“Lawyers must uncover the legal causes of poverty, remodel the systems which generate the cycle of poverty, and design new social, legal, and political tools and vehicles to move poor people from deprivation, depression, and despair to opportunity, hope, and ambition.” —Clinton Bamberger, 1966
Fifty years ago during the War on Poverty, a handful of leaders joined our founder, Sargent Shriver, to establish a national program of civil legal aid for people living in poverty. Clinton Bamberger was one of those leaders. Bamberger, who devoted his life to the pursuit of equal justice for people living in poverty, died on February 12, 2017.
Bamberger’s leadership and advocacy were felt in all corners of the poverty law world. On the criminal side, he famously represented the defendant in Brady v. Maryland, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that held that prosecutors must turn over any exculpatory evidence to the defense. On the civil side, he brought an important landlord-tenant case involving lead paint and children. In academia, he served as dean of the law school at Catholic University and later developed the clinical law program at the University of Maryland. Internationally, he helped create a civil legal aid system in South Africa and advised other systems in Australia, Nepal, and the Netherlands.
But as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, we cannot overlook Clint Bamberger’s role as an architect of the national civil legal aid system and, indeed, of the origins of the Shriver Center itself.
After President Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty in 1964, he appointed Sargent Shriver to head the newly created Office of Economic Opportunity to administer federal antipoverty programs. As part of this suite of programs, Sargent Shriver created a federally funded Legal Services Program in 1965 and named Clint Bamberger as its first director. Bamberger’s deputy director, Earl Johnson Jr., took the helm in 1966 and the following year instituted the National Clearinghouse for Legal Services—which later would become the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.
During those years, Bamberger traveled across the country convincing attorneys of the wisdom and necessity of a federally funded program of independent offices delivering civil legal aid to poor people. He helped establish an important early source of attorneys for legal aid programs, the Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellowships.
Bamberger’s commitment to civil legal aid did not end there. He later became executive vice president of the new Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the successor of the Legal Services Program he had led a decade earlier. He worked at the Legal Services Institute affiliated with the law schools at Harvard and Northeastern Universities to train students to be civil legal aid attorneys. He later became president of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.
Ironically, tributes to Bamberger’s life and his work as a champion for equal justice come as funding for legal services is under serious threat. The programs that have their roots in that first Legal Services Program in the Office of Economic Opportunity—the Shriver Center, LSC-funded legal aid programs, state-based law and policy organizations (the state support centers), and subject specialists such as the National Consumer Law Center or the National Health Law Program (the national support centers)—have together tackled poverty at the root while giving access to justice for millions of low-income families, elderly individuals, and veterans. Despite the significant impact these programs have had over the past 50 years, federal funding for the Legal Services Corporation is on the table as the Trump Administration develops its first budget.
With half a century of experience and results behind it, the Shriver Center and its partners around the country will continue to strive for the vision laid out in the 1960s by Sargent Shriver and Clinton Bamberger: to “uncover the legal causes of poverty, remodel the systems which generate the cycle of poverty, and . . . move poor people . . . to opportunity, hope, and ambition.”
Photo credit: Sargent Shriver and Clinton Bamberger at a press conference announcing Houston Legal Aid, April 1966. Source: Clinton Bamberger Papers, National Equal Justice Library, Georgetown Law Library. Photographer unknown.