A poverty lawyer's global crusade for justice


When Penny Andrews left South Africa for the United States in 1983, she had the names of people who could help if she ran into trouble.

One was Clinton Bamberger, a Baltimore lawyer whose pursuit of superior legal training and equal justice for the poor had given his name a mythical quality among progressive lawyers on several continents.

Ms. Andrews' countryman, Chabani Jali, needed help immediately.

He had enrolled in what turned out to be a two-year law program at Howard University in Washington. With a family at home, he could stay only one year.

So the two young South African travelers, one black and one colored, according to their country's designation, took a train to Baltimore to see Mr. Bamberger, a tall, blue-eyed and strikingly blond stranger, at the University of Maryland Law School, where he was then director of clinical education.

Ms. Andrews remembers walking into his office and thinking that he was "so white, so very white."

So resourceful, too.

Though law schools were about to convene and most had been full for months, he made a few phone calls and got Mr. Jali into a one-year Tulane University program in New Orleans.

Mr. Bamberger stayed in touch, eventually drawing the two into his international network of friends, judges, professors, politicians and students.

Mr. Jali returned to South Africa to become a partner in one of the most prestigious law firms in Durban, an expert in resolution of labor disputes.

Ms. Andrews, now a teacher at the City University of New York law school, is spending the next few months in Johannesburg writing an affirmative action statute for the new government of Nelson Mandela.

For the roles that she and Mr. Jali are playing in the building of a new South Africa, Ms. Andrews gives credit to Mr. Bamberger.

"Growing up as a colored person in South Africa, without much confidence . . . he showed faith in your ability that made you believe in yourself in a way that doesn't come naturally."

In similar ways, E. Clinton Bamberger Jr. has been promoting legal services for the poor and improving law schools around the globe since, at the age of 39, he left a top Baltimore law firm to become the first director of the federal antipoverty agency's legal aid effort.

Mr. Bamberger's dedication has occasionally made him the object of scorn by those who find him unbending.

Since the early 1980s, he has been the brooding, angry force behind the effort to reduce the debilitating effects of lead paint poisoning, which the state of Maryland now calls the most severe environmental threat to children: 3,000 new cases were found last year alone.

Under a law passed by the General Assembly this year, owners of properties built before 1978, when lead-based paint was banned, can protect themselves from lawsuits if they pay a fee of up to $10 per rental unit and agree to remove the lead paint hazard from their apartments. The program begins Oct. 1.

In Annapolis, Mr. Bamberger's single-minded advocacy has left him with an image that falls somewhere between hopeless idealist and hothead. Some of his encounters with the landlords' former lobbyist, Ira C. Cooke, came close to fisticuffs.

Mr. Cooke's clients saw Mr. Bamberger as a coddler of welfare mothers who, one of them said, spend their money on Gucci shoes while neglecting their children. During one hearing on a bill opposed by the landlords, Mr. Cooke appeared to challenge the truth of something Mr. Bamberger had said.

"Clint went after him," says Del. Samuel E. "Sandy" Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat. Mr. Bamberger was ordered to sit down or be escorted out of the hearing.

"Every now and then," Mr. Cooke says, "I could insert the needle in just the right spot." In what Mr. Bamberger might regard as a compliment, Mr. Cooke said, "I don't think pragmatism is his strong suit."

This year, Mr. Bamberger urged the compromise that resulted in a bill the governor signed.

"He doesn't have the zealot's absence of doubt," Mr. Rosenberg says. "He questions himself. The zealot says, 'Hey, I'm always right.'"

The broader goals of Mr. Bamberger's life have been training young lawyers and making equal protection under law more than a noble sentiment.

In 1965, he met the late Howard Westwood, a Washington lawyer then in search of someone to run a government-financed Legal Services Corp.

"He was establishment," Mr. Westwood told Earl Johnson, a former director of the program and author of a book about it. "He was a nut. He looked like a Scandinavian Boy Scout . . . He had a deep orator's voice, an independent cast of mind. He was youthful, vigorous and yet a bit restive."

Mr. Bamberger had a buttoned-down, striped-tie respectability that was reassuring to lawyers who feared a government-sponsored program would deprive them of fees.

New and established lawyers alike were impressed by his ability. Insurance was his legal specialty, but he had a wider talent.

"It wasn't only compassion he brought," says former Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs. "He brought the same high standards that corporate clients pay big bucks for."

R. Sargent Shriver, then head of the Office of Economic Opportunity, said "personal dedication to the law and great clarity in legal thinking" made him the ideal first director.

Mr. Bamberger says he is not certain today why he gave up a lucrative partner's position at the Baltimore firm of Piper & Marbury to take the anti-poverty job. "Probably something a nun said to me in grammar school."

He is only partly joking when he goes on: "There are certain jobs only damn fools will do, and if you are one, you have an obligation to take them."

His new federal program had an immediate impact.

The inadequacy of the previous volunteer system was demonstrated by the fact that in its 96-year history it had not taken a single poverty law case to the Supreme Court. In the first six years of the agency, 136 cases were taken to the high court, 76 successfully.

