Behind enemy lines, Legal Services way back when

I will be sharing many tales from the Legal Services Corporation of Iowa program during the 70’s and 80’s, and there will be LSC veterans from other states who will object that their program wasn’t remotely like ours, and I accept that as true, and I am sorry for their loss. 

Adventures with Jack #1

Jack Kegel and I worked together in the Des Moines office of Iowa Legal Services starting in 1978.  We met the year before while organizing town halls around the state to push for a moratorium on winter utility shutoffs.  In a midwestern state where winter temperatures often remained below zero for a week at a time, it seemed insane that the gas and electric utilities could  shut you off and leave you out in the cold in your very own house when it was 20 below outside.  Jack and I were successful in building community support through meetings across the state and the Iowa Commerce Commission passed a ban on utility shutoffs from November 1st to April 1st.  That moratorium remains in effect today.

Organizing those town halls was a lot of work, finding speakers from the community, lining up the venue, publicity, etc.  but the post-town hall celebrations were a hoot.  We drew on our local sources to identify a mid- to low-level drinking establishment that met Jack’s exacting standards, “The kinda place where a fella can stop in for a cold beer and a black eye.”  One particularly memorable after-town-hall-blowout was on a Monday night in Sioux City.  We went to a bar in a shopping complex called KD Stockyards Station, yep, they had converted a meatpacking plant and the areas which had once housed cattle for slaughter into shops, restaurants and bars.  Welcome to the Midwest reborn!  So this particular Monday a dozen lawyers and community activists ended up as the only bar patrons and the owner gave us a premature “last call” at 10:15. Without missing a beat Jack responded, “Give us 12 pitchers!”  The owner shrugged, “What the hell, I’ll stay open for 12 more pitchers.”  As the night ended and we struggled to find our way through that slaughterhouse maze, I remembered one of my Dad’s sayings, “You can get as drunk as a sailor, but you can’t get any drunker.”

After our successful foray into winter-moratorium-community-organizing/party-planning, Jack and I applied as a duo for two open positions in the Des Moines office of Iowa Legal Services.  Jack would be moving down from Ames and I would transfer from the Sioux City office.  I always had a sneaking suspicion that they agreed to hire Jack to get me to come to Des Moines, but then when they saw what a low achiever I was, they couldn’t fire me because they were afraid Jack would leave.

When we got hired Jack still lived in a group house in Ames, 45-minutes north of Des Moines and I crashed with him for a while as we searched for a house down south.  Forty years later when I had interns in Washington, DC I used to describe legal services lawyers of that era as hippies that went to law school, but they never fully appreciated what my peer group was like until I showed them a picture of an Ames group house posted by my friend Mary Lorenzen.  This wasn’t the house I stayed in, but I wish it had been.

As new lawyers in the Des Moines office Jack and I be would serving the 14 surrounding counties which comprised our “region.” Legal Services of Iowa had about a dozen regions and each one had a regional office from which it sent out lawyers to “circuit ride” or visit each county once a week or so.  We had community partners in each county who lent us a space to meet, and they helped us coordinate with the low income people who had made appointments to talk to us – either as on-going clients or as potential clients coming in for an intake interview.

Modern day map of regional offices, by Iowa Legal Aid, “Making An Impact”

Before we could start our circuit riding, we were required to visit with each of the county bar associations, explain our presence to the local lawyers, and as required by law, “get their recommendations.”  As it turned out their recommendations, while heartfelt, were anatomically impossible.  The process was to call the county bar association president and wrangle an invitation to their next monthly gathering which usually took place around a couple tables in the back of a small café.  The reception we invariably received reminded me of stories a friend of mine would tell me about his days in a band called “Free Beer!”  He said that for a week the signs in front of the bar would advertise their upcoming appearance, “Friday Night, Free Beer!” and they always played to large but hostile crowds.  The audiences Jack and I played may have lacked size, but they made up for it with uneasy hostility.  Often the entire county bar association would be just a half dozen men, dressed in country lawyer casual, while Jack and I appeared in khakis and ties worn out of courtesy.  Back then I always wore a button that said, “Justice For the Poor.” The first time Jack saw that he shook his head, “Expect some ferocious incoming fire if you are going to wear that strolling through small towns.”

