Why State-Based Advocacy Orgazations are Important — Two Lessons from Massachuetts

Those of us who try to focus attention on the “access” side of access to justice are often criticized for not planning enough for impact advocacy side.  Two recent developments highlight the importance and potential results of having institutions that focus on legal change and also raise the question why we can not have such institutions in every state.

The Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI), where I worked during law school and briefly afterwards, is with very good reason regarded as one of the best so-called “state back-up centers” funded, till the Gingrich era, by LSC.

A few weeks ago Ernest (Tony) Winsor, the Deputy Director at MLRI for 30 years, died.  An article (not an obituary) in the Boston Globe highlights his career and contributions.  Tony was one of my supervisors as a law student, and I learned so much from him.  As the Globe put it:

One of his best-known efforts was training volunteers to be court watchers and sit through court proceedings, document abuses of procedure and rules, and draft reports. Their work was a necessary first step to help the institute determine what was happening in the courts.

Court watchers “come into a community like Chelsea and they can’t be scared off, whereas the local lawyers dependent on the good will of the court, might be,” Mr. Winsor told The Boston Globe in 1972. Based on the court watchers’ observations, he added, “judges tend to modify their behavior for the better.”

Also in the 1970s, Mr. Winsor drafted first-of-its-kind legislation that provided for an affidavit of indigency. When income criteria were met, the state would be required to cover the costs of low-income litigants, according to Rodgers. The legislation was adopted in 1974.

“I think it’s fair to say it’s still the best statute of its kind in this country,” Rodgers said. “We monitor that. To give you an idea of the significance of this law, the last time I checked . . . I estimated the total benefit annually to poor people from this legislation was $30 million.”

Another of Mr. Winsor’s accomplishments was helping change the Criminal Offender Record Information law, or CORI. The original law was meant to limit access to criminal record information to law enforcement and courts, but over time CORI reports became widely available to others, including employers and residential housing owners.

Working with organizations such as the Union of Minority Neighborhoods and the Boston Workers Alliance, Mr. Winsor and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute helped secure adoption of legislation that brought comprehensive changes, according to Rodgers.

Mr. Winsor also helped form the Babel Coalition, which succeeded in getting interpreters placed in the courts and state medical facilities.

Those of us who remember Tony — and anyone who met him ever for five minutes will remember his energy, passion, commitment, and quirkiness — will see it as typical that Tony’s imagination and creativity led him to eschew names as boring as “language access coalition,” and rather coin a term like “Babel Coalition” which, once heard, would never be forgotten.  I know Tony well enough to know that this was not calculation — it was just that life should be enjoyed, so why not think up a dramatic name. Info on the fund to support MLRI established in his honor is here.

The  equally long-time Director of MLRI, Allan Rogers, (also one of my supervisors) has also given us cause to appreciate the importance of institutions such as the one he created.  Recently published, and now online is Allan’s new book, RAP-UPS OF A RETIRED REFORMER: STORIES ABOUT HOW LEGAL SERVICES ADVOCATES TRANSFORMED THE LAWS FOR POOR PEOPLE IN MASSACHUSETTS.

It is a wonderful book, which details issue by issue, over a 40 year span, how a combination of legislative advocacy, litigation, coalition building, and community organizing, improved the law and the lives of the poor.  From welfare to housing, from administrative agency process to criminal record privacy, from energy pricing to family law, working through coalitions, the book shows how MLRI has always been there.  The book is free online in various formats here.

It is typical of Allan’s directness, clarity and compassion that he starts Chapter One as follows:

Some people like to glorify the “good old days,” when, they say, life was simpler and less divisive. Of course, these apologists did not experience what poor people did then or do now. Massachusetts’ family cash assistance programs were, until the late 1960s, administered by cities and towns, with few rules and standards for those who received assistance and those who did not, a recipe for arbitrary decision-making.

It is also typical that throughout he credits so many many people with achievements that they would with no doubt at all credit mainly to him.  (Disclosure: I am noted, and proud to be.)  Indeed, part of MLRI’s success came and comes from its deep commitment to work with, not in competition with, local legal aid advocates.

I remember once asking Alan how he came by his clarity and commitments, and his reply was so simple, and sadly so rare.  It was, he told me, from going to law school and learning about the Constitution.  Whoever taught Allan Con Law is owed a deep debt by the people of Massachusetts and beyond –whatever the professor’s ideology.

Allan ends the book thus:

Public institutions and powerful interests continue to be largely unsympathetic to the needs of the poor. Advocates have to spend ever-increasing amounts of time combating ignorant and even malevolent attacks on the poor, passivity on the part of many public officials who should know better, and backsliding by the public and private institutions that are supposed to serve the poor. Much of this has been caused by relentless and well-funded campaigns to hamstring and defund programs that are designed to help. Ultimately, I think the best way to fight these efforts is to open them up to public awareness. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in one of his First Amendment opinions: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

But things were much worse when MLRI and other legal services programs were started in the late 1960s. In the 1970s, after MLRI and our allies succeeded in changing many laws and agency practices that adversely affected the poor, public and foundation grants were awarded to those very agencies to help them implement the changes. We, too, asked for funds but were turned down. At one point I said that maybe we should change our name to Massachusetts Law Enforcement Institute so that we could get more credit for what we had done.

This is much the position we are in now. Thanks to our effective work over the years, many laws and programs are in place to protect and support the poor. So we should see ourselves as law enforcers and as uninvited guests at the garden parties. Doing this kind of systemic work is what so many legal services advocates have excelled at these many years. Many of the rights and laws exist to do this effectively. If because of the political climate we find little room for achieving affirmative improvements, we can see to it that people get the rights and benefits that we have helped put into place. Many legal services advocates have made it their careers to do just that. This is a legacy of which we can truly be proud.

Dona nobis pacem

Whatever area of change you are in, you could do a lot worse than download the book and find the section relevant to you work.

And, for those in states without a group like MLRI, think, please, about how one might be founded and funded.


About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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