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'Judicial giant' honored as architect of legal services

By Diane Curtis

Justice Earl Johnson Jr., the 'architect of legal services,' will be honored this month for his lifelong commitment to access to justice for the poor.
Justice Earl Johnson Jr., the "architect of legal services," will be honored this month for his lifelong commitment to access to justice for the poor.
Photo by Stephanie Diani

Lyndon Johnson was president. The War on Poverty was just around the corner. And Earl Johnson Jr., a young Justice Department lawyer prosecuting organized crime, was about to take a career turn that would help open the American legal system to a section of the populace that had long been shut out. Forty years and many successes later, he is still working toward that goal.

"There is no one who has done more for access to justice and representation for those who cannot afford lawyers than Earl Johnson — ever — in this country," says former Clinton administration Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor. "He's the architect of legal services."

For his efforts in civil representation, Johnson, 70, associate justice of the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles, will receive the Benjamin Aranda III Access to Justice Award, which annually recognizes a judge who has demonstrated a long-term commitment to equal access to the judicial system. The award is sponsored by the Judicial Council, the State Bar of California and the California Judges Association.

Johnson is a "judicial giant," said Bruce Iwasaki, executive director of the Legal Aid Foundation for Los Angeles. "Justice Johnson can rightly be called a Founding Father of the modern movement to provide equal justice to all Americans. He has literally written the book on the history and the enduring values of legal services in America."

Johnson's access efforts began in 1964 when he accepted the job as deputy director of a Ford Foundation-funded pilot program creating three neighborhood law offices to serve poor people. A year later, just as President Johnson's War on Poverty was getting underway, Johnson was appointed the first deputy director — and not long after that, director — of the National Legal Services Program of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO).

Those were heady days, the justice, a native of South Dakota, recalled in a telephone interview. Sargent Shriver was head of the OEO, and Shriver encouraged those who worked for him to be creative. "It was an optimistic time. You felt you could do almost anything," Johnson remembered. "You get an idea one day. You put it into practice the next . . . We thought it would never end."

One of those ideas was the Reginald Heber Smith Fellowship program, in which "the best and the brightest" — the editors of law reviews, the top five graduates of their classes — were recruited, trained and then placed in federally funded legal services programs around the country.

The "Reggies" job was not simply to represent the poor. It was also to push for more programs at the local level offering high-quality legal services and to reform the law — redress inadequacies in the enforcement of legal rights for poor people and give them control over program decisions that affected them. "I consider it probably the most important thing I did as director of the OEO legal services programs," Johnson said of the Heber fellowships.

A necessity for the first legal services attorneys was education about issues most relevant to poor people, such as landlord-tenant relations, welfare law, consumer rights and public housing. Law schools were not yet offering such courses, so Johnson created "back-up centers," which gave the prospective legal services attorneys vital expertise. The center lawyers also provided support to local counselors working on behalf of the poor and engaged in litigation or advocacy before legislative or administrative bodies.

Because the field was so untested, Johnson also set up a national clearinghouse to create a "network of knowledge" about representation for those who had not traditionally had it in civil cases. "There were very few appellate decisions, very little law," Johnson said. "There were a whole set of welfare regulations but no judgment as to whether they were constitutional . . . A good deal of law was created after those training programs."

By the time Johnson left the OEO legal services program after three years, it had grown to include more than 1,800 lawyers serving 800 neighborhood law offices in more than 300 U.S. cities, towns and rural communities.

When Richard Nixon became president, Johnson was teaching law, poverty and professional responsibility at the University of Southern California. It soon became clear that "OEO wasn't going to survive very long," so Johnson, with help from Kantor (who became a legal services lawyer representing farmworkers in Florida for a time at Johnson's urging), then drafted the first proposal for an independent legal services corporation.

That draft and Johnson's persistence ultimately led to passage of the Legal Services Corporation Act of 1974.

Johnson has since been active in promoting equal access in California. "He has continued to be the intellectual engine and conscience concerning equal justice," said Iwasaki. As a member of the California Commission on Access to Justice, "he has pulled together a cross-section of the state in a bipartisan way to address issues of equal justice." His writings and research also have been invaluable, Iwasaki said.

"Without Earl's active initiative and support, there would not be a CRLA (California Rural Legal Assistance), SFNLAF (San Francisco Neighborhood Legal Assistance Foundation), the National Senior Citizen Law Center or any number of other well-recognized legal programs serving the demonstrated needs of the poor throughout the United States," wrote U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter in his Aranda nominating letter.

"Without him, there truly would be no Legal Services Corporation; without him, there truly would be no California Commission on Access to Justice," wrote Associate Justice Laurie Zelon of the California Court of Appeal. ". . . No one who has ever heard the term 'civil Gideon' in California has done so without owing his or her understanding to Earl."

Despite the progress, Johnson said the country is really only a quarter of the way towards where it needs to be in providing civil representation to those who cannot afford their own lawyers. Lawyers are willing, but the resources from the government are not there, Johnson said.

"This is and should be a societal responsibility. Equal justice for all is really part of the fundamental social contract for our democracy, and as such it is a prime responsibility of government . . . We've still got a long way to go before we can claim the 'justice for all' that we keep repeating in our Pledge of Allegiance."

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