Legal activist Mike Millemann has spent his career striving to provide 'access to justice'

"He's the LeBron James of lawyering for poor people. Whoever is in second place is a distant second."

It hangs on the wall in Mike Millemann's office like a yellowed postcard on the family fridge: a copy of a check for $268,482 from Spiro Agnew, the infamous former governor of Maryland and vice president of the United States.

Thirty-six years ago, Millemann, then an assistant attorney general, used the power of the state to sue Agnew to recover bribes he'd taken as governor.

To Millemann, today a law professor and longtime public-interest attorney, it was a matter of simple justice.

"It was fair," he says with a shrug. "The man was repaying what he owed."

The story is but a footnote in the history of Michael A. Millemann, 71, a buttoned-down bundle of energy who has spent nearly 50 years representing the disempowered, the despised and the dispossessed, from convicted murderers and abandoned mental patients to taxpayers stuck with the tab left by a crooked pol.

As educator, advocate, litigator, lobbyist and friend of the marginalized — and working mostly out of the spotlight — he has striven to expand "access to justice," leaving a far bigger footprint in the state than his low profile would suggest.

"If you look at the legal history of Maryland in the last half of the 20th century, and the first part of this one, no one has played a bigger role in legal reform and the rights of the poor than Mike Millemann," says Dennis Sweeney, a former deputy attorney general and retired Howard County circuit judge. "He's the LeBron James of lawyering for poor people. Whoever is in second place is a distant second."

Millemann has never ducked controversy. He led the first lawsuits for reform at the Baltimore jail. He filed suits that removed hundreds of people from state mental institutions on the grounds they didn't belong there. He helped bring the so-called Unger cases that have freed 98 convicted killers and rapists since 2013 on what many consider a technicality.

And he has been a force behind the groundbreaking clinical law program at the University of Maryland law school, which celebrated its 40th birthday last year. He also helped to found more than a dozen public-interest law programs touching hundreds of thousands of lives.

To some, his achievements are a public treasure; to others, they're wrong-headed and dangerous.

"Releasing these prisoners is a disgrace to the word 'justice,'" says Shirley Rubin of Mount Washington, whose husband was killed in 1972 by a man set free as a result of the Unger actions.

A typical online comment on a newspaper article about the Unger case was even more harsh: "If the world was [fair], this screaming liberal would be the next victim of a violent crime."

But even some who oppose Millemann cite the importance of his work.

"As passionate as I am on my side, Mike's just as passionate on his," says Scott D. Shellenberger, Baltimore County's top prosecutor and an adamant supporter of the death penalty. "He's a great lawyer and professor. He serves his clientele well. We need more like him in Maryland."

Emails at 2 a.m.

Ask those who know Millemann — professors, students, politicians, parolees — to talk about him, and most give a similar account.

The man Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh calls "a giant of his profession" knows thousands of people and juggles dozens of projects but always seems available to talk. Email him at 2 a.m. and he replies within the hour.

Then he's often back at work by 6. He teaches, calls clients, courts talent, polishes grant proposals, holds conferences. He shows few signs of slowing down.

"If you caught him in the dark, I believe he'd be working," says Karriem El-Amin, a client who was released from prison in 2013 after serving 42 years of a life sentence for murder.

Millemann insists he's not on a crusade to rattle the powers-that-be, but is driven by a single principle — that all Americans are entitled to equal justice under the law, whatever their station.

"I'm a bit of a romantic when it comes to the Constitution," he says. "It's leverage for disenfranchised people, their power of last resort. And I do feel a weight of responsibility [to apply it]. But I've never sat down and thought, 'How can I form a career around [expanding] access to justice?' What I do has always come from the gut, a gut sense of injustice."

That feeling took root in his youth.

Millemann was born in Queens, N.Y., in 1944, the second of seven children of Raymond Millemann, a noted surgeon, and his wife, Mary Joan, a homemaker and nurse.

When he was 7, his father moved the family to a quiet corner of Oregon. They set up shop in a modest house five miles from the nearest town and 100 yards from a river near the Siskiyou Mountains.

Dr. Millemann treated patients for free or in exchange for fresh milk or carpentry work. Mary Joan joined the school board and eventually earned her college degree.

"They didn't talk to us about serving others; they just did it," Millemann says.

He recalls plenty of hard work, with summers spent laboring on farms and in lumber mills, and a life centered on nature, with wolves howling in the hills at night and rivers brimming with fish.

He calls that Huck Finn existence a lesson that "all life has dignity, beauty and value."

It was hard to find outlets for that idea — even at Dartmouth College, which he attended on scholarship, or at the University of Oregon law school, where he enrolled in 1966.

At the end of his first year of law school, that would change.

He spotted a notice on a bulletin board. A network of law students was inviting others to apply for summer internships working with civil rights groups in the Deep South.

Millemann was accepted and sent to Louisiana.

Just a handful of attorneys in the state accepted civil rights cases. Two would oversee his work doing research on school desegregation.

Traveling upstate, the skinny 23-year-old took their advice, driving a car with in-state tags, meeting black movement leaders at night in their homes and staying wary of sheriffs, some of whom were suspected to be members of the Ku Klux Klan.

