James Bamberger oral history, 2016

Director of the Washington State Office of Civil Legal Aid. Previously with Columbia Legal Services, Spokane Legal Services, and Alaska Legal Services Corporation. Focused on community-based lawyering.

Oral history details

Storyteller: James Bamberger
Interviewer: Houseman, Alan
Date of interview: May 12, 2016
Where relates to: Alaska and Washington
Topics: Access to justice commissions, Civil legal aid: Funding, Civil legal aid: State Funding, Community-based lawyering, Housing, Native Alaskans, Public housing, and Utility rates
Law type: Civil
Collection: CNEJL
Georgetown Law Library link (possible video): http://aspace.ll.georgetown.edu/public/repositories/2/archival_objects/306
Length: 1:08:34

Full text of transcript

Download PDF: Transcript

Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library
Oral History Collection
Interview with
James Bamberger
Conducted by Alan Houseman
May 12, 2016

Alan Houseman:
This is an oral history of James Bamberger, whom we will call Jim. He is currently the director of the Washington State Office of Civil Legal Aid. This was recorded on Thursday, May 12, 2016. The interview is at the Palmer House Hotel at the Equal Justice Conference. The interviewer is Alan Houseman for the National Equal Justice Library.

Alan Houseman:
Jim, let’s begin by just going through your personal and professional history, and then we’re going to come back and talk about a lot of the segments of this. Where were you born, where did you go to law school and college, and what jobs did you have after law school up until the present? Then, we can come back and focus on the substance of those.

James Bamberger:
Well, thank you Alan. It’s really an honor to be invited to share what little I’ve done for legal aid and the movement. But just as a point of privilege I’d like to say thank you to you. I feel like I’ve been a foot soldier building on, and helping move, a movement forward that you, and Bucky, and both Clints, and so many others, have really built the foundation for. It’s just been an honor to do this work my entire professional life. So thank you for your leadership, and the work that you’ve done over your lifetime.

James Bamberger:
I was born and raised in a suburb north of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was a child of the 60’s, we were from a assimilationist Jewish family in a very Protestant and Catholic mixed community, a very white community. At the time I came of consciousness, socially and politically, Milwaukee had been, was, and I’m sad to report still is the most geographically racially segregated city of any major American city. During the period of time that I remember coming up to some level of social and political consciousness, it was a very traumatic time in our city. We had multiple race riots. We had a lot of controversy over open housing, over fair housing, over racial equity issues, what we now call race equity issues. The year I was 13, we had the double murders of Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy and the subsequent social unrest that occurred shortly after both events.

James Bamberger:
I went to the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee (UWM), and was actively involved in social justice activities there. Interestingly enough, one of the things and groups I worked with was with the former mayor of Milwaukee, Frank Zeidler of the Democratic Socialist Party USA. In fact, he was the last former democratic socialist mayor in the history of a major American city. I’m not counting Burlington, Vermont as a major American city. We did a lot of organizing and political work there. I just really grew in my understanding of poverty, of racial issues, of gender issues, and gender inequalities, and really had a sense that I wanted to do something affirmative. In those days law school seemed to be the thing to do. When I graduated from UWM, I went to law school at Gonzaga University School of Law in Spokane, Washington.

James Bamberger:
I did a lot of work trying to address certain social justice issues. But, I ran into my first two very, very amazing mentors in the clinical program there. It was a general practice clinical program. Mark Wilson, who had just moved up from Legal Action of Milwaukee, and Jeff Hartje, Who had also been at Legal Action of Milwaukee. They had founded the clinic. They basically immersed us in not only general legal aid practice, but a very early understanding of concepts of cultural competency. We did a lot of work with members of the local tribes, and then with systemic legal representation. We did a lot of consumer utility work with consumer utility groups on matters relating to the construction of power plants and the regulation of electrical and gas rates.

James Bamberger:
I spent a lot of time at the clinic, probably more time than I got credit for. Then I had the opportunity to carry a lot of the regulatory work forward with a Reginald Heber Smith community lawyer fellowship in 1980 and ’81. I had not been intending to do legal aid work, honestly. My understanding of legal aid, and particularly legal aid in Spokane, Washington, was that it was pretty much the divorce mill. It was pretty much rote individual case-by-case legal representation. I had heard about an organization on the other side of the state, and most of the state, called Evergreen Legal Services. I tried to get on with Evergreen Legal Services, but at that time there were no jobs. I’ll say that the director didn’t look fond on people from Gonzaga Law School at the time.

