Public Service Voices

Walking the Talk: A Life of Public Service

Greg Dallaire
Photo provided courtesy
of Virginia Wilcox Photography

I graduated from UC Hastings College of Law in 1965. I became a legal services lawyer in June 1967 after I returned to the Bay Area from managing a political campaign and practicing two years in Iowa where I spent most of my time representing indigent defendants in criminal cases. I applied to work for the Public Defender in Oakland and was granted an interview. At the time the Chief Public Defender was a political appointee and his hires were civil service employees. When it became apparent that I would have to wait a few weeks to take a required civil service exam, I inquired about the local legal aid program. The PD leaned forward over his desk and whispered " Don’t talk to those people. They are on missions over there." And so it happened I was hired the next week as a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Alameda County, the fourth legal aid program in the country to be funded by the new federal Office of Economic Opportunity.

I soon learned that we were in the middle of a great national debate concerning a new approach to representing low-income persons. For years, traditional legal aid programs operated on a welfare model where mostly private attorneys helped people they found to be deserving of their services. As legal staff were added to these organization, some advocates began to reconsider how legal aid programs served their clients. They suggested challenging the systemic frameworks and practices that kept the poor "in their place". Law reform through litigation was the thrust of this fresh approach.

The Oakland program, with a few others, was a national leader in promoting this new effort. On my third day at work, the director of the program asked me to go up to Sacramento to find out what was happening at a meeting about a lawsuit soon to be filed by California Rural Legal Aid (CRLA) regarding the state Medicaid program (Medi-Cal). Today the idea that someone being cut off of such a service has a right to a hearing is fundamental. However, in 1967, it was a revolutionary idea. At the meeting, I volunteered our program to be co-counsel with CRLA to challenge the terminations and the case was filed the next day. Two weeks later, my boss and I were summoned to meet with two advisors to Governor Reagan, the defendant in the litigation. Our funding was threatened and our professionalism questioned by none other than Edwin Meese, later to be the Attorney General of the United States. In spite of the threats and calls to our board members, we refused to withdraw. The case was ultimately successful. Although I was never an actual participant in that litigation, I took a great deal of pride in getting the program into the proceeding and the fact that the Medi-Cal case became an example for advocates in other states.

When I came to Seattle, we started using tools in addition to litigation such as legislative and administrative advocacy, economic development and community education. An emphasis was placed on working with community groups and organizations composed of low-income persons. A policy of having advocates explain legal options and letting the clients themselves choose a course of action was instituted. These efforts resulted in several memorable matters during my tenure as the director of Seattle Legal Services, Georgia Legal Services and Evergreen Legal Services. Most notably is the Indian fishing litigation, U.S. v. Washington which defined and enforced treaty rights for tribes. The subsequent economic development work performed by legal services attorneys laid the groundwork for what is visible today, i.e., tribal fish hatcheries, casinos, amphitheatres, schools, housing, health facilities and employment for tribal members.

Today domestic violence is recognized as a major social problem for women. In 1970, little attention was given to this issue. Seattle Legal Services lawyers sued the Mayor and the Seattle Police Department for failure to assist women who had temporary restraining orders against their abusers. The settlement led to our advocates training recruits at the police academy and, initially funded by a local women’s service organization, the establishment of the Battered Women’s Project that focused exclusively on domestic violence issues. Most of Washington’s current state and local laws can be traced back to that early effort. Further, many other legal services programs around the country followed our lead and devoted resources to this issue.

Another major highlight for me is the work concentrating on the plight of farmworkers. Housing, education and employment opportunities for migrant workers in the 70’s and 80’s were scandalous. While problems still remain, there have been many improvements in working conditions and farmworkers access to decision makers that affect their lives. These improvements are directly attributable to the early work of Evergreen’s Farmworker Project. The presence of those advocates also stimulated an increased recognition of the problems of the rural poor with a resultant expansion of services throughout the state.

It is probably not surprising that my worst day as a legal services lawyer was when Ronald Reagan was elected President. His animosity towards legal services began with the early Medi-Cal litigation and it intensified as he was taken to task in other cases affecting poor people. He was unalterably opposed to legal services and the White House led an the effort to dismantle and eliminate legal representation for low-income persons. In 1981, for example, Evergreen was forced to close six regional offices and lay off 63 persons. Fortunately, the opponents of legal services were not ultimately successful in destroying the program, but they succeeded and , to some extent, continue to succeed in having a chilling effect upon advocates in some parts of the country.

That is not the case in Washington state. There are several excellent legal aid programs staffed by dedicated professionals who "walk the talk" when it comes to justice. Nevertheless, it is unrealistic to think that social justice for poor people, wherever they reside, will be easily achieved. The work started in the mid-60’s remains unfinished. As a result, I hope to make a continuing contribution toward the effort consistent with the values and experience that I bring to the table. As a member of the State Access to Justice Board, I am privileged to collaborate with my colleagues in Washington on matters affecting their work and the administration of justice.

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