Edgar Cahn: “He started the modern system of federally funded legal services and the nation’s first public-interest law school”

From a New York Times obit by Clay Risen headlined “Edgar S. Cahn, Legal Reformer in Defense of the Poor, Dies at 86”:

Edgar S. Cahn, a legal innovator whose lifelong commitment to bending the law in the service of impoverished communities included establishing the modern system of federally funded legal services, the country’s first public-interest law school and an entirely new currency based on time, died in Bethesda, Md….

Mr. Cahn and his wife, Jean Camper Cahn, arrived in Washington in 1963 with newly minted Yale law degrees and a passion for the sweeping social reforms that were starting to bubble up in the Kennedy administration.

She worked in the State Department on the Africa desk, he in the Department of Justice as a speechwriter, but their real interest drew on their experiences in New Haven, Conn. There, under a grant from the Ford Foundation, Ms. Cahn had led a program that not only provided legal services for the poor, but also provided advocacy on their behalf to change onerous laws on issues like rent and public benefits.

They wrote and circulated a paper that both criticized the coming War on Poverty and offered a solution. Traditional approaches to helping the poor were top down and one-directional, they wrote, treating recipients like passive receptors of government largess. A better approach was to empower them by offering legal assistance to fight for their rights in court.

The key to real social change, they wrote, was “nothing less than vesting in the citizenry the means and the effective power wherewith to criticize, to shape and even to challenge the actions or proposed actions of officials.”

The paper, which they later published in the Yale Law Review, caught fire in an administration desperate for new ideas, especially after Lyndon B. Johnson won the presidency in 1964 by promising to build a “great society” through sweeping social reforms.

The Cahns did more than come up with the idea for federally funded legal services. They took on the American Bar Association, which initially opposed the program, persuading it not only to stand down but to endorse it. Ms. Cahn became the first director of federal legal services, while Mr. Cahn served as executive assistant to R. Sargent Shriver, whose Office of Economic Opportunity oversaw the program.

The legal services program, which later became the Legal Services Corporation, was groundbreaking. It not only helped thousands of poor Americans receive justice, but it catalyzed the emergence of public interest law, creating new areas of litigation and scholarship, including tenants rights, consumer rights and government-benefits rights.

“I don’t think we’d have seen such a role for lawyers in the War on Poverty if it were not for him,” Peter Edelman, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center who worked on Great Society legislation for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, said.

It was just the first chapter in what would be a life of legal entrepreneurship. Mr. Cahn left the government in 1968 to start the Citizen’s Advocate Center, a research group dedicated to examining social inequities. He was among the first in Washington to shine a light on endemic hunger in America, and to bring attention to the ongoing plight of Native Americans.

He and Ms. Cahn later founded the Antioch School of Law, a branch of Antioch University, the first legal education program to emphasize clinical training: Students learned by doing, sometimes taking on cases during their first few weeks of school.

Later still, in the 1980s, Mr. Cahn developed the concept of time dollars, a system in which people can earn credits through hours of volunteer work, then spend those credits to receive services from other volunteers — a particularly useful solution in economically deprived areas. Today communities across America, and in 40 countries around the world, use some form of time-banking.

“Whenever you had a question about how to reach the poor, how to help the poor, how to empower the poor, how to organize the poor, he was the man to go to,” Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate, said. “There was nobody in the country that had a more transcendently strategic and tactical approach to poverty than he did.”

Edgar Stuart Cahn was born in Manhattan. He inherited his interest in social activism from his parents: His father, Edmond Cahn, taught law at New York University and was regarded as one of the leading moral philosophers of his generation; his mother, Lenore (Lebach) Cahn, was a social worker serving older residents in Greenwich Village.

He met Jean Camper as an undergraduate at Swarthmore College. She came from a well-known family of Black civil rights leaders in Baltimore, and the two of them became famous on campus for their social activism — as well as for their status as a biracial couple at a school that, despite its renowned liberalism, was still squeamish about interracial dating.

