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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Legal Action of Wisconsin Turns 40

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When a handful of attorneys organized to represent the interests of the poor in Milwaukee, they didn’t think their mission would last more than a year.

But now, 40 years later, the work of Legal Action of Wisconsin endures.

The organization, which serves low-income people who otherwise could not afford representation, grew out of two legal service organizations in the early 1970s: Freedom Through Equality and Milwaukee Legal Services.

Legal Action Executive Director John Ebbott was one of those early attorneys who tried to improve access to the courts for the poor. He said it was an exciting time to work on cases for prisoners and migrant farmworkers, because judges in the federal courts, building on recent Supreme Court decisions, were interested in expanding the rights of the poor and disadvantaged. Other attorneys helped individuals deal with evictions, denial of public benefits or family law.

“Our clients were mostly poor people without education, or had mental health issues and weren’t treated well by society,” said Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Tom Donegan, who worked for Legal Action from 1974 to 1984.

Ebbott called that time the “halcyon days” for public-interest law, because the country as a whole advocated for equal justice for all.

That changed with the changes in presidential administrations. Ebbott said that the gains made by progressive and moderate members of Congress during the Nixon administration were kept intact during the Jimmy Carter years. But Ronald Reagan tried to gut funding for legal services for the poor and advocates had to sue to have the money restored. Ebbott said that state and local attorneys and legislators stepped up and established more permanent funding, although each budget is a roller coaster.

Another change has been the legal challenges facing the poor. Earlier cases involved public assistance benefits. But since welfare has been gutted, there aren’t as many benefits to fight for, Ebbott said. Now, Legal Action is trying to remove barriers to employment, such as restoring driver’s licenses and clearing up old or erroneous criminal records.

The number of attorneys working for Legal Action has increased from eight to 85. What’s more, attorneys who serve the poor are making a bigger sacrifice than those who came before them, because they’re leaving law school with more debt—about $80,000 to $100,000.

“The good thing, though, is that the dedication and commitment and sensitivity of the attorneys has not changed over the years,” Ebbott said.

Ebbott said that the federal courts are now more receptive to cases brought by corporations, not low-income individuals, so most cases are heard in state courts. Judge Donegan said the work of Legal Action is vital to our community.

“Legal Action cannot serve enough of the population that needs it,” Donegan said. “We’re kidding ourselves if we as a society say that we’re serving the needs of the poor. The services they provide are vital and important.”

Comment on this article online at ExpressMilwaukee.com.