"The idea was to have some impact on institutions," says Michael Millemann, a Legal Services lawyer when Mr. Bamberger ran the program and now director of clinical training at the University of Maryland law school.

"Every state institution we worked with then -- welfare, housing, prisons, mental health -- was lawless." They were "out of compliance" with the Constitution, federal statute, federal regulations and state law, he said. "It wasn't until Clinton issued a mandate to have Legal Services lawyers come in and try to bring people within the law that any of this changed."

If Mr. Bamberger had been inspired by something nuns said, they said it at the Cathedral Elementary School. He remembers those days fondly: his classes were close to his grandfather's store on Read Street. "I could go there at the end of the day and eat Tastee Cakes."

He went on to Loyola High School, Loyola College and Georgetown University Law School.

All of his moves were not sure-footed, he acknowledges. After getting the Legal Services Corp. under way, he returned to Maryland to run for attorney general on a ticket with former Rep. Carlton Sickles, who was running for governor. Both lost in the 1966 election, when Spiro T. Agnew was elected governor.

Returning briefly to Piper & Marbury, Mr. Bamberger was elected a delegate to the state constitutional convention in 1967.

In 1968, responding to a Jesuit prison chaplain's concerns about a condemned man, Mr. Bamberger discovered the prosecution had withheld information. Disclosure that the man had been present but had not done the killing might have helped the defense. As an accomplice, he should have been sentenced to life in prison -- but not to death.

Taking the case to the Maryland Court of Appeals, Mr. Bamberger managed to get John Leo Brady off death row. The Supreme Court upheld the lighter sentence.

Mr. Bamberger's arguments led to fundamental change in prosecutors' duties to surrender evidence. The importance of the Brady case is regarded as equal to the better-known Miranda decision that requires police to read defendants their rights.

The Brady principle has been at play this summer in the O. J. Simpson case, as his lawyers pressed their client's right to evidence collected by the Los Angeles district attorney to TC prosecute him on murder charges.

Interventions for the poor and unrepresented put the 67-year-old Mr. Bamberger among the nation's most respected civil and legal rights advocates, according to David S. Tatel, nominated recently by President Clinton to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. Others he cited include Arthur Flemming, former head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and the late Joe Rauh, an activist Washington rights lawyer.

"They not only kept the focus but the clarity of their principles," Mr. Tatel says.

Mr. Bamberger's passion for equal justice, enduring long after the ardor of most reformers melts away, is striking to friends like Mr. Tatel. He and Mr. Bamberger have worked together on the National Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law.

"He's a constant tester of your views," Mr. Tatel says. He and others say Mr. Bamberger's resolve restores their commitment when it falters.

Occasionally, Mr. Bamberger presses his point with what Mr. Millemann calls "a relentless in-your-face intensity."

Such a man, several of his friends observe, is often in need of a level-headed and well-grounded partner. He has had one in his wife, Katherine.

In tribute to her own social conscience, patience and willingness to uproot house and home, she is occasionally referred to as "St. Katherine."

In 1969, Mr. Bamberger became dean of the Catholic University law school. He left after five years because he wanted a higher level of commitment to train lawyers who would combat racism and poverty. In 1975, he returned to Legal Services, where he served until 1979 as executive vice president.

Then, at 53, he became a staff attorney at a legal clinic in Boston, one of those he had been administering. He had preached the gospel of lawyering for the poor -- but he'd never done it himself. "I felt like I had cheated," he said.

Over the years, he has taught and consulted on the training of lawyers and the delivery of legal services in several countries, including Australia, the Netherlands, Nepal and South Africa.

In 1991, shortly after he had a mild stroke, he learned that a Fulbright fellowship was available for work at a law school in Kathmandu.

"After a lot of thought and discussion with my family," he said, "I concluded I was not immortal." He had always wanted to hike in the Himalayas. Now he could get his wish and work in a clinic at the same time.

This restless spirit first inspired Carole Baekey when she was a Catholic University student. Now she heads a legal services clinic that serves more than a million South Africans in rural Natal and KwaZulu.

"He still has the gleam in his eye, the compassion in his heart and the intellect to do something about it," she says.

When Mr. Mandela was inaugurated last spring as president of South Africa under the country's first multiracial election, Clinton Bamberger was there in a throng of celebrants, blond enough, he says, to be taken for an Afrikaner. He was awed by the courage of the voters and by the serenity projected by the president.

"It was as if something had reached into the hearts of the people and removed a great shadow," he says.

During his stay, Mr. Bamberger addressed a convention of the South African Legal Resources Center in Johannesburg.

"In the same sense that there is a new constitution for South Africa," he said in his speech, "so in 1965, there was no constitution for poor people in America. It didn't apply to them. There were no lawyers for them. The constitutional issues raised by their problems were not taken to court."

Afterward he was given one of the new South African flags, which he flies, alongside the American flag, outside his house in Bolton Hill.

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