James Bamberger:
Anyway, I ended up just with this incredibly good fortune of getting a Reggie fellowship and that changed my professional life. It really grounded me, going to Reggie camp, going and spending that time –

Alan Houseman:
What was Reggie camp for the record?

James Bamberger:
It’s this convening of all the Reggie fellows in each class at Howard University. We spent … I don’t remember how much time, exactly, we spent together. But we spent a lot of time learning about each other. It was a very diverse, almost a majority minority group of new lawyers, with a very strong sense of social mission, a very strong sense of racial identity, a very strong sense of responsibility. It infused into us all the time we were there to be community based. To make sure that we made elbow room in our own programs, our host programs, to do the work that we were funded by Reggie to do, which is community based, systemic, legal advocacy that was going to move the movement forward. We did call it a social justice movement in that context. We knew that the staff at the Reginald Heber Smith who were running the Reggie program were available to us, were supportive of us, and had our backs in the event that we were overly conscripted to do the day-to-day nuts and bolts work. We still had to do that, but we were responsible for making sure that we were in the community, working with community groups, basically doing shoulder-to-shoulder work, legal advocacy, in the areas of our primary focus.

James Bamberger:
I did that, finished my fellowship, stayed at Spokane Legal Services, where I worked until 1983. My then partner got a job in Alaska. We moved up to Alaska. I basically was unemployed and kind of walked into Alaska Legal Services, and kept walking into Alaska Legal Services. I got on as a part-time contractor. Very long story short, I had the opportunity to become a statewide litigation coordinator up there. I spent five years in Alaska doing amazing work, and I’m happy to talk more about that.

James Bamberger:
Then I was invited back down to Spokane to basically rebuild the program. It had kind of fallen apart. They recruited me to come down and direct the program. At the time I was very young — would I knew then what I know now. But we did do, I think, some amazing work at Spokane Legal Services. I will say, we apparently were sufficiently threatening to LSC at the time that they decided that at one point they were going to defund us because we were actually protecting client names from disclosure. You and Bucky were so instrumental in helping us protect the program, protect the clients, and make sure that kind of the overreaching by LSC was held at bay.

James Bamberger:
I ran that program for nine years. In the course of doing so, I began a very intentional effort to work closely with my partners at Evergreen Legal Services. The director there then was Ada Shen-Jaffe. At Puget Sound Legal Assistance Foundation the director was John Purbaugh, who had just recently come up from West Virginia. We collectively had this sense of responsibility to build something that was bigger than the sum of the individual parts of the three programs. Over the course of a number of years, and a lot of conversations, and working with our IOLTA funder and other leaders of the organization, we kind of put together this myth of what we used to call the Legal Services Programs of Washington, or LSPOW, where we would begin to co-fund a lot of things, and co-underwrite initiatives, training, support, sub-granting, state support, those kinds of things.

James Bamberger:
We really got to a point where we were speaking regularly with a single voice on virtually every issue that related to us. We worked together until the Gingrich Revolution of 1994 and 1995, at which point we collectively realized, and spent a lot of time getting our boards, and our broader community to understand, the existential threat that the proposed reforms to the Legal Services Corporation Act would present, particularly to clients who had no voice. People who were in the United States without legal authority, people who were incarcerated, people who were minorities, people who just had barriers that placed them, as Professor John Powell says, “outside the circle of human concern”. Also, the potential loss of really critical tools that all three programs used to be effective in working on behalf of and with their clients.

James Bamberger:
So we engineered … We didn’t engineer, we actually worked with the newly created Access to Justice Board, which we had all tried to get our Supreme Court to establish. It was the first such body in the country. We got them to adopt our first state plan, which led to the merger of all three programs, and created a new statewide organization called Columbia Legal Services. It would be the provider of what we characterized as unrestricted legal advocacy. Then our lawyer Bob Kaplan in Seattle literally pulled out of his desk drawer articles of incorporation of an organization he had made years ago, in the eventuality that something like this would happen. It was called the Northwest Justice Project. We created the Northwest Justice Project and it spun off some of our staff and went through the whole process of merging, bifurcating, and figuring out what it would look like, and how it would run. That’s a long answer.