And sure enough, on one memorable visit to a very rural county bar association we were still in the obligatory round of “Iowa Nice” handshakes when one lawyer pointed at my button.  “I don’t know if I believe in that!”

“What is there not to believe in?” I asked, “You don’t believe in poor people, or you don’t believe in Justice?”

“It’s the ‘for’ that’s got me bothered.”

After that Jack started referring to this meet and greet as our lunch with the knuckle draggers.

Once the pleasantries were dispensed with and our lunches ordered we began by explaining that under a law which had been signed by President Nixon, Legal Services was required to establish a presence in every county in the US , and that our intention was not to make their work more difficult, but simply to ensure that the rights of poor Iowans were protected.

Their first question was, “What do we have to do to keep you out of our county?”

Jack stroked his chin thoughtfully.  “Not much you can do, I’m afraid. For now, it’s the law.  Federal law.  You know, the scary kind.”

One of the other lawyers piped up, “Who pays your salary?”

“We get paid by a grant from the federal government.”

“You mean to tell me that my taxes pay you to come in here and make a nuisance of yourself?”

“No sir, I believe your taxes go to pay for those $10,000 government trash cans that everybody is always criticizing as government waste.” He pointed to me, “His taxes go to pay my salary.”

We hadn’t broken much ice, and even though we were invited guests, we ended up paying for our own lunches.

But six months after this encounter with the lawyer who was bothered by “for,” our paths crossed again on the steps of the courthouse.

“I owe you an apology,” he said, sticking out his hand.  “I thought you guys were coming in here to steal our clients, but since you two showed up business is booming!  Used to be we would file an eviction order; the judge would sign it and the Sheriff would just go over and throw the bums out.  Now we have a court hearing first!  You know how much more I can charge for a court hearing?”

Out of politeness I didn’t remind him of our first encounter in eviction court several months earlier when he ended up looking like he wanted to strangle me as I humiliated him in front of his landlord client. 

Iowa had just passed a new eviction statute around the time Jack and I started working and it changed the earlier procedure under which the lawyer for the landlord could file two eviction motions on the same day, a “Three-Day Motion to Satisfy” which meant ‘pay up;’ and a “Three-Day Motion to Quit” which meant ‘get your butt out.’  Three days after filing those papers with the court, the renters would get a visit from a Sheriff’s deputy and their belongings ended up out on the curb.  But Legal Services had lobbied for a more equitable procedure in which the landlord had to file the “Three-Day Motion to Satisfy” first, then wait the three days to give the renter time to scrape together the money to pay the back due rent and avoid eviction.  If at the end of three days no money had been paid, the lawyer for the landlord then had to go back to court and file the “Three-Day Motion to Quit.”  It still meant, “get out” but now the tenants had three additional days to make other living arrangements and remove their things.  If, at the end of those final three days the tenants were still there, then the Sheriff could evict them.  This was typical of how Legal Services maneuvered to change the laws to level the playing field for poor people, in this case protecting the rights of tenants by giving them time to find a lawyer to defend them in court, and a chance to pay the rent or to move out before being thrown out.

One day a tenant from  the county we had just visited called our office having been served with both sets of papers at the same time as they did under the old law and she had a court hearing scheduled for the next day.  I asked if she had paid the rent.  Nope.  Could she pay it tomorrow? Part of it.  I told her to meet me at the courthouse the next day at 8:45. 

When we walked into the courthouse, I asked the court clerk where the hearing would be held.

“What kind of case are we talking about here?”

“Eviction.”

“Oh, we don’t do hearings for evictions.”

“Oh, but today we do! Better tell the judge!”

She looked flustered but called the part-time magistrate judge at his law office and he told her to call the other lawyer and tell him to get his landlord client and meet up at the courthouse.

When we convened in the courtroom, with the landlord and tenant glaring at each other, the judge asked what all this hubbub was about.

I handed out copies of the new law. 

