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Public Interest Warriors

By Kari Santos | Jan. 2, 2015

Law Office Management

Jan. 2, 2015

Public Interest Warriors

Two legal advocates continue fighting for the rights of the poor.

In one of California's darkest places, Los Angeles's Skid Row, I took a walk with two of our profession's brightest lights: retired California Court of Appeal Justice Earl Johnson Jr. and Gary L. Blasi, a recently retired UCLA law professor.

The roughly 50-block area near downtown is home to the most concentrated population of homeless individuals in the country. A faint smell of urine permeates some of the narrower streets. An elderly woman with some missing teeth sits cross-legged against a wall mumbling to herself, her possessions in a shopping cart covered by a filthy blue tarp. Halfway up the

block, two police officers are trying to coax a middle-aged man sitting on the sidewalk to get up and join them.

Skid Row today is significantly better than it used to be: Additional shelters provide much-needed services to the homeless, conditions are more hygienic, and children no longer roam the streets. Yet this remains a dangerous place, especially at night. Many individuals are still barely hanging on, desperate for a break and a safe place to stay.

I asked Justice Johnson and Professor Blasi to join me in walking around Skid Row on our way to lunch to assess the current status of public interest legal practice against the stark backdrop of what is happening in the streets. The two men enjoy the easy familiarity of friends who have collaborated for decades.

Johnson and Blasi have had a tremendous impact on California's public interest legal community over the past 40 years. Even those who disagree with their views and goals - and there are some - acknowledge their tenacity, accomplishments, and influence.

Johnson first gained national prominence as the director of the War on Poverty's Legal Services Program, leading some to call him the architect of modern legal aid programs. From the bench, he has written some of the most notable and frequently cited opinions, often in dissent, on the rights of the poor and dispossessed. His book To Establish Justice for All (reviewed in last month's California Lawyer) is already widely considered the seminal treatise on the development of the country's legal aid movement.

Blasi and the legions of young public interest advocates he mentored over the years seem to have been at the forefront of every major California public interest case focused on the plight of the poor and their legal rights.

The pair met so long ago that they cannot remember the details of their first encounter. "We were angry young men then," Johnson says, laughing. "We are now angry old men." Although his remark was made with a wide smile, there is much to be angry about. The state of public interest legal practice is decidedly mixed.

The justice gap has persisted and, in some instances, widened. A huge number of Californians, and not only the poor, have no meaningful access to the justice system or other means to secure benefits to which they are legally entitled. The bipartisan political will to do something about poverty that characterized the 1970s is gone. Resources once available for the fight have been severely curtailed, most notably the ability of government-funded legal aid organizations to participate in class actions or legislative advocacy.

I asked my lunch partners: "When you started your public interest careers in the 1960s and early '70s, could you ever have imagined that a place like Skid Row would exist in Los Angeles in 2014?"

"Not in my worst nightmare," Blasi replied. "Back then, the fight was not about keeping things from getting worse. When I began, the focus was on making things better. We thought we could win the war on poverty."

Both men acknowledge that public interest advocacy groups themselves made some mistakes along the way. For example, economic arguments in the legal fight against poverty, which may have swayed some jurists and public officials, were not articulated as ably or aggressively as they should have been. "The public interest community sometimes took the easier way out by tending to underplay the role things like mental health and drug use played, because it was easier to do advocacy for people who did not have those problems," says Blasi.

Most of the past 20 years have been marked by the public interest community "playing defense much of the time," he adds.

But much has also gone right since Johnson and Blasi met as "young whippersnappers," in Johnson's words. In the wake of the government cutbacks in the 1980s, the private bar established and revitalized many pro bono programs offering quality legal services to the poor. And Blasi says the talent level of young lawyers coming into public interest practice is extremely strong.

The "Civil Gideon" movement - which seeks to provide mandatory government-funded legal aid assistance in civil cases that involve critical issues such as preventing homelessness or loss of health care - has gained significant support, including some very preliminary funding and trial programs. The infighting among legal aid organizations that had occasionally strained relations in the past is largely gone, especially in California.

Foremost for both men is the personal satisfaction that comes from working on a cause they so deeply believe in.

"It never felt like I had a choice" not to do public interest work, says Johnson. "Why would you do anything else?"

Says Blasi: "In a just world, I would be doing something else, but I don't see how you can live in this world and have the capacity to do something about the [injustices] you see and not do it."

Blasi and Johnson remain engaged, and their public interest contributions continue unabated. Blasi helps lead impact litigation cases - focusing especially on the quality of public education in distressed communities, and on other problems that can lead to homelessness. Johnson is a visiting scholar at USC law school and the Western Center on Law and Poverty, lectures widely, and gives advice to those who seek it. "The fight continues," Johnson adds.

As I depart our lunch, I look back over my shoulder to see Blasi and Johnson huddled in an animated conversation, still tenaciously waging a war with an outcome that remains far from certain. - -

Daniel Grunfeld, a partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius in Los Angeles, heads its West Coast litigation practice.


Kari Santos

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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