A poverty lawyer's global crusade for justice

August 08, 1994|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Sun Staff Writer

When Penny Andrews left South Africa for the United States in 1983, she had the names of people who could help if she ran into trouble.

One was Clinton Bamberger, a Baltimore lawyer whose pursuit of superior legal training and equal justice for the poor had given his name a mythical quality among progressive lawyers on several continents.

Ms. Andrews' countryman, Chabani Jali, needed help immediately.

He had enrolled in what turned out to be a two-year law program at Howard University in Washington. With a family at home, he could stay only one year.

So the two young South African travelers, one black and one colored, according to their country's designation, took a train to Baltimore to see Mr. Bamberger, a tall, blue-eyed and strikingly blond stranger, at the University of Maryland Law School, where he was then director of clinical education.

Ms. Andrews remembers walking into his office and thinking that he was "so white, so very white."

So resourceful, too.

Though law schools were about to convene and most had been full for months, he made a few phone calls and got Mr. Jali into a one-year Tulane University program in New Orleans.

Mr. Bamberger stayed in touch, eventually drawing the two into his international network of friends, judges, professors, politicians and students.

Mr. Jali returned to South Africa to become a partner in one of the most prestigious law firms in Durban, an expert in resolution of labor disputes.

Ms. Andrews, now a teacher at the City University of New York law school, is spending the next few months in Johannesburg writing an affirmative action statute for the new government of Nelson Mandela.

For the roles that she and Mr. Jali are playing in the building of a new South Africa, Ms. Andrews gives credit to Mr. Bamberger.

"Growing up as a colored person in South Africa, without much confidence . . . he showed faith in your ability that made you believe in yourself in a way that doesn't come naturally."

In similar ways, E. Clinton Bamberger Jr. has been promoting legal services for the poor and improving law schools around the globe since, at the age of 39, he left a top Baltimore law firm to become the first director of the federal antipoverty agency's legal aid effort.

Mr. Bamberger's dedication has occasionally made him the object of scorn by those who find him unbending.

Since the early 1980s, he has been the brooding, angry force behind the effort to reduce the debilitating effects of lead paint poisoning, which the state of Maryland now calls the most severe environmental threat to children: 3,000 new cases were found last year alone.

Under a law passed by the General Assembly this year, owners of properties built before 1978, when lead-based paint was banned, can protect themselves from lawsuits if they pay a fee of up to $10 per rental unit and agree to remove the lead paint hazard from their apartments. The program begins Oct. 1.

In Annapolis, Mr. Bamberger's single-minded advocacy has left him with an image that falls somewhere between hopeless idealist and hothead. Some of his encounters with the landlords' former lobbyist, Ira C. Cooke, came close to fisticuffs.

Mr. Cooke's clients saw Mr. Bamberger as a coddler of welfare mothers who, one of them said, spend their money on Gucci shoes while neglecting their children. During one hearing on a bill opposed by the landlords, Mr. Cooke appeared to challenge the truth of something Mr. Bamberger had said.

"Clint went after him," says Del. Samuel E. "Sandy" Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat. Mr. Bamberger was ordered to sit down or be escorted out of the hearing.

"Every now and then," Mr. Cooke says, "I could insert the needle in just the right spot." In what Mr. Bamberger might regard as a compliment, Mr. Cooke said, "I don't think pragmatism is his strong suit."

This year, Mr. Bamberger urged the compromise that resulted in a bill the governor signed.

"He doesn't have the zealot's absence of doubt," Mr. Rosenberg says. "He questions himself. The zealot says, 'Hey, I'm always right.'"

The broader goals of Mr. Bamberger's life have been training young lawyers and making equal protection under law more than a noble sentiment.

In 1965, he met the late Howard Westwood, a Washington lawyer then in search of someone to run a government-financed Legal Services Corp.

"He was establishment," Mr. Westwood told Earl Johnson, a former director of the program and author of a book about it. "He was a nut. He looked like a Scandinavian Boy Scout . . . He had a deep orator's voice, an independent cast of mind. He was youthful, vigorous and yet a bit restive."

Mr. Bamberger had a buttoned-down, striped-tie respectability that was reassuring to lawyers who feared a government-sponsored program would deprive them of fees.

New and established lawyers alike were impressed by his ability. Insurance was his legal specialty, but he had a wider talent.

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