“The law has changed, your Honor.  Counsel for the landlord served the Three-Day Notice to Satisfy and the Three-Day Notice to Quit on the same day.”

“And you are saying there is something wrong with that?”

“Yes, I am.” The courtroom went silent as the judge and opposing counsel bent over their copies of the law which gave me some time to study the “Pioneers crossing the Prairie” mural motif that seemed to decorate so many small-town Midwestern courthouses.

Photo Credit: Omaha World-Herald

When the judge looked up he asked, “By any chance did your bunch of radical lawyer types up in the Capital write this law?”

“We did have input, your Honor.”

“So it appears you are the only person in this room that knows what the proper procedure is.”

“That may be so.”

“And I don’t suppose you are planning to enlighten us any, are you?”

“I’d rather not.”

The judge turned to the other lawyer.  “Looks like he got you on this one, Ted.  Why don’t you two see if you can work something out.”

My tenant client agreed on a payment plan the red-faced lawyer had negotiated in a series of angry whispers with his landlord client, and I sped out of the county looking over my shoulder.

But now, six months later it was all handshakes and smiles and a brand-new suit purchased with the fees from eviction case hearings.

Which reminds me of this:

I came across a couple of quotes which illustrate what we were up against back in those bad old days when Legal Services was on a quest to protect the rights of poor people and conservatives were trying to kill our program because we were succeeding.

The Des Moines Register quoted California Governor Reagan who described our group of lawyers as “a bunch of ideological ambulance chasers doing their own thing at the expense of the rural poor.” Howard Phillips, director of the Conservative Caucus, criticized Legal Service Corporation for providing legal help to “transsexuals, sodomites and others seeking to legitimate perverse behavior.” This has been done, charged Phillips, by allowing homosexuals to be represented on local Legal Services’ boards of directors in San Francisco and by giving legal advice to a person who had changed sex in Montana.

Legal Services Corporation of Iowa was a particular target because of our focus on impact litigation which involved suing states and the feds to force them to properly enforce laws they themselves had passed.

“The most common legal problem the poor have is with government,” said John Barrett, Director of Legal Services of Iowa. “We have to sue them often.”

And I can’t improve on this description of legal services back then from the book Actual Innocence by Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld, and Jim Dwyer:

By the mid-1970’s, Bronx Legal Aid had absorbed the energy and talents of politically active young lawyers who, as students,
had protested the Vietnam War and
marched for civil rights.

The lawyers worked late.
They fell in love.
They quarreled.

They were young,
underpaid,
and having the time of their lives.

Des Moines office of Iowa Legal Services right after I left, circa 1979

And this, “Consensus minus one”

In visiting one of the group houses in Ames I picked up a decision-making strategy which I used when I was in charge of two social justice law offices: “consensus minus one.”  Most groups houses did require a consensus to make a decision affecting the house, everyone was allowed to have their say on “should we do this, or should we do that” until they could agree unanimously on one course of action.  And this consensus requirement was the death of many groups because it could lead to long hours of argument over minutiae and it took only one person refusing to budge to prevent any movement forward.  But with “consensus minus one,” if everyone except one person agreed, then the decision was made.  And the dissenter at least felt their arguments had been heard and considered, but they lost under the rules of the house.  I used this strategy when I was in charge of two offices and sometimes it turned out I was the “minus one,” but I learned it was worth losing the argument to empower my team.

And finally,

One Spring day when Jack and I were out circuit riding from county to county we stopped for lunch in a small café.  I ordered my usually hamburger and Jack had a Caesar salad with ham.  In the middle of the meal Jack pulled something from his salad.

“Look at this, string from the ham.  I think I’ll have a little fun with the waitress.”

When we had finished, and the waitress stopped by with the check Jack held up the string. 

“It appears a piece of string from the ham made its way into my salad.  Is there a discount for that?”

She bent down and studied the string.  “We don’t have string on our ham.  That looks like it came from the mop.”

A song we had on our tape deck as we drove through rural Iowa riding circuit, by John Prine:

Published by Robert Lang

Social Justice lawyer and mentor, nurturing calmness, kindness, and adventure. Just trying to leave something good behind.

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