When cancer took the life of Jean Camper Cahn last month at age 55, none of he network TV evening news programs took note. For she was neither a well‑known actress, athlete or politician. She was only one of the most tireless fighters for social justice, one of the most effective democratic institution‑builders and one of the most consequential educators in the pest generation.
She started out as the strong-willed, exuberant daughter of a middle-class Baltimore family. Her father was a physician who founded the NAACP chapter in hat city. After graduating from Swarthmore and Vale Law School, she became a poverty lawyer in New Haven, where, with her husband, Edgar, also a lawyer, she developed the proposal that Congress, under her relentless lobbying, later enacted o start an agency providing legal services for the poor.
Impact: Nearly four thousand legal services lawyers now serve millions of poor Americans on matters ranging from housing, food, civil rights, domestic relations and a myriad of other consumer and health matters. Major law reform cases have been won. An entire arena of legal research was established via the agency’s backup research centers and at law schools. Idealism found a home for any young lawyers representing those who could not afford lawyers and therefore could not use the law to defend their rights.
In 1968, she started the Urban Law institute at George Washington University which linked the law to urban problems as both cause and remedy. Yes, he was long aware of how the law (e.g. tenant law) could be used as an instrument f injustice as well as an instrument of justice.
Three years later, she and Edgar co-founded the Antioch School of Law in Washington to train students in the clinical practice of law for the disenfranchised. As soon as students started their first year, they were obliged to give with a poor family for a few weeks to absorb a feeling for the conditions and cruelties that cried out for the application of humane legal advocacy.
The heavy emphasis on students learning by representing clients and going into courts pioneered by Antioch, now the D.C. School of Law, nudged other law schools around the country to open their curricula to courses and clinics for poor peoples’ rights. To say that law schools leaned toward corporate law and law for he rich is to engage in polite understatement. Through their writings, lectures and litigation, the Cahns pushed and prodded their profession to do what it professes.
Their former students are now all over the country and many are on the ramparts of seeking the rights in practice that political rhetoric asserts in theory.
Jean Camper Cahn directly litigated and won many cases from turning back an illegal bus fare increase in Washington, D.C., to a federal case in Florida she won one week before her life ended that ordered funds distributed under the Older Americans Act to De directed to those elder in greatest need.
The scores of people who gathered at the historic Ali Souls’ Unitarian Church in Washington on February 16 to celebrate her life reflected the many talents and impacts of this remarkable and joyous woman. They spoke of her inspiration, her wit, her determination. One attorney called her a “crisis lawyer,” who made the earth shake when the going got tough. No challenge, no hide-bound lawyer guild, no entrenched politician fazed her. She took them all on with reams of evidence, exhortation and exuberance.
Her accomplishments came forth to grace a nation during half a normal adult lifetime and three major illnesses. One is permitted to dream, as with Mozart and music, how much more expansion of our society’s access to delivery of justice would occur with another quarter of a century of Jean Camper Cahn.