Alan Houseman:
Then finally, after Columbia Legal Services, you went to the Office of Civil Legal Aid.
James Bamberger:
Yeah, so by 2003, 2004, Columbia Legal Services had taken with it not only the the principal source of unrestricted money at the time, the IOLTA money, but we had also carried the state money with us. So we were still the so-called full service provider across the state. I remember this quite vividly, we had a lot of pushback. Every time we would go to the legislature for more money, or we’d go to the Governor and say, “Please, put us in your budget. We need this, we’re dying on the vine.” The Governor’s response would be, “Why should I fund you? Why should I add money into my budget, all you’re going to do is sue us.” Which, you know, often times was the case, and we said, “You want us to sue you. You want the laws to be enforced. You’re a lawyer, you get it.”

James Bamberger:
But one year the NLADA conference was in Seattle, and in November I sent out a notice to a number of folks. We had been informed by our advocates that we were about to file a class action on behalf of 10,000 kids who were going to be removed from the Medicaid rolls because of a waiver that the Governor was about to receive. So I sent out the heads up. Part of my job was to communicate with the political team and institutional defense. I sent out this email, and said, “Heads up, this is what we’re going to do.” I got this barrage of emails back, “You can’t do it now, the legislature’s coming into session. You’ve got to find somebody else to do it. Why don’t you just ghost write everything?” I was in my office in Seattle, I was still living in Spokane at the time, but I was in my office in Seattle. I walked down the hall and I said to Ada literally, “The jig is up, we have to move the money.”

James Bamberger:
We had actually been talking on a regular basis with Northwest Justice Project, and trying to determine whether we were able to survive under the current configuration, or whether by that time, NJP having established itself as a strong program, and a responsible steward of the federal funds, whether it might make sense for us to just merge the state and the federal funds together. They carry many of the same regulations, and free Columbia from basically, the anchor of state dollars that really was frustrating a lot of people, particularly legislative and administrative folks in the administration. Even some of our friends in the administration.

James Bamberger:
So, we went through this process of basically completely getting the union to agree, getting our board to agree, getting the Access to Justice Board to agree, that what we had to do was basically cut Columbia Legal Services by more than 50%. We had to lay off more than half off our staffs, lay off ourselves as the leadership team, having groomed some new leaders to be put into place. I really do credit Ada Shen-Jaffe for just an extraordinary job of doing that, and having the vision and the foresight for doing that. We all went on unemployment.

James Bamberger:
My last gift to the community was, we had just published our first legal needs study, and I had written one of the recommendations of the study committee. It was to move administration of state-funded legal services from the executive branch, where it was buried in a subagency called the Office of Crime Victims Advocacy. I recommended to move it and create a new agency in the judicial branch that was independent of the Supreme Court, independent of the other levels of court, but had the responsibility to act as a judicial branch agency, and to manage and oversee the state funds. I left Columbia in January of 2005. In June of 2005, the legislature actually enacted that legislation. I was probably the most shocked person on the planet. I was still unemployed at the time. I got a call from the Chief Justice who asked me to put my name in because the court would appoint the director of this new agency and he wanted the court to consider me among others as the first director of the Office of Civil Legal Aid. So I did. Long story short, the court selected me, and I have served as the first and the only director of this state agency since 2005.

Alan Houseman:
Let’s go back. We’re going to come back to a lot of this, obviously. Let’s go back to your Reggie work. What do you think were your major accomplishments as a Reggie, or how would you characterize your work as a Reggie in terms of your advocacy, and your impact on the people who you served?

James Bamberger:
One of the biggest takeaways from my Reggie work is the importance of authentic engagement with the communities that you’re serving. We were working with, and helping organize, community based groups of utility consumers, who were being affected by a series of very significant year-to-year electric utility rate increases. We had very poor housing stock in much of Spokane. It seasonally gets very cold. Long-term, people were disproportionally being affected by it, and they were disproportionally without voice before the regulatory commission. Some of the best work I did wasn’t the litigation, although I was very proud of the litigation. But, the best work I did was helping give a voice, an authentic voice, and empowering people, senior citizens, young people, African Americans who lived in Spokane’s ghettoized community. Spokane at that time was 90% white.

James Bamberger:
That was powerful work for me. We did that at the local level, we did that at the regional level, and we did that at the statewide level. I had the great joy of working with a colleague at Evergreen, Rob Manifold, who was doing similar work at Evergreen on behalf of consumer utility groups for different utility companies. That was really a powerful takeaway, and I’ve never forgotten that. If there’s one thing that people hear me harping on a lot these days, and ever since that time, is the importance of authentic community based engagement, community lawyering. I just think that’s critical to the legitimacy of the work that we do at every level.

