Civil Legal Aid in Maryland: History and Relevance Now
July 24, 2021 | by Maryland Access to Jutice commission
When Maryland’s leading lawyers and chief judge issued their pro bono call to action earlier this summer, asking the state’s forty thousand lawyers to assist their most vulnerable neighbors in the wake of the pandemic, they invoked something above and beyond everyday lawyering.
Something ancient. Something noble. Something special about the role of the attorney: that stuff from which our oaths are woven and breathed from generation to generation: justice. It is that internal, flaming desire to help “the powerless and the voiceless,” as Maryland Legal Aid Bureau’s executive director, Joseph Wilhelm, Jr., says, that has propelled not only the recent call to action, but generations of legal services attorneys and volunteers.
“REAL JUSTICE, THE AIM,” proclaimed the Baltimore Sun in September 1911 , announcing the establishment of the Legal Aid Bureau of the Federated Charities – the forerunner of what would become the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau (MLAB). The newspaper hailed the organization’s promise to defend the rights of the poor. “Interests of those unable to pay lawyer’s fees will be zealously guarded,” the Sun declared.
This was not the first such organization in the country; other major cities, such as New York and Philadelphia, had already established legal aid bureaus, and the concept was rapidly spreading through the nation. Similarly, this was not Maryland’s first legal services organization; a Baltimore “Jewish charity” had been providing services to members of its community for some time.
The early twentieth century was a time of increasing advocacy for the plight of the poor and related social justice issues. It was the era of Ida B. Wells, Mother Jones, W.E.B. DuBois, Alice Paul, Upton Sinclair, and other progressive activists, writers, and thinkers. It was also an era of tremendous immigration and urban growth, and challenges to immigration and growth. Immigrants who did not speak English often found themselves severely disadvantaged in their new country, including in its legal system – a creature of which they often lacked both cultural and linguistic understanding. Indeed, attempts to access justice could provoke additional problems for the poor: the Sun complained in July 1911 of the most vulnerable residents being abused by “shyster lawyers.”
The barriers posed by poverty and language difference – and their consequences – cannot be overstated. One Italian immigrant who, like countless others, was recruited “fresh off the boat” for dubious mining and quarry projects further inland, found himself charged with murder after a fatal tavern fight in Washington County. Accused of shooting a Baltimore and Ohio Railroad employee near the Harpers Ferry crossing, the man faced severe penalties if found guilty. Newspapers noted he spoke no English; his very name could not even be understood and recorded correctly by the American press or police. His only hope of understanding his rights, communicating his defense, or comprehending anything that was happening to him: a fellow immigrant working at the quarry, who spoke just a few words of English. Unsurprisingly, he was convicted.
The “Spencer’s Tavern” murder case drew much press at the time, becoming a rallying cry for the prohibition of alcohol in neighboring West Virginia. Lost to history, however, are the countless tales of abused spouses, stolen wages, and unjust collection practices that plagued the most vulnerable members of Maryland society. If these persons even fathomed potential legal rights and remedies for their situations, one cannot imagine they fared any better in accessing the justice system effectively.
“For years complaints have been made of the manner in which poor persons are literally robbed of their savings,” the Sun reported in July 1911, discussing the need for a legal aid bureau. “In many instances the persons affected have not been in a position to bring their troubles to the proper authorities, and the evil, rather than decreasing, has been allowed to increase.”
After investigation by the Baltimore City Bar Association and the Federated Charities, the decision was made to raise a defense to that “evil.” The Legal Aid Bureau was established, and it had its work cut out for it.
Civil Justice, Civil Rights
As the twentieth century ticked forward, it became apparent that aiding Maryland’s poor meant aiding a population that was disproportionately nonwhite. By 1939, more than 50 percent of the Legal Aid Bureau’s clients were African American.
Still, segregationist policies reigned throughout several aspects of midcentury Maryland society, including the bar. The Maryland State Bar Association did not admit its first members of color until 1960, and then, only after a debate filled with much vitriol in which an “avowed segregationist” claimed a desegregated bar would result in “white genocide.” The Legal Aid Bureau itself declined to accept volunteer African American attorneys; a mid-1930s board meeting notes it was determined such an act would “not be in the Bureau’s best interest.” It was not until 1939 that African American attorneys were welcomed to the bureau, and over a dozen years would pass before an African American would be appointed to the bureau’s board.
