Justice Earl Johnson’s Remarkable Book on the History of Legal Aid

I am proud to be able to share with the readers of this blog the Prologue of the remarkable recently published book by Justice Earl Johnson Jr. (ret).  The three volume work is a history of legal aid since the very beginning (1876).

In the Prologue, Earl places himself, and the history, firmly on the side of a comprehensive and change-oriented view of the movement:

This book tells the story behind our nation’s tardy and as yet unfinished effort to make those people unable to afford lawyers equal to those who can—and thus for the first time establish justice for that segment of the population. That effort is usually called “legal aid” or “legal services for the poor.” “Legal aid” is not exactly a term that conjures up images of turmoil and controversy in most peoples’ minds. It sounds so much like “first aid,” and “band aid,” and similar help for those in trouble it is difficult imagining why anyone would oppose it. Yet for most of the last half century, legal aid for poor people has been a major political and ideological battleground, a target of nearly constant assaults from the right wing of U.S. politics as well as some powerful politicians and wealthy campaign contributors.

In a sense it has been a contest over two visions of what poor people deserve in the way of legal aid. To analogize to health care—should the government only provide them a network of first aid stations or should it also give them access to specialists and hospitals when they have serious illnesses. The code words for the first aid station approach in the legal aid context is having offices that limit their mission to just taking care of poor people’s “everyday” or “routine” problems. The language describing the broader vision started with the very first legal aid society, which included in its mission “promoting measures for their protection.” During the war on poverty it was called “law reform” and later was labeled “impact work” or “high-quality legal services.”

Earl also describes in the Prologue the range of his exploration:

The book is divided into six parts published in three volumes—each part consisting of several chapters and covering a different historical era. Volume one contains two parts—first, the Charitable Era from 1876 through 1964, when civil legal aid depended entirely on the generosity of private donors, mainly wealthy ones; and second, the war on poverty era, from 1965 through 1974, when civil legal aid became part of the war on poverty as the OEO legal services program when it earned headlines and enemies aplenty.

The second volume also has two parts: first, the attempt to rescue the legal services program when the war on poverty collapsed by creating an independent Legal Services Corporation, a rescue effort that took nearly four years, 1971–1974, and second, that corporation’s first dozen years, 1975–1992, which early on brought great progress followed by a brush with extinction.

The third volume contains the final two parts. The first relates the congressional constriction of access to justice for poor people and how that has affected the nation’s civil legal aid system, 1992–2008. The final part contrasts the development of legal aid in the United States with its evolution in other industrial democracies, then speculates about its possible future in this country.

Earl is now disinterested observer — nor does he present himself as such.  He was very much “present at the creation,” deeply involved with Gary Bellow, Edgar and Jean Cahn, and Clint Bamberger in the development of the original OEO program.  Most recently, he has become the national guru of the civil Gideon movement, and one who understands the importance of making full use of the continuum of services.

This is written by someone who participated in some parts of that history—rather than a completely detached observer. I was at the center of events for a few years and active at the periphery for many others. I started as a poverty lawyer in the ghettoes of Washington, D.C., then became the first deputy director and second director of the federal government’s first program funding legal representation of the poor—the OEO’s Legal Services Program. Later as a member of the National Advisory Committee to the OEO Legal Services Program, I was one of a number of people involved in the legislative campaign that ultimately created the Legal Services Corporation. This independent public corporation took over from the OEO program and now continues to administer the federal government’s funding of legal services for the poor. Later I was appointed as an appellate judge in California, and remained interested but largely uninvolved in events affecting the Legal Services Corporation at the national level, while becoming active in access to justice initiatives at the state level in California.

Its a great book (Amazon link here).



About richardzorza

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