Skip to content
Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Justice O’Connor Speech: Need for Legal Services

You’ll never guess who spoke the following words:

“Every day, all over the country, people lose their homes or apartments when the law says they should keep them, and people can’t feed their children when the law says they should be able to feed them. People don’t know the rights they have; even if they know the rights they have, they don’t know how to enforce them. And it all has one cause — many people desperately need legal services, but can’t afford to pay.”

The author is Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Sandra Day O’Connor — a conservative, Reagan appointee.

What’s going on here? As Governor and then President, Reagan tried to destroy the federal office providing legal services for the poor. He was scarcely worried about the need for legal representation for the poor, if the rule of law and equality under the law were to mean anything in this country.

But not his appointee, Justice O’Connor. It appears that she is one of those rare self-styled conservatives whose mind is susceptible to facts, at least in this area, rather than rigid ideology.

Speaking before the American Bar Association meeting in Atlanta last month, she discussed this seeming paradox: “On the one hand, there is probably more innovative pro bona [free] work being done [by lawyers] now than at any time in our history; on the other hand, there has probably never been a wider gulf between the need for legal services and the availability of legal services.”

She gave some examples of pro bono initiatives. In Dayton, OH, Arvin Miller created a Volunteer Lawyers Project of three hundred attorneys who agreed to donate their services to help the impoverished. Edmond Connor organized a network of lawyers to assist the homeless in Orange County, CA. Manlin Chee developed ways to teach indigent people how to navigate the legal process by themselves.

Then the Justice shifted to the studies showing unmet needs. “Nearly one quarter of all poor people each year have a civil legal problem deserving a lawyers attention,” she declared, “but publically funded attorneys can handle only 12% of the load.” “In Los Angeles, there are an estimated 800,000 people each year who need legal services but cannot afford them,” she added.

What is the reality behind these numbers, she asks? “The legal needs of poor people involve the most basic necessities of life, needs like food and shelter,” she answers.

She cited evidence that “over fifty percent of inner city tenants could avoid being homeless, “if they were able to exert their legal rights. Most of these tenants could win their case against eviction by landlords.

Another picture she paints is just as poignant. The Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program is a critical source of sustenance for many small children and their single mothers. Mothers denied these benefits, who appeal, win L out of every 3 cases. but less than one out of fifty cases get appealed because there is no one to offer advice about how to go about it.

Her proposals to alleviate what one scholar called “the domestic exile from the law” by millions of Americans are three:

First: Advance the practical, human, legal skills of the nation’s 130,000 law students by making some legal services for the poor be a mandatory part of their curriculum. The Justice recounted the deep sense of personal satisfaction that comes from helping people expressed by her law clerks who did such work in law school.

Second, lawyers should organize classes to enable potential clients to handle their legal problems, where they are primarily a matter of knowing where to go, who to talk to and which documents to fill out

Third, with 750,000 practicing lawyers in the U.S., a significantly greater number would take on pro bono work as a regular part of their practice, she believes, if every local bar association would circulate a list of specific pro bono needs. In this way, specialized attorneys could spot the specialized need and tailor the assistance to their skills.

Justice O’Connor gave the instance of a Boston law firm whose real estate lawyers “are helping develop shelters and low-income housing, by making use of the same skills they use for paying clients.”

Very well, attorneys of America! The Justice has thrown down the challenge. It is time for more or you to take it on. For non-lawyers wishing to nudge the legal profession in their area, you can start by writing Justice O’Connor for a copy of her speech at the U.S. Supreme Court, Washington, DC.