Soon after they got engaged, Ms. Camper returned to her dormitory to find a cross burning on the front lawn. Mr. Cahn, enraged, burst into a dean’s office demanding answers, and was almost expelled from the school.

Things were no easier off campus. A police officer in Baltimore apprehended them for holding hands in public, and would have arrested them if her father had not interceded. And they had to get married in New York, because interracial marriage was still illegal in Maryland in 1957.

At Yale, Mr. Cahn received a doctoral degree in English literature, in 1960, and a law degree, in 1963. Ms. Cahn received her law degree in 1960, and had already been working in New Haven for three years when they moved to Washington.

After they bought a house in the city’s Glover Park neighborhood, white residents blocked the ends of the street to keep their moving van from unloading — a situation that was only defused by a call from Robert F. Kennedy, then the attorney general, to one of their future next-door neighbors.

The Cahns’ career was not without strife. Ms. Cahn left the government over her opposition to changes being made to the legal services program, and her sense that she was being sidelined as a Black woman.

As law school deans, at Antioch, they proved polarizing — energizing to some professors and students, arrogant and aloof to others. Nor did they get along with the leadership at Antioch University. When it faced financial challenges in the late 1970s and tried to siphon off money from the law school, the Cahns resisted. The school sued, and won — and the next day fired them both.

They were preparing to challenge the decision on appeal when, in 1980, Mr. Cahn suffered a heart attack that required years of recuperation. Ms. Cahn had health problems as well, including a stroke and, later, breast cancer. She died in 1991….

He joined the faculty of the University of Miami School of Law in 1985, and later the law school at the University of the District of Columbia, where he continued to teach until his death.

Clay Risen is an obituaries reporter for The New York Times. Previously, he was a senior editor on the Politics desk and a deputy op-ed editor on the Opinion desk. He is the author, most recently, of “Bourbon: The Story of Kentucky Whiskey.”

Also see the Washington Post obit by Emily Langer headlined “Edgar Cahn, champion of legal services for the poor, dies at 86”. The opening grafs: 

Edgar S. Cahn, a lawyer who sought to harness the power of the law to promote social justice, helping establish the largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans and training like-minded future lawyers as a founder of the old Antioch School of Law in Washington, died Jan. 23 at a hospital in Bethesda, Md.

For Dr. Cahn — a humanist and humanitarian who held, in addition to his law degree, a doctorate in English from Yale University — the law was a tool most nobly used on behalf of the poor.

Sometimes justice is delivered through sweeping rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court. But it is also achieved, as Dr. Cahn demonstrated throughout his career, through the unglamorous but important work of taking on clients — regardless of their ability to pay — and guiding them through byzantine processes of the law and bureaucracy to fight such challenges as an eviction notice, the repossession of a car or the denial of government benefits.

Dr. Cahn worked alongside his wife, Jean Camper Cahn, in founding what is now the Legal Services Corp. and later the Antioch School of Law, a predecessor of the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia.

He was White and Jewish, the son of a prominent legal philosopher. She was Black and Baptist (later converting to Judaism), the daughter of a revered Baltimore physician. From their marriage in 1957, when interracial unions were widely regarded as taboo, until Jean Camper Cahn’s death in 1991, they were known as a formidable force — Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. dubbed them “the double legal eagles” — in any project they took on.

They devoted themselves primarily to the matter of legal services for the poor, a concept far from reaching maturity across the bench and bar. Only in 1963, with its decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, did the Supreme Court rule that states must appoint lawyers for criminal defendants who could not afford to hire them on their own.

In 1964, the Cahns published an article in the Yale Law Journal, “The War on Poverty: A Civilian Perspective,” laying out a proposal for expansive legal services for the poor. Legal aid societies were not new, but the concept of a broader, formalized national program took hold as President Lyndon B. Johnson embarked on the War on Poverty.

The Cahns’ “seminal article in the 1964 Yale Law Journal revolutionized once-sleepy legal aid societies,” the New York Times editorial board wrote after Jean Camper Cahn’s death, “and foretold the development of vital, enterprising legal services offices.”…

Speak Your Mind