Whether it was the diversification of the bureau, or of the bar, or of broader society itself, legal aid services became more sensitive to their civil rights connection. MLAB director Joseph began his career in the thick of the Civil Rights movement as a student and young lawyer in Mississippi. Likewise, challenging poverty and racial inequity has been the joint mission of the Baltimore-based Public Justice Center since its founding in 1985. Today’s Access to Justice Commission, in conjunction with the Attorney General, has directly addressed race equity issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 Task Force discovered persons of color were more likely to be subjected to debt collection, eviction, and job loss resulting from the pandemic, along with many other civil justice matters.
In 1966, the bureau began receiving funding from the federal Office of Equal Opportunity’s Legal Services Program – an office born from the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Federal funding allowed the bureau to finally expand beyond Baltimore City and establish offices in Anne Arundel, Carroll, and Harford Counties. By 1980, the bureau had offices in every region of Maryland. In addition, Marylanders benefited from law school clinics, traditional private pro bono service, a program dedicated to serving the differently abled, and other bourgeoning legal services.
Politicians supporting the broader Civil Rights movement tended to be friendlier to legal aid budgets; veteran legal services professionals recall the boon of funding available during the Carter administration. By 1981, the total federal budget for legal aid services was over $320 million.
The veterans also remember the backlash that followed.
The Reagan Reduction
“They wanted to zero out legal aid,” said Susan Erlichman, retiring director of the Maryland Legal Services Corporation (MLSC), describing the efforts of the Reagan administration and other conservatives to slash legal services for the poor from the federal budget. Federal legal aid funding had been the primary source of income for Maryland’s legal services programs. With that source teetering on collapse, Maryland advocates quickly began to maneuver alternative solutions.
MLAB began coordinating with MSBA to rally the private bar to engage in pro bono services. The Maryland Volunteer Lawyer Service was established to provide a point of recruitment and training for pro bono attorneys. Proposals for mandatory pro bono service were suggested by MSBA members; this measure never became rule, however. MSBA continues to encourage attorneys to voluntarily contribute their time and expertise.
Erlichman’s organization, MLSC, was another response to the funding threat. Founded in 1982 by an act of the General Assembly, its purpose was to raise funds and distribute them to nonprofit legal services organizations in Maryland. “There is a need to provide equal access to the system of justice for individuals who seek redress of grievances,” noted the act’s statement of legislative intent. “Reduction of federal funds has diminished the legal services provided by the existing statewide legal services programs.” Lawmakers contended it was a critical issue, stating, “The availability of legal services reaffirms faith in our government of laws.”
Initially, MLSC’s chief funding was the interest from IOLTA accounts – which, by the way, were entirely voluntarily. Attorneys were not required to participate or contribute anything whatsoever. Mandatory participation and contribution did not occur until 1989. The result: between 1988 and 1990, IOLTA-based income increased more than five-fold.
Longtime access to justice advocate and commissioner Herb Garten attained presidency of MSBA in 1989, and made pro bono service a priority of his tenure. The Maryland Pro Bono Resource Center (PBRC) was created by MSBA in 1990, centralizing the organization’s pro bono efforts.
Ask veteran legal services professionals about the challenges they have encountered, and they invariably laugh.
“Oh! Have there been storms?” Joseph quips in mock surprise.
Erlichman acknowledges the multiple crises with a smile as well, but notes, “I couldn’t have [navigated them] by myself.”
The 2008 recession, various budget reductions, and an ever-growing demand for services have routinely challenged leaders like Joseph and Erlichman to think creatively and diversify their resources. The 2020 pandemic, however, dealt a blow unlike any other. MLSC lost more than seventy percent of its income as IOLTA funds, court filing fees, and donations dwindled during the lengthy court closures. Advocates were able to achieve additional legal funding from Maryland’s governor, but the issue has remained tense.
To meet the demand – or as some would say, the duty – two points have remained at the forefront of strategy for generations. First, to increase civil legal aid funding. Second: cooperation with the private bar.
The rallying cry, also, has remained the same: REAL JUSTICE.“The Legal Aid Bureau….has a great work ahead of it,” the Sun pronounced in November 1911, “and, managed as it is by able, intelligent counsel, it should measure up to this work. But funds are necessary, if it is to fulfill its obligations. Every citizen, and more especially every lawyer, having the welfare of his city [or state] at heart, should lend a helping hand.”