
Is it proper for his statue to occupy a seat of honor in a place that belongs to all Californians?
Cruz Reynoso, a professor emeritus at UC Davis School of Law, is a former justice of the California Supreme Court.