Jean Camper Cahn, lawyer who helped establish federal legal aid system, dies

January 07, 1991|By New York Times News Service

Services for Jean Camper Cahn, a Baltimore-born lawyer who helped establish federal financing of legal services for the poor and was a co-founder of the now-defunct Antioch School of Law in Washington, were held yesterday in Miami Beach, Fla.

Mrs. Cahn, who was 55, died of breast cancer Wednesday at her home in Miami Beach.

She was born into a family of social activists. Her father, Dr. John E. T. Camper, a physician in Baltimore, was a founder of the city's first chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Regular visitors to the home included Thurgood Marshall, who was to become the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, and the singer Paul Robeson, who was her godfather.

She went to Swarthmore College, where she met her future husband and law partner, Edgar S. Cahn, also a student there. The couple married after her graduation in 1957. Mrs. Cahn won a scholarship to Yale Law School.

She served as associate general counsel for the country's first neighborhood legal services program, the Dixwell offices of Community Progress Inc. in New Haven, Conn.

The Cahns moved in 1964 to Washington, where Mrs. Cahn took a post in the Office of Economic Opportunity. She was the first director of the National Legal Services Program in the OEO and later founded the Urban Law Institute at George Washington University.

She attracted national notice in 1967 and 1968 as a lawyer for Adam Clayton Powell, a New York congressman battling in court to reverse his 1967 expulsion from the House of Representatives for misuse of public funds and other transgressions.

In 1971, the Cahns co-founded the Antioch School of Law, which placed emphasis on serving the poor and trained prospective lawyers in social activism. Eight years later, Antioch College in Ohio, with which the school was initially affiliated, dismissed the Cahns as co-deans.

The law school eventually became autonomous but, largely because of severe financial problems, closed in 1988.

Mrs. Cahn continued to teach and practice law. In 1984 she was a distinguished visiting professor at Middlebury College in Vermont and, in 1986, a distinguished visiting scholar at the London School of Economics.

From 1986 until her death, she was with the Miami law firm of Fernandez-Caubi, Fernandez, Cancio & Allen. In one of her most recent cases, argued in a U.S. District Court in Florida, a decision handed down a week before her death upheld her contention that money distributed under the Older Americans Act must be aimed at benefiting those in greatest need.

Mrs. Cahn was a convert to Judaism.

In addition to her husband, she is survived by two sons, Jonathan Cahn, a member of a Washington law firm, and Reuben Cahn, a public defender in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; her mother, Florine Camper of Baltimore; two brothers, Nixon and John Camper, and three sisters, Elizabeth Jones, Mary Lou Redd and Ella Johns, all of Baltimore.

Her family is planning a memorial service in Baltimore Jan. 19. The time and place were undecided.

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