He was well aware that several white Northern activists had been killed in the South. But he was struck more by the courage of African-American residents, such as the grandmother who ran a local civil rights group and stacked mattresses in her living room to block windows blown out by the Klan.

"The brave people — brave beyond my understanding — were the ones who lived and raised children there, who faced constant threats and violence, who put up with being fired from jobs and having their kids ridiculed in school year in and year out," Millemann says.

He'd never seen anyone risk life and limb for rights he'd always taken for granted.

"I found out that summer why I wanted to be a lawyer," he says.

The Cardin Requirement

At the University of Maryland's Francis King Carey School of Law, the professor's office is orderly chaos.

Law books cram the shelves. Artifacts from Central America and Africa fill the windowsills. As a diverse stream of students comes and goes, Millemann — looking decidedly Establishment in striped shirt and power tie — reminds them of court dates, cites precedents and spits out phone numbers, all without consulting notes.

The students are working with him on cases as part of the clinical law program he helped to establish in the 1970s and for which he has created or co-created 14 courses — Community Law in Action Clinic, Consumer Protection Clinic, Child Abuse Protection Clinic.

In 1988, with the leadership of then-Del. Ben Cardin, now a U.S. senator, the law school mandated that its students represent poor clients as a condition of graduation. Millemann played a major role in establishing and implementing the mandate.

The Cardin Requirement, one of the first of its kind in the nation, remains at the core of a program that provides Central Maryland with 140,000 hours' worth of free legal services each year and consistently ranks among the top 10 as rated by U.S. News and World Report.

Millemann's proteges seem oblivious to the dozens of plaques on the wall — awards from various organizations for his "tireless dedication in the public interest," "leadership in working to improve government," support for the elderly and more.

They evoke a man who spent his late 20s and 30s bringing a string of precedent-setting actions.

In 1970, for example, Millemann, then an attorney with Baltimore Legal Aid, led a class-action lawsuit against the state for allowing citizens to be committed to mental institutions without a hearing. A year later, he helped lead a highly publicized case over conditions at the Baltimore City jail, where some guards used handcuffs to hang detainees by their wrists.

In 1981, while in the attorney general's office, he spearheaded a project that removed 300 mentally disabled adults from institutions for the psychiatrically ill and found them appropriate placements. He later sued to ensure mental patients' right to lawyers to argue for their civil rights.

The results: new legal protections for classes of people many say the profession had long neglected — the mentally ill, prisoners, the developmentally disabled.

"Mike has brought the dignity and the generosity of the rule of law to those who need it most," says Stephen H. Sachs, a former Maryland attorney general and a friend.

It's hard to fathom that as recently as four decades ago, such basic rights were not protected in this and other states, says Sweeney. He says Millemann and a few other "upstart" lawyers had to use federal law to bring Maryland into line.

"I tell my clerks what it was like in this state as recently as that, and they roll their eyes," Sweeney says. "They think I'm making it up. A lot has changed in Maryland, thanks to Millemann."

A lawyer for the state

On or off the job, Millemann tends to come across as an even-tempered, possibly ordinary man.

The Lutherville resident, a married father of one grown son, will hold forth on Orioles baseball (he's an ex-college shortstop) or 10-mile charity runs (he stopped competing after undergoing hip replacement surgery last year).

His language is invariably clear, his tone affable. His tidy looks have never evoked a wild-haired William Kunstler.

But colleagues know him as a man who put in 100-hour work weeks, often spending three or four straight nights in his office.

The exterior masks his essence, friends say, making him more effective.

"Mike is a savvy professional and politician," says Timothy Phelps, a Los Angeles Times justice reporter who has known Millemann for years. "If he came across as the crazed individual I believe him to be, no one would listen to him."

In the early 1980s, Millemann used that energy and passion to help reshape the mission of the Maryland attorney general's office.

When Sachs was elected to the position in 1978, he took the unusual step of reaching out to Millemann, who'd spent a decade racking up legal victories against the state.

Sachs argued that his attorney general's office would reflect the late Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis' view that a well-run government "teaches the … people by its example."

Millemann accepted the job of chief general counsel of the civil rights division. It meant he could no longer sue the state. But he and Sachs devised a doctrine that produced a similar effect.

Under what they called "preventive law," they investigated ways Maryland agencies might be violating federal law, urging reforms in an effort to forestall potential lawsuits.

Millemann used the approach in matters touching patients' rights, the rights of handicapped children, the nutritional rights of people on welfare and more during his three-year tenure.

"It would be overstating it to say Mike turned the place inside out, but he worked to make the office much more responsive," Sachs says. "He made a profound and creative contribution to the very definition of the state AG's office."

After Millemann returned to the law school in 1981, a death row inmate in another state got his attention.

Ernest Fitzpatrick Jr., a 20-year-old mentally ill man, had hatched a wacky scheme: He would take hostages in a real estate office in Pensacola, Fla., walk them to a bank, demand money, mingle with the crowd until the excitement died down, then return home by bus.