James Bamberger:
I had some great cases. I argued in the Supreme Court in the State of Washington three times in my first three years of practice on rate appeals. I made some very substantive law, including getting a unanimous opinion from the court to outlaw the practice then of allowing the value of non-productive power plants to be included in what they call the rate base, and basically allowing current customers to play for a plant that was neither used nor useful in producing power that they were consuming. That was a lot of fun. In my other part of my practice, I did a fair amount of [inaudible] welfare work and spent a lot of time working up at the Spokane and Kalispel Indian tribes.

Alan Houseman:
In Alaska, what were some of the challenges you faced, and some of your accomplishments there?

James Bamberger:
Alaska was fascinating, and the greatest thing that I had were amazing, amazing leaders. When I first got up there, the executive director was a fellow by the name of Ralph [Knuhuisen? – inaudible]. He had taken a program that was terribly underfunded, even though LSC was funding it at higher rates than the poverty population required, given the diversity, or given the geographic size, and given the disproportionate number of Native people who were living at or below the poverty population. But Ralph had a vision of ALSC being a very aggressive legal voice for Native Alaska, and particularly for poor Native Alaska. Now, this was within the decade after the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), and then shortly after the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which was the child of ANCSA.

James Bamberger:
The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, you may remember, extinguished all Native claims. But it didn’t create reservations, it created corporations. It poured about $900 million dollars on a bunch of regional and Native corporations, and told them, “Go make money”. Well, they should have just said “go get exploited”, because that’s exactly what happened. In the meantime, most of the traditional governing bodies were presumed to be non-functional, and there’s 256 villages, Native villages, in the state of Alaska, and 256 individual Native identities in the state. They had no voice, and they had no power, because they had no money or influence. But at the same time, these new corporations, and the oil industry, and everything else that was going on was really robbing them, and really threatening their traditional lifestyles.

James Bamberger:
We characterize it as subsistence, but it’s so much more than subsistence. So we had the responsibility in Ralph’s vision of protecting the traditional life ways and enforcing the legal rights, particularly subsistence preference rights, that Native people had under the new federal statutory regime. Unfortunately, Ralph got sick and passed on early after I got up there. But his vision was embraced by his successor Robert Hickerson. Robert was a tremendous, tremendous leader and carried that vision of ALSC being an Indian law program funded in part by the federal Legal Services Corporation, including federal Native American money. But our duty first and foremost, was to poor Native people, who just had no legal voice.

James Bamberger:
So we had just an amazing array of cases. One of the cases that I worked on, and actually argued in successfully in the Ninth Circuit, was a case where we had completely enjoined all of the outer continental shelf oil leasing that President Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior Jim Watt was doing in the Norton Sound, and in the Navarin Basin up in northwest Alaska. We had gotten the Ninth Circuit to enjoin the entirety of the drilling. Unfortunately, when I actually read the opinion that came down in our favor, I realized there was no chance we’d be able to protect the decision on appeal, because they had taken such an extreme view of when you get an injunction, but we did a lot of oil and gas leasing cases on behalf of coastal Native people.

James Bamberger:
I did a class action challenging the failure of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to live up to its responsibilities to maintain housing program and the housing they had built all across Alaska. At the end of the day I negotiated a settlement, and had this really amazing … Years later, when I had went up with LSC to one of the villages, this woman comes up to me and says, “I know you.” I said, “Well, that’s interesting. I’m not sure I remember you.” She goes, “You’re the lawyer that did the housing case.” I said, “Yeah, I am the lawyer who did the housing case.” She goes, “I’m so grateful, we love our house.” It was just such a wonderful … It’s a decade later, and you have somebody speak to you that way, and you realized you changed their lives.

James Bamberger:
We did some traditional legal aid work. Again, a lot of our work was class action, all of our federal court work was cases of first impression. Those were heavy times, and they were a lot of fun.

Alan Houseman:
Now, back to Spokane. You became the executive director. Before we get into the Access to Justice Commission, and the merger and all that, which you talked a little bit about, what did you do in Spokane? What achievements did you make in Spokane when you came back?

James Bamberger:
Well, I don’t consider this necessarily a great achievement. But I remember two or three years after I had started there, and before the merger, one of the bar leaders and one of the judges I was having lunch with said to me, “We are really, really pleased. The trains run on time at Spokane Legal Services. The quality of the work product is very good. We know your lawyers are going to come prepared.” Et cetera. That made me feel good. But far more important from my perspective was the early efforts we undertook to take on the responsibility of strategic planning, strategic allocation of resources, defining outcomes that we hoped to accomplish on behalf of specific client groups, and within specific substitute areas. We did a lot of community based information gathering.

