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To Establish Justice for All

By Kari Santos | Dec. 2, 2014

Law Office Management

Dec. 2, 2014

To Establish Justice for All

Author Earl Johnson Jr. details the history of federal legal services

The epic struggle to salvage the federal legal services program from the wreckage of the war on poverty is among the most fascinating political battles of our times. Here in California, rescuing California Rural Legal Assistance from the voracious jaws of Governor and then President Ronald Reagan is one of the most interesting chapters in that struggle. In this three-volume work, Earl Johnson Jr. has done a masterful job creating a balanced and probing chronicle of those events. The bonus is that the work is authored by a real "insider," who can illuminate the story with detailed descriptions of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

Johnson was among the earliest directors of the Office of Economic Opportunity's (OEO) Legal Services Program, which was launched in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's war on poverty. (It was reorganized as the Legal Services Corporation in 1974.) The author continued his support of legal services throughout his subsequent distinguished career as a law professor at USC and a justice of the California Court of Appeal.

But don't be put off by the heft of these volumes by Johnson or their price. This definitive history belongs in every lawyer's library. Despite its thorough documentation, it's actually a breezy read. The first volume covers the early history of the legal aid movement in the United States and the formation of the OEO Legal Services Program. The second volume takes us through the formation of the Legal Services Corporation and the efforts to limit its effectiveness during President Reagan's two terms in office. The last volume relates the more recent struggles during the Clinton era right on up to the present.

The galaxy of heroes and villains in these struggles is a large one, and Johnson gives every one of them his or her due. I came away with renewed respect and admiration for Sargent Shriver, who created the OEO; Clinton Bamberger, the first director of the Legal Services Program under whom Earl Johnson served; and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was a member (and later chair) of the board of the Legal Services Corporation. On the flip side, my previous disdain for the efforts to dismantle the Legal Services Program by Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Newt Gingrich were heartily confirmed, although the author is characteristically gentle in discussing them. Still, Johnson documents that these officials have a lot to be ashamed of.

In addition, Johnson chronicles the long parade of achievements in the courts and state legislatures by veterans of the community lawyer fellowships established in the name of Reginald Heber Smith, a legendary attorney in the annals of legal aid and author of Justice and the Poor (1919). Despite his humility, Johnson himself emerges as a guiding eminence grise throughout all of these events.

In assessing the future of legal aid in the United States, Johnson is somewhat pessimistic, and his pessimism seems amply justified by the history he has so ably presented. He writes: "Based on its history so far, "it seems justice for lower-income people in the United States may remain forever in jeopardy. ... Stable one year and teetering on the brink the next. Yet it appears it may be ever thus."

Despite the sobering conclusion, by putting the efforts to establish justice for all in its historical context, Earl Johnson Jr. has ably achieved a gargantuan task.

Gerald F. Uelmen is a law professor at Santa Clara University.


Kari Santos

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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