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Justice Earl Johnson, Jr. Returns to Western Center on Law & Poverty:‘Father of modern legal services’ will focus on access to justice

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

  • Organization: The Western Center on Law & Poverty


Syd Whalley, Executive Director, Western Center on Law & Poverty, 213-235-2612

Richard Rothschild, Director of Litigation, Western Center on Law & Poverty, 213-235-2624

Los Angeles, CA (November 15, 2007) - The Western Center on Law & Poverty, California's oldest and largest legal services support center, announced today that Justice Earl Johnson, Jr., recently retired from the California Court of Appeal, has been named Scholar in Residence at the Center, effective December 1, 2007.

"We are delighted that, after 25 years on the bench, Justice Johnson is returning to the Western Center," said Syd Whalley, executive director of the organization. "He was responsible for the Center's initial funding, and served as president of its Board of Directors in its formative years.

"In the 1960s, Justice Johnson directed Legal Services Program of the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity, which was the legal arm of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. During that time President Johnson also set in motion a number of other national programs such as Head Start, Food Stamps, Medicare and Medicaid, which still exist today," added Whalley. Justice Johnson crafted two of the most innovative ideas for providing legal services to poor people -- legal services support centers, such as the Western Center on Law & Poverty and the Reginald Heber Smith law fellows, the 'Reggies," top flight young lawyers who received special training and then were placed in legal services agencies around the country. "He has rightfully been called the 'father of modern legal services,' and we are honored to have him involved with the Center again," Whalley said.

In his new role at the Center, Johnson will continue his life-long commitment to securing legal services for poor people. Chief among his tasks will be participating in the national effort to move the U.S. in the direction of access to justice as a matter of right.

Recently appointed to a three-year term on the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants (SCLAID), Johnson will serve as the chair of the "Right to Legal Services" sub-committee of SCLAID.

As a Scholar in Residence at the Center, Johnson will be working on two books that he is authoring. The first is a comprehensive history of civil legal service in the United States, and the other is a scholarly work on the future of access to justice.

In addition, Johnson will continue to serve as a member of the executive committee of the California Commission on Access to Justice, a commission whose creation he spearheaded over 10 years ago, and as a member of the Board of the National Equal Justice Library, which he helped create almost two decades ago.

According to Jack Londen, a former Chair of the California Commission on Access to Justice and a partner in Morrison & Foerster LLP, "Earl Johnson is a leading scholar of equal access to justice, but he is much more. He was one of the architects of federal funding through the Legal Services Corporation (LSC)."

When LSC later reduced funding levels, Johnson became the foremost strategist and advocate for the creation of State Commissions on Access to Justice, London noted. "These commissions now exist in most states, and they have brought together constituencies including judges, legal aid lawyers, the organized bar, and many others," London said. "It is fair to say that much of the progress over the last 40 years in providing access to justice for people of limited means has been the result of ideas that Earl Johnson conceived, advocated, and helped implement."

When he headed the legal aid arm of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty in the 1960s, Johnson substantially funded legal aid programs around the nation with federal funds. Until that time, legal aid had been sporadically funded by private contributions. Johnson also created and funded the legal services support centers to assist front-line legal aid programs.

"We wanted to provide litigation and advocacy training to front-line legal aid attorneys," Johnson noted. "We needed to quickly provide legal aid centers with knowledge and expertise in all of the fields that were important to poor people, but for which law schools provided no classes at the time." He created several national support centers, such as the Welfare Law Center at Columbia University, the Housing Law Center at Boalt Hall, and the Health Law Center at UCLA.

The Western Center, according to Johnson, was the first statewide support center set up to address regional issues. The Center opened a Sacramento office in 1972 to help prevent the state legislature from undoing courtroom victories won by the Center's lawyers for California's poor and needy.

After years of threatened funding cuts by conservative politicians, Congress eliminated all federal funding for legal aid support centers in 1995.

"Most of these support centers are still alive, although substantially smaller than they were when they were federally funded," Johnson noted. "The Western Center has been the most successful in maintaining the same level of advocacy they had when they were federally funded. I'm looking forward to working with the outstanding lawyers who are now at the Center."

Born and raised in Watertown, S.D., Johnson attended Northwestern University on a Naval ROTC scholarship and was elected student body president. After graduation and three years as an active duty naval officer, he earned his law degree from the University of Chicago where he was a law review editor. Later, he was awarded an L.L.M. in criminal law at Northwestern's School of Law, writing his dissertation on the subject of organized crime. That led to a job as an organized crime prosecutor with the Department of Justice, which he left to join a legal aid program in Washington, D.C.

Johnson came to Los Angeles in 1969 to teach at the USC School of Law, where he was director of clinical programs from 1970 to 1973. After being named a full professor in 1975, he was appointed to the California Court of Appeal by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 1982.

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