James Bamberger:
I remember I called John Tull and John Arango, who had actually come before I was hired to help the interim director get the program back on its legs. I said to them, “I think I need to do a legal needs study.” John Tull in his ever understanding ways said, “Well, you can do that, or you might engage in a conversation about what you want to accomplish, and how you might accomplish it, and what strategies you’ll employ, and turn the program a little bit towards being much more effective. We generally know what the legal problems for low income people are, and you may want to use your resources in other ways.” I continue to find John’s advice to be sage, and we did that. We went through a multi-year process of strategic planning, and updating, and monitoring outcomes.

James Bamberger:
The first series of MIE articles I ever wrote, I think it was in the late 1980’s, were on the work that we did and the materials that we had produced. We made some real differences. Even in the area of family law, where you’re thinking family law is X, Y and Z, one of the things we realized that we had to do was teach the bench about the culture of domestic violence. So one of the strategies we employed was that every single case that we had, and we all took DV cases, in every single one of those cases the trial brief would have the facts. We had the applicable law but the whole front end of that brief would be an orientation to the culture of domestic violence, the relevant writings, and the relevant materials on domestic violence, to the point where we got the bench to understand this is real. This is before we had a state domestic violence act. Before law enforcement understood that it was more than just a civil domestic problem. It was somebody’s civil rights being violated, and criminal laws being violated. We did that in the area of domestic violence.

James Bamberger:
We did a lot of housing development work that basically became my principal area of work. We created an entire reinvestment program to try and rebuild state housing. One of the things I’m very proud of is that we got the banking community to agree to invest very substantial sums in low income housing renovation. As a condition of their doing so, we got the city of Spokane to actually agree contractually to back the loans. We had this really cool program. We built it out working with the city, working with the banking community, working with private law firms, to the point where we actually wrote — and you can’t do this as an LSC grantee anymore — but we wrote a housing levy, and ran a housing levy in 1994, and we lost by one percentage point. It was really cool.

James Bamberger:
The first program still exists, so I was pretty proud of the housing development work that we did. We didn’t just do eviction defense, we said in the area of housing, there’s a housing shortage. Our strategic plan has got to include building out the housing stock, reclaiming the housing stock, and taking responsibility for working with a much broader community of groups and organizations, including the banking industry and lawyers. I got one of the local law firms to donate 1,000 hours of pro-bono time over two years for housing development related work that we couldn’t do. I was just very pleased with that kind of work. Those were the big things.

Alan Houseman:
Okay. I want you to focus a bit on and explain why you and others in Washington State had the idea to set up a state Access to Justice Commission, and why you thought the Supreme Court should be involved in it? How did we get there? This was the first of its kind in the country, so what led you to do this in the way you did it?

James Bamberger:
I will answer your question with a caveat that I’m not the best reporter on this one. The best reporter on this is Ada Shen-Jaffe, whose idea the Access to Justice Board was, and whose dogged efforts to force the Supreme Court to do it were ultimately successful. When Ada and I first came into our position of leadership responsibilities, we’d knock on the door of the Washington State Bar Association and got, “I’m sorry, nobody’s home”, or at best, “We’ll pat you on the back on the head, you do good work, get out of here.” We’d go to the Supreme Court, knock on the door, and got “Who are you?” We were just not on anybody’s radar screen, or if we were, we were not well received.

James Bamberger:
Over the course of many years, at the local and regional levels, and at the state bar level — and we had some turnover at the state bar leadership position — we were really intentional about building relationships, about creating expectation, and about helping the profession, and then later the Supreme Court and the broader judicial branch, to understand that they had the responsibility to ensure equity and justice, access to justice. It wasn’t the legal aid community’s responsibility. That’s a very powerful thing to tell people. At the time we first started having this conversation, the Chief Justice was the first woman Chief Justice. She was a conservative republican. She came out of private practice. Her name was Barbara Durham and she just would have nothing of it. We couldn’t get any traction with her, but we were getting some traction with her fellow justices.

James Bamberger:
When she was succeeded by Justice Richard Guy, who actually came from Spokane, we started having fuller conversations. The reason we started talking about having the Supreme Court create a commission is, and Ada did this very graphically, we realized that there were 100 different initiatives going on that were justice related initiatives, pseudo access to justice related initiatives, and access to justice related initiatives. None of them were coordinated. There was duplication all over the place. There wasn’t a traffic cop at all, and there was no sense of coordination or strategic purpose to any of this. Our sense at the time — and we may be proven right or we may be proven wrong, I think the jury’s still out — was that from kind of a perspective of institutional leadership responsibility, the Supreme Court and the State of Washington had a substantial presence, substantial influence, and was a titular overseer, although no technically constitutionally, titular overseer of the court system and by implication, the broader justice system.

James Bamberger:
So we began coming up with the idea of trying to create a coordinating body that would bring all these entities together, coordinate, try and figure out how to build a non-duplicative system that not only provides legal aid services, but also helps identify institutional barriers, structural barriers, and strategies to overcome those barriers and make policy changes that would inevitably improve both the court system and the broader justice system, so the justice system could work effectively. I think Ada went down to meet with the Supreme Court four times, over a course of two years. Once we had the idea planted, our goal was to get the court to then create a court rule, creating an Access to Justice Board. Justices had created so many other organizations, such as the Minority in Justice Commission, the Gender in Justice Commission, the Judicial Information Systems Committee, and so on. But nothing coordinated with civil access to justice work.

James Bamberger:
Finally, after the last meeting with the court, which I’m told didn’t go very well — and again, I’m not the best narrator on this — Ada, in her unique way, took the Chief Justice aside, and said to him, “I don’t know how you guys can look at yourselves in the mirror. You’re just writing off the justice system. You’re telling us that it’s not your responsibility.” Ada can do it much, much better. Basically, nobody walks away from one of those conversations without weeping with tears of guilt. So, some months later, Ada gets a call from Justice Guy, who says, “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. The bad news is I couldn’t get them to do it by court rule. The good news is, I got all nine justices to sign off on a two year provisional Access to Justice Board order. You’re not going to get a lot of money to run it, but here it is.”

James Bamberger:
Ironically, the ATJ Board order was signed just as the 104th Congress was coming into power, just after the Gingrich revolution took hold. Some of the partisan attacks on LSC and LSC funded programs at the national and at the state level were taking hold. The Board’s first order of business we suggested as the three program directors, was A, to define who the ATJ Board is, i.e. what do you stand for, what are your core values? Then, B, we’ve got to have a plan to deal with what’s coming down the congressional road. You need to work as a committee as a whole to figure out what to do. Oh, by the way, we have some good ideas for you. But ultimately the ATJ Board has to get its chops and really take responsibility for protecting the system.

James Bamberger:
So, they did. They adopted a set of hallmarks of an effective equal justice delivery system, which have since been overwritten twice. But they really defined very clearly that in the State of Washington there’s equity of access to the justice system. So in the justice system, nobody gets written out because of who they are, because of what their legal presenting legal problems are, because of what tools they may need in order to solve those problems or best address those problems, or other considerations.

Alan Houseman:
So, what do you think has been accomplished in the State of Washington through the Access to Justice Board?

James Bamberger:
Wow, there’s so much. There’s so much. First and foremost, we have protected the integrity of our civil legal aid system. We never wrote off because of funding limitation our ability to provide representation to anybody. We still have a robust program that does a wide array of policy advocacy at the state and the local level, that does class action work on behalf of so many different populations who otherwise would not have legal voice. The program still does amazing work with correctional institutions, juvenile correctional institutions, and other institutions that most states cannot do, because of the LSC restrictions. I’m very proud of that. The succession of state plans that have evolved through have created common expectations amongst all of the providers.

James Bamberger:
In Washington State we have a unique situation. We have two large programs. Columbia Legal Services is the statewide, now fully-unrestricted program. Northwest Justice Project is the largest of the legal aid programs, and staffs so many of the core delivery functions and infrastructure. We’ve got a standalone statewide immigrant rights program, the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project.

James Bamberger:
Then we have 17 standalone volunteer attorney programs, organized at the local bar level, unlike so many of the programs where the pro bono function continues to be embedded in the LSC grantee. We never went with that model. So we have all of these local volunteer attorney programs. Some are big like the King County Bar Association, which is much like any of the other large urban bar associations where they have staff attorneys as well as a lot of pro bono attorneys. Some are these tiny little programs in Wallawalla, Washington, and Louis County, and Chehalis, Washington, where they’re working and getting the private bar to do something, which is quite frankly not going to happen from inside of an LSC funded program. It just isn’t. You’re not going to get that bar involvement that when the bar has this sense of ownership, they’re doing it. So, the point being, that there is a lot of integration, a lot of coordination through these plans, and a lot of strategic direction through these plans, and mutual accountability through these plans.

