Public Justice Center has grown, kept its feistiness


Had two lawyers not founded an organization to empower the powerless through law a decade ago, Marie Lake might still be a prisoner for killing her boyfriend, and George R. Ames Jr. just another also-ran for an Eastern Shore judgeship.

Since its 1985 founding, Baltimore's nonprofit Public Justice Center also has won a $75,000 settlement for a man forced to take a test for the AIDS virus, helped change the state's domestic-violence laws, and set up a tenants' rights project to help the poor navigate rent court.

As the center prepares to mark its 10th anniversary this year, lawyers and clients are looking ahead to the many changes still to be made -- in housing, children's rights and economic discrimination against minorities, to name a few. They also bemoan their own limits and a political climate seen as increasingly hostile to the underprivileged and those who represent them.

"We wanted to see a legal entity that would provide help and would not be beholden to anybody," said Michael A. Millemann, the University of Maryland law school professor who founded the center with friend and fellow attorney Nevett Steele Jr. "It's grown up without losing its feistiness."

The center, which employs 10 staffers and has an annual budget of $425,000, relies on more than $1 million worth of donated help from some of the city's most powerful law firms, and hundreds of volunteers who counsel clients, monitor courtroom action and gather information.

One of the first cases, taken on with the American Civil Liberties Union, challenged Eastern Shore voting rules that lawyers charged diluted the power of black voters.

Now Judge Ames, 53, is the first African-American to sit on the Dorchester County Orphans' Court -- winning election last fall in a new district that had many black voters. By contrast, he said, he garnered a slim percentage of the vote when he ran for the position at-large in 1990.

"My chance was slim to none," Judge Ames said. "If it was not for the districts, I think there would not have been an opportunity for an African-American to win."

In another prominent project, center members persuaded then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer in 1991 to grant clemency to eight women convicted of killing or trying to kill their husbands or boyfriends, and helped win early parole for others. Each woman was said to be suffering from battered-spouse syndrome, a psychological condition experts say provokes violence in those who suffer repeated abuse.

The clemency project came under fire when The Sun reported that in three of the cases, evidence never presented to the governor raised doubts about the wisdom of release. One woman had hired a hit man to kill her husband, enabling her to collect on a $22,000 insurance policy; another testified in court that her husband had never hit her; and a third allegedly threatened a potential witness.

Rachel A. Wohl, who was active in lobbying for the women through the Public Justice Center, is still elated at the accomplishment. "Despite the controversy, I feel that all the women deserved clemency," said Ms. Wohl, now an assistant state attorney general.

Ms. Lake, whose case had none of the problems cited by The Sun, was one of the last women to be granted an early parole. Her gratitude for the Public Justice Center's advocacy is strong.

Now 51, she has made a new life with a job as an aide in the public defender's office and has renewed a relationship with her grown daughter.

"I'm grateful to be out here even when times are hard," Ms. Lake said.

In prison, she said, "I truly felt I didn't deserve anything in life. When [the lawyers] came back again, I started to think somebody must believe in me and I started to believe in myself."

Today, the center's agenda -- to expand the rights of the poor, the sick and the disenfranchised -- is just the kind that Capitol Hill's new conservative leaders are trying hard to defeat.

Congress' Republican majority, fed up with lawsuits challenging welfare reform and other limitations on entitlements, has been looking to cut money for legal services and to limit class-action suits, said Robert D. Evans, director of governmental affairs for the American Bar Association.

A recent House budget subcommittee report recommended phasing out the federal Legal Services Corp., which provides a large portion of funding to organizations such as Maryland's Legal Aid Bureau. All of this could boost demand for the Public Justice Center, which relies mostly on foundation money, private donations and volunteer help.

"Legal services programs are going to spend the next 10 years digging out," Mr. Millemann said.

Even J. Joseph Curran Jr., who as Maryland's attorney general often is on the opposing side of the Public Justice Center's lawsuits, praised the organization. "I think there's nothing wrong with someone pushing you to do your best."

Still, even when battles are won, change can be slow.

For example, two years after agreeing to hire a number of black police officers and increase sensitivity training in a case the center brought, the Frederick Police Department has not quite met its goal, according to a recent report by the county Human Relations Commission.

"I still have clients coming in and saying officers used racial epithets during arrests," said Willie J. Mahone, the black lawyer who brought the suit after being stopped repeatedly by police. But, he said, the lawsuit "was a form of empowerment for the African-American community here."

Said E. Clinton Bamberger Jr., a member of the center's board, "When I was 20, I would get frustrated when things didn't get fixed in a week. Now that I'm 68, I understand it may take 30 years."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad