A people's lawyer

Ralph Nader

March 06, 1991|By Ralph Nader

WHEN cancer took the life of Jean Camper Cahn recently, none of the TV evening news programs took note. Cahn wasn't 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 of the past generation.

She started as the strong-willed, exuberant daughter of a middle-class Baltimore family. Her father was a physician who founded Baltimore's NAACP chapter. After graduating from Swarthmore and Yale Law School, she became a poverty lawyer New Haven, where, with her husband, Edgar, also a lawyer, she developed -- and helped lobby through Congress -- a proposal for an agency to provide legal services to the poor.

Impact: Nearly 4,000 legal services lawyers now serve millions of poor Americans. Major law reform cases have been won. An entire arena of legal research has been established. Idealism has found a home for many young lawyers representing those who cannot afford lawyers and therefore can't use the law to defend their rights.

In 1968, Cahn started the Urban Law Institute at George Washington University, which linked the law to urban problems as both cause and remedy. Cahn was well aware of how the law could be used as both an instrument of justice and injustice.

Three years later, Cahn and her husband 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 live with a poor family for a few weeks to learn the conditions and cruelties that cry out for the application of humane legal advocacy.

To say that law schools lean toward corporate law and law for the rich is to understate. The Cahns changed that. In doing so, they nudged law schools around the country to open their curriculum to courses and clinics directed at poor people's rights. Through their writings, lectures and litigation, the Cahns pushed and prodded their profession to live up to its ideals.

Jean Camper Cahn directly litigated and won many cases in behalf of the poor. Only a week before her death in January, she won a case in Florida that ordered funds distributed under the Older Americans Act to be directed to people in greatest need.

Cahn was memorialized a few days ago at a service in Washington attended by scores of people. One attorney called her a "crisis lawyer" who made the earth shake when the going got tough. No challenge, no hidebound lawyer guild, no entrenched politician got her down. She took them all on with reams of evidence, exhortation and exuberance. She died too young. How much more access to delivery of justice would have occurred with another quarter-century of Jean Camper Cahn?

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