"If people don't have access to the courts, there's more of a tendency to take the law into their own hands," Charles H. Dorsey Jr. once said, "and I think that is detrimental to everybody in this society." Until his death last Friday of a heart attack at age 64, Mr. Dorsey served for 21 years as executive director of Maryland's Legal Aid Bureau, devoting his life to the principle that poor people were no less entitled to legal representation than the rich.
During his long career as head of the Legal Aid Bureau, a nonprofit organization providing civil legal services to the poor, Mr. Dorsey and his staff won many important victories on behalf of poor clients. Often those victories were achieved despite attempts by state and federal government to reduce his agency's funding. But Mr. Dorsey was a fighter who stoutly resisted the panacea of downsizing if it meant shortchanging justice for the poor.
The legal team Mr. Dorsey built rivaled that of any private law firm in the state. Under his direction, the bureau took many cases to the Supreme Court, including one that successfully challenged federal rules barring children born out of wedlock from receiving Social Security benefits from their deceased fathers. Mr. Dorsey also filed the landmark suit that curbed overcrowding in the state's prisons.
What Mr. Dorsey's colleagues called his "zest for justice" was nurtured early. Born and raised in West Baltimore, Mr. Dorsey originally studied for the priesthood at Epiphany Apostolic College in Newburgh, N.Y., before winning admission to Loyala College in Baltimore, where he became the first black undergraduate in the school's history.
During the Korean War, he enlisted in the Air Force and was made a first lieutenant before being discharged and returning to graduate from Loyola in 1957. After earning a law degree from the University of Maryland in 1961, he joined the firm of Brown, Allen, Russell and Watts, and later served on the Baltimore Welfare Commission and as assistant city solicitor under George L. Russell Jr.
As head of the Legal Aid Bureau, Mr. Dorsey expanded its work into a network of offices across the state, with several hundred lawyers, clerks and staff. He also broadened the bureau's focus from divorce and custody cases to landlord-tenant, Social Security, welfare and unemployment cases.
He was still passionately engaged in those efforts when he was stricken Friday at work. Charles H. Dorsey Jr. will be remembered as one of Baltimore's most accomplished lawyers and an inspirational figure by all who shared his vision of equal justice for all.