Speech to the New York Bar Association

New York City, NY | January 24, 2002

Yes, I do believe that we the people of the United States must recapture our beliefs that national survival and improvement, not national security, depends on communal, common, united effort in which each of us participates with and helps others!

Thank you President-elect Lorraine Power Tharp for your kind introduction. Thank you also professor Tom Maligno for inviting me to speak before the distinguished audience! And thanks to all of you members of the Bar for selecting such a remarkable woman to be your President. Fellow Members of the Bar, Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is my joy, my honor, my happiness to be a speaker at the most famous Bar Association in the huge and famous state of NY.

In the very earliest days of “Legal Services for the Poor”, I had an opportunity to visit a Legal Services Center which had just opened at the University of Detroit Law School. It was run by the faculty and students of the Law School. I met a couple there, a man and woman returning from an appearance in a Small Claims Court.

The husband was 71 years old, his wife 67. They were accompanied by a law student and teacher who had helped them in court. They had just won a verdict for $68! I asked them how they felt, and the man looked at me and said, "Mr. Shriver, this is the first time we have ever won anything, the first time we’ve ever had anyone on our side”. Then tears began to fill his eyes. And he took my hand and kissed it!

I didn't deserve or earn that kiss. In truth, the man wasn't kissing my hands — he was kissing the hand of Justice! Justice which had touched him and his wife for the very first time in their lives!! Justice, one of the most basic necessities for a good society! For without justice, there can be no good society!

In the preamble to the United States Constitution, before that document refers to domestic tranquility or providing for the common defense or promoting the general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity—before all of that—the Constitution says, “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice”!

Thus, immediately after creating a more perfect union, the founders of our country listed Justice as the first purpose of our new nation! Justice, was what the USA was all about. Justice today is what all of us lawyers should be all about. When I was called upon to create a "War Against Poverty" in 1964, I knew nothing about poverty in the USA. And I certainly don't claim to have had the vision to include Legal Services among the array of programs we were putting together — It was a man named Edgar Cahn who had that vision! I was just open-minded enough to read what Edgar had written in his article called "The War on Poverty: A Civilian Perspective” in the Yale University Law Journal. It did not take five minutes for me to know that his article was profound and extremely important.

Adam Yarmolinsky, a great friend of mine, had recommended the article to me; so I asked Adam to get Edgar to talk to us. The next morning at 8:00 a.m. Edgar a came alone, from his GS-15 slot in the Justice Department. He was somewhat small in stature, modest in demeanor, calm and reflective in speech. He impressed me immediately by the clarity and originality of his thought; and by his dedication to the achievement of justice for the poor.

On the spot, and before 9:00 am, I asked him to leave his well-paid job and join us in creating a new effort to establish justice for those in America who never had any justice at all!  He accepted the challenge without hesitation. We never discussed salary or titles; only the vision enthralled us: Edgar Cahn, Adam Yarnlolinsky, and Sargent Shriver. After we started the Legal Services Program, several things happened that began to change my thinking about government public service & even about the legal profession.

First of all, it amazed me how quickly things happened in our "Legal Services." To help us, came lawyers—young, inexperienced, idealistic, but bright, bright, bright young lawyers in their 20s and 30s—eager to take on huge established bureaucracies (There was no doubt about the importance of what they were doing. In the very first year, 1962, eight of their initiatives went to the U.S. Supreme Court; and they won them all! It was unprecedented!

How these young lawyers, some only in their 20s, could bring about so many innovations in the law, in such a short period of time, was then and still is a marvel to me!

One of the cases which made a particular impression was the one involving New York State, where there was a residency requirement before poor persons could receive welfare payments. Migrants and others coming into the state couldn't get on the public welfare rolls for a number of years, about five, I believe. I had grown up thinking that the states were well within their rights to establish their own standards in such matters. Otherwise, the progressive, generous states would be flooded by refugees from the more parsimonious states! But these bright young Legal Services lawyers came along and took that case right to the Supreme Court; and won it! That famous decision, Shapiro v. Thompson, cost Governor Nelson Rockefeller's budget several hundred million dollars a year! Today I believe a comparable initiative would cost billions!

But thousands of poor people were helped immeasurably by that decision. And it was young, unspoiled, visionary lawyers who had the freshness of thinking and courage to achieve that victory! They opened my eyes, and the eyes and hears of many others! Just for the record, this case was the first ever argued before the US Supreme Court by any Legal Aid or Legal Service lawyer in US history! Thank God we won!

On another occasion, I got a phone call at the Office of Economic Opportunity from Bill Wirtz, the Secretary of Labor in Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson’s Cabinets. He was being bombarded with lawsuits from the California Rural Legal Assistance Program, one of our newest initiatives in “Legal Services for the Poor”.

We were contesting the legality of a Labor Department Program which imported seasonal, cheap labor from Mexico to harvest fruit crops in California. The young lawyers at CRLA brought suit to require the employment of local labor before importing foreign workers. So, on the telephone was Bill Wirtz, an excellent labor lawyer, and law professor, my friend from our Chicago days, when we both worked for Adlai Stevenson. He said to me: “Sarge, what the hell are you doing?” (I used to get a lot of “what the hell are you doing phone calls in those days) “You’re preventing my people from doing their jobs”, he said. I replied, “Bill, are you suggesting that I should try to prevent the Legal Services lawyers from pursing possible remedies at law on behalf of the poor citizens of California? Legal Services was established to help the poor of our own country before we import foreign cheap workers who are not even citizens of our country!” Finally, after a long, long pause, Bill said, “Well Sarge, I see what you mean,” and he slammed the phone down. And that was the end of the Department of Labor’s protest against “Legal Services for the Poor”.

Bill Wirtz was an exceptional man of great learning in the law, experiences in governments and sensitive to human rights, but he had never really looked at the situation within his own Department from the narrow (if you will) viewpoint of the poor! These two stories exemplify that no matter how well-motivated persons may be, how eager to do the right thing for the poor, we can have our senses dulled over the years. Sometimes we don’t really see the unfairness we are involved in! We need to be shown! In every society, there is a tendency for those getting along successful not to be sensitive to the human problems the poor confront every day! That’s a universal truth! It was true in Biblical times, it’s true today -almost everywhere on earth, I believe, on earth, even in 2002. Where do we as citizens of the USA stand today? Have our early efforts in the 1960s achieved nationwide success? Does Justice with a capital letter “J” reign everywhere in our land? The answer to these questions is “No”.

Throughout the 1980s, urged on by Ronald Reagan, the most powerful opponent of “Legal Services for the Poor”, the scope of the national Legal Services Program for the Poor was continuously reduced, the financial resources were cut in half, and leadership of the program was given to incompetent, inexperienced persons. Reagan tried to kill “Legal Services for the Poor” completely. He zero-budgeted the program! But Congress prevented him from achieving his objectives.

“Legal Services for the Poor” was able to overcome him and his other attempts to destroy it and all of its initiatives for the poor! But all of our programs together today have no reach even 50% of the poor population! As a lawyer, I believe that our government, my government, and your government, and my profession and your profession, have a positive, moral and legal duty to make sure that legal services are available to the poor on an accessible, affordable, regular, dignified basis, and if necessary, even free of charge! Which means that I, as a lawyer, believe that some significant part of my money, time, thought and energy belongs, I don’t give it—it belongs to others not just me! Which means that I believe I am not wholly “independent” not a creature whose self-interests is paramount, nor a person who must be “Number One” or perish.

Yes, I do believe that we the people of the United States must recapture our beliefs that “national survival” and improvement, not national security, depends on communal, common, united effort in which each of us participates with and helps others! A community to which we pledge “our lives, our fortunes and our scared honor”! National security without national community is a narrow-minded dream only of the military mind.

Yes, I do believe that I, as a professional lawyer, have the obligation to join with other professionals and fellow citizens to struggle against poverty caused by unconscionable laws, or even by legalized greed: against pollution of the physical and mental environment; against inequalities in education, health and housing—against all those and other evils of our society. I must serve, not should serve, free of charge, if necessary, with groups organized to attack community problems—homelessness, hunger, teenage pregnancy, dissolute conditions, joblessness, loneliness, especially of the old and forgotten population.

“Legal Services—by lawyers is essential to solve community problems in our legalistic society. Without lawyers’ help, the people of the USA cannot build structures and precedents necessary for success!

For of you who struggle for Justice please, never forsake the work you do! You are the best guardians of liberty and builders of quality of life for all Americans.

Without you, without the National Center of Poverty Law, our country will never achieve “Equal Justice Under Law”. The Bible itself says:

“…The learned will shine like the brilliance of the firmament… Those who train many in the ways of justice will sparkle like stars for all eternity…” You are those “stars”. Please never lose your sparkle.