The plan went awry. A sheriff's deputy was killed. A jury convicted Fitzpatrick of first-degree murder, and he received the death penalty.

A Florida anti-death penalty activist asked Millemann to lead an effort to challenge the verdict and sentence. After a handwritten plea from Fitzpatrick, Millemann was in.

He donated 2,000 hours to the case over four years, commuting between Maryland and Florida, directing a team that included his students and a local attorney. They dug up evidence that Fitzpatrick had long been mentally ill, used forensic evidence to suggest that someone else's bullet killed the deputy, even revealed that a top state lawyer was in the habit of calling death row inmates "maggots."

In 1988, the Florida Supreme Court reduced the sentence to life with a chance for parole.

"I made sure Ernest got the news and then cried tears of relief that it was over and tears of happiness that the Court got it right," Millemann wrote in 2012.

He still teaches a course centered on the case. And a quarter-century later, he's still representing killers.

Three years ago, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued a decision in a case stemming from a 1976 murder in Hagerstown. In Unger v. Maryland, the court ruled that the instructions judges gave juries prior to 1980 were constitutionally flawed.

The state had long required judges to tell jurors to consider the court's instructions on the law advisory, not binding. The Court of Appeals concluded that practice wrongly allowed jurors to use a standard of proof other than reasonable doubt — and that anyone so convicted was entitled to a new trial.

Millemann saw the potential. The ruling could affect about 250 people serving life sentences for violent crimes, including murder, if they pursued legal action.

Working with public defenders, he helped assemble a team of law professors, law students, social workers and social work students. They filed dozens of petitions. He has watched in satisfaction as nearly 100 petitioners have been released, each on probation and with suspended life sentences.

Millemann stresses that the team created a network of post-release services, including help with housing and job leads.

The releases outraged many Marylanders, including relatives of the crime victims.

Shirley Rubin says she was overcome with sadness and anger, when the man convicted of killing her husband was freed two years ago.

"It is an insult to Benjamin Rubin's memory," she said. "It offers no justice for me or my family."

Millemann says he understands such pain and sees it as his duty, and society's, to listen. But he doesn't flinch when citing what he calls a greater value, the primacy in a democracy of the rule of law.

"History shows if we don't fight to preserve that," he says, "all else is lost."

'Grounded and balanced'

Of course, putting so much time into one's work leaves less time for other things.

Millemann concedes that he has probably missed important events, moments even, especially with his wife, Sally, a retired social worker and disabilities advocate, and their son, Matthew, 25.

He's taking some weekends off these days, a recent concession, and traveling more often with the family to the house they own in Maine. "I've come to realize that Sally and Matthew are the most important parts of my life," he says. "They both keep me grounded and balanced."

But he has no plans to retire. And he says he might not fashion his life differently if he could do it over again.

"I've been enjoying what I do for 48 years," he says. "That's a very rare thing."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

Michael Alan Millemann

Age: 71

Occupation: Professor, public interest law, University of Maryland law school

Home: Lutherville

Education: A.B., Dartmouth College; J.D., Georgetown University law school.

Family: wife, Sally, one son

Experience: Reginald Heber Smith Community Law Fellow. Baltimore Legal Aid, 1970-1971. Maryland assistant attorney general, 1979-1981. Law professor, University of Maryland, 1974-1979, 1981-present

Notable cases

Michael Millemann has filed or participated in many significant cases in Maryland and elsewhere. Among them:

Long v. Robinson (filed 1969) Struck down state law requiring that 16- and 17-year-olds arrested in Baltimore, but nowhere else, be tried as adults.

Anderson v. Solomon (1970) Federal court overturned state law that allowed citizens to be committed indefinitely to mental institutions without a hearing.

Collins v. Schoonfield (1971) and Duvall v. Lee (1976). Among other reforms, guaranteed Baltimore jail inmates access to adequate medical care, library and reasonable use of mail.

Mental health settlement (1981) As assistant attorney general, helped get 300 mentally disabled adults moved from state psychiatric hospitals to appropriate placements.

Fitzpatrick v. Florida (1984) Got state Supreme Court to reduce death sentence of a mentally ill inmate to life with parole.

Arvinger clemency (2004) With students, wrote report that persuaded Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to break from predecessor's 'life means life' policy and release Walter Arvinger, a Baltimore man serving life for a 1968 robbery that resulted in death.

Karriem El-Amin v. Maryland (2013) Secured release of El-Amin, convicted of a 1971 murder, one of 98 prisoners released statewide after the Unger decision.

Legal services programs

Millemann has created or helped to create more than a dozen public-interest law programs. Among them:

Prisoner Assistance Project (1969), now Prisoner Rights Information System. Provides legal information and advice to state prisoners.

Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (1981) The state's largest pro bono organization.

Maryland Legal Services Corporation (1981) Provides funding for legal services for the poor.

Public Justice Center (1985) Nonprofit public interest law office.

Civil Justice (1998) Supports solo and small-firm private lawyers in providing legal services to low and moderate-income clients.

Prisoner Advocacy and Re-Entry Support Project (2013) Provides pre- and post-release services to inmate released as a result of the Unger decision.

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