Public Service Voices

A Citizen Activist for Civil Legal Aid

By Bruce Reeves, member
State Access to Justice Board


After retiring as the Executive Assistant to the Commissioner of Public Lands I became active in the State Retired Teachers Association and was consequently appointed as an alternate to represent the Association with the Senior Citizens’ Lobby. Within a short time I was elected President of the Senior Citizens’ Lobby. My mission was, as a volunteer, to lobby the legislature on specific issues that would enhance the lives of the elderly.

On a rather quiet morning of March 1997 in the Lobby office, Arnie Whedbee, an attorney representing the Equal Justice Coalition, dropped in for a visit. The Equal Justice Coalition is a broad based bipartisan coalition dedicated to ensuring low income people have meaningful access to our judicial system.

We two met occasionally to compare our respective lobbying activities with legislators during the ’97 session. The day began as a bummer for Arnie. He lamented the fact that the Coalition had hit a solid barrier for needed legislation. It was evident that a very conservative element in a House of Representatives Committee would not consider a compromise to remove unacceptable provisions that would curtail or deny state legal aid funding for scores of low income people and others.

He was desperate for a solution and asked if I knew a friendly legislator in a leadership position that might help get the legislation moving. My immediate response was I knew the Senate Pro Tem President, Irving Newhouse. He and I were two skinny farm boys that graduated from high school in the same class. Our discussion burst with excitement with hope progress might be at hand.

I agreed to visit Senator Newhouse promptly and suggested an attorney should go with me. John Fatorini, an Equal Justice attorney, was contacted and agreed to attend the appointment with me.

My request to Senator Newhouse on our visit was for him to “lean” on certain House members to eliminate their offensive citations and allow the bill to go forward. The legislation, as written, would deny hundreds of low income senior citizens civil legal aid and it was time he demonstrated leadership in this area. I pointed out that our society couldn’t fulfill the dream of democracy if we didn’t have equal justice.

To his credit, Senator Newhouse gave his word to help in collaboration with Attorney John Fatorini, the House Committee members and others to craft a compromise bill. Within a few days the full support of the Senior Lobby, the influence of Senator Newhouse and the Equal Justice Coalition engrossed substitute House Bill 2276 emerged from the House of Representatives with a 98 to 0 positive vote.

When ESHB 2276 arrived in the Senate a threatening skirmish developed on the floor of the Senate. Apartment owners attempted to attach an amendment to exempt themselves from the bill. Working with the Coalition and friendly Senators we were able to quash their effort decisively by a roll call vote and then the bill passed with a unanimous vote of 45 yeas to 0 nays.

ESHB 2276 declares it is the intent of the legislature to promote the provision of civil legal services to indigent persons, subject to available funds.

In addition, I joined the efforts of the Equal Justice Coalition to persuade the Legislature and the Governor to agree on a $6.8 million biennial appropriation for Legal Services.

Because of my personal friendship with a Senator willing to do the right thing, we broke the log-jam of opposition to pave the way for the Equal Justice Coalition to achieve a legislative victory.

As a result of my efforts I was recognized by the Washington State Bar Association at their 1997 convention in Yakima with the prestigious “President’s Award”.

The experience added a new dimension to the Senior Citizens’ Lobby legislative agenda and spurred my personal abiding interest in promoting more access to equal justice for low income people.

As time passed I must mention a friendly mentor, Edward Hibbard, an attorney on staff with the Department of Social and Health Services, who encouraged me to expand my horizon and apply for an opening on the State Access to Justice Board. So I did.

In early 2003 the Washington State Supreme Court appointed me, the first non-attorney, to a three year term on the nine member State Access to Justice Board. In early 2006 I was re-appointed to another three year term.

Serving on the Access to Justice Board has been a very rewarding voluntary service. The mission is sound, the board members are dedicated, the generous support of the Washington State Bar Association along with the sustained interest of the Supreme Court is truly an inspiration.

When asked, I usually advise young people to get a good education, become a contributing volunteer member of society, follow your bliss, keep alert, take risks, expect disappointment (disappointments will put steel in your soul), give credit to others around you, and help those who are less fortunate than you.

You can make a difference.

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