October 14, 2009
By Ken Krayeske • 10:15 AM EST
The community lawyers - modern-day Nader's Raiders who build citizenship skills in small towns and big cities: Theresa Amato, former Nader campaign manager and author of Grand Illusion, the first community lawyer at the Citizen Advocacy Center; Charlene Lavoie, Community lawyer in Winsted, Connecticut, and Terry Pastika, the current community lawyer directing the Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmmhurst, Illinois.
What would an Office of the Community Lawyer in Hartford be like?
If we model it on the Office of the Community Lawyer in Winsted, Connecticut, it would be a non-partisan civic resource for citizens, situated in an office on Main Street, where anyone can walk in for citizenship assistance.
"By taking the dollar signs off the courtroom door and replacing those with pro bono service signs, a community lawyer can enable citizens to exercise their legal rights against opponents who are richer, or use other people's money (such as hospitals and governments) to pay attorneys in private practice," Claire Nader wrote in the recently-published introduction to the Report to the Community about the Office of the Community Lawyer.
The 20-page report (.pdf here) chronicling the successes of the Community Lawyer was prepared for the 20th anniversary celebration of the Office of the Community Lawyer.
On Saturday, October 10, 2009, the community in Northwest Connecticut celebrated this milestone with a fundraiser dinner featuring Bill Curry, Richard Blumenthal and Claire Nader.
More than 150 people gathered from as far as Chicago and Los Angeles in Winsted’s Crystal Peak ballroom to recognize the achievements of the Office of the Community Lawyer, and the person who has been that advocate for 19 years, Charlene Lavoie.
Even though I've known Charlene and the Office of the Community Lawyer since 1995, saying the words together still jars: community lawyer. It's not what they teach in law school as modern legal theory, for sure.
Community lawyering is such a different concept from the motion practice of trial litigation, where maybe one in 20 cases reaches court, and most are settled prior to seeing a jury.
As young Connecticut lawyer in the mid-1980s, Lavoie wanted more from her legal degree than filing motions to strike counts one and two of defendants' counterclaim or motions for summary judgment on the issue of liability only.
Oddly, motion practice generates feelings of immobility that the bulk of the law comes from the people who can afford $300 an hour legal services. What about those who make $800 a month? Is the law on their side? For a long time, it has seemed no.
The Nader family has always seen the law as a tool of the people. After Ralph's older brother Shafeek died, the Naders created the Shafeek Nader Trust for the Community Interest.
Shaf, as he was known, was a local civic activist in Winsted who forced the state to build Northwest Community College on Route 44, where the old Gilbert School used to be. As a way to honor his memory, the Nader family funded the office of the Community Lawyer from the Trust.
The Connecticut Law Tribune wrote about the Trust, and its first hire, Ellen Thomas, now a judge. The Naders ran an ad in the back of the Tribune looking for Thomas' replacement that read: "Wanted: A Lawyer with a Conscience."
Lavoie applied, and was hired. In the 19 years since, the Report recounts many of her achievements, from hosting Freedom of Information Act symposiums for students to successfully trying and winning FOIA cases before the state FOI commission.
In the interest of full disclosure, Charlene Lavoie hired me with a small stipend to do legal research for her last victory before the FOI commission earlier this year.
"The project is about building civic education and participation, a response to long neglect at the local level, and a resource that provides citizens with a way to translate concerns about the community into community action," explained Claire Nader in the "Report to the Community."
"The community lawyer represents community issues at no direct cost to citizens," Claire wrote.
At the dinner, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal praised Charlene's work, stressing that powerful interests are aware and act carefully because of the mere existence of the office of the Community Lawyer.
He might have been thinking about the Community Lawyer's efforts, from petitioning to suing, to stop the construction of a stadium for the New England Patriots in 1999.
While Blumenthal talked about fighting the good fight. I wanted to believe his rhetoric about suing the federal government and corporations to protect us. But at the same time, Blumenthal defended the state against the lawsuit to stop the Patriots' stadium.
As much money as Blumenthal's office raises from suing corporate criminals, it spends protecting state employees who act against the public interest, either because they discriminate against subordinates or because they break the law.
Why do we pay Blumenthal and his staff to represent people who violate the public trust? How can we stop this inanity? Perhaps creating a statewide office of the community lawyer, funded by a special checked box on state income tax returns, would do well to act as an ombudsman and a check on abuses of elective office.
This is the kind of dreaming and seeding that the experiment in democracy that is the Office of the Community Lawyer should generate, at least in my mind. According to Claire Nader, the fight to spread the Community Lawyer concept has been slower than desired, but fruitful.
The Nader-sponsored Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst, Illinois is a second example of the success of community lawyering. Both in Elmhurst and in Winsted, community lawyers train citizens – from school children to adults – about tools of democracy like the Freedom of Information Act.
Perhaps we start the next office of the Community Lawyer in Hartford. Certainly, Corporation Counsel here could use an FOIA watchdog to keep it honest. And who knows what other functions the community would ask a legal advocate to perform?
The best part about dreaming big is that the next generation inherits our vision for the world, keynote speaker Bill Curry said. If we dream small, we leave the next generation a smaller world.
Activism like that practiced by the Community Lawyer affects the present and the future, and we never know which of the seeds we sow will take root, according to Curry, who ran for governor as a Democrat twice.
Curry's speech, as usual, was thick and brilliant, ranging from Justice Brandies' notion of the citizen being the most important office in a democracy to the zone of privacy of thought that fertilizes free speech – you have to have thoughts to speak them aloud.
Corporate power, he said, has crept into and overrun the American democratic experiment. Closed, hierarchical businesses need closed, hierarchical systems of government to survive. These huge businesses have co-opted government, and it is the job of citizens, and institutions like the office of the Community Lawyer to help restore civic balance.
Curry talked of 90 percent voting rates for Hartford Democratic Town Committee primaries when he was a kid growing up in the Bowles Park projects in the North End.
That, then, could be the goal of a community lawyer in Hartford. Rejuvenate the citizenry, restore civic education to schools, and give communities like those in Hartford the tools to represent their own interests.