Alan Houseman:
The ATJ is the one that’s driving the plan?

James Bamberger:
The Access to Justice Board is the entity that drives the plan. Right now we’re in a year and a half long process of revising our last state plan, which was written in 2006, and revised in 2008. It was written in 2006, shortly following the publication of our very first legal needs study in 2003. We are now revising it in light of what we have learned in the 2015 comprehensive civil legal needs study update. So it’s our opportunity to learn from data, and then to apply that learning and bring in the benefits of community based understandings, and figure out what the delivery system look like, how should it operate as we move forward.

James Bamberger:
Another one of the most amazing things the Access to Justice Board has done, and it took a long time, and it took a lot of energy to overcome a lot of institutional opposition, is to create what we call the equal justice community leadership academy. It’s a state-wide, periodic academy that has a year long curriculum. We do four two day retreats. We work with the Shriver Center to do online learning. We train a cohort of geographically, racially, ethnically, and programmatically diverse lawyers. It’s about 28 lawyers and non-lawyers, about 28 people per cohort. We’ve done three cohorts now. The goal is to build a broad and deep base of leaders. When we say leaders we’re not talking about positional leaders. We’re talking about people who lead at the individual level, at the organizational level, at the broader access to justice level, and at the social justice level. We’re very intentional about making sure that people are taught leadership skills and competencies at every one of those levels.

James Bamberger:
Today, we have graduated 86 fellows, and we just had a comprehensive review — thank you Public Welfare Foundation — done by a professor at Tufts University. The return on what we’re learning is just amazing. There’s just so much energy coming out of the academy. Each of the cohorts has achieved its own identity amongst themselves, and the cohorts collectively have achieved an enormous amount of influence. In fact, the most recent example of that is our second and third cohorts have taken this leadership role in creating a statewide race equity justice initiative that’s really focusing on broad challenges to our own structurally racialized systems, to our own biases as legal aid providers, and to the same thing that’s occurring, that driving bad outcomes across the spectrum for those communities of the low income population who are representing racial, and in ethnic minorities, and this is a really exciting initiative. It’s just in the beginning stages, but there’s a ton of powerful energy. So, the Access to Justice Board has over the years just done some absolutely amazing things. It turns over all the time, and it in itself is a vehicle for leadership development and bringing new and different people into the community, and expanding the reach of our community.

Alan Houseman:
Obviously it’s more institutionalized now, so it has the support of the Washington State Supreme Court.

James Bamberger:
Absolutely. The ATJ Board is a permanent fixture. There is an order creating it as a permanent fixture. It reports annually to the court. We have a nine justice court. To its credit, for the first time in the history of our state, all nine justices understand and embrace the work of the Board and the work of the broader, what we call the alliance for equal justice, the broader community of legal aid programs, legal aid funders, legal aid supporters across the state. We are very lucky to have the cohort that I have, I think in part, because of decades of work that we’ve done. But when we need people to kind of make room, the court’s out there, the Chief Justice is out there, the justices are out there, and they are talking about equity, and justice, civil legal aid. They actually demanded to be the entity that controlled the most recent civil legal needs study update process, to which I actually said to the Chief Justice, “That’s totally fine with me. I mean, it’s in my agency statutory charge to do these things, but if the court wants to do that, that’s terrific. Understand that when you do it, you’re going to have to own the results and the consequences of the results.” They are. They are.

Alan Houseman:
So, we talked earlier about the merger of the three programs into one, and the split that create the Northwest Justice Project. I want to ask you, why did that happen in Washington State, as opposed to a lot of other places where it didn’t happen?

James Bamberger:
Well, I can only speak for why it happened in Washington state.

Alan Houseman:
Why did it happen? I’m just trying to say what the reason is, so why did it happen in Washington State?

James Bamberger:
I think we had a unique collection of people in positions of leadership at the time who understood that we were servants to a larger cause. This is not self advertising by any means. We understood at our individual levels, and at our collective levels, that if we were to hold onto the status quo, we would actually be complicit in the systemic writing off of entire populations who needed legal voice and would not have it. So when you understand it at that level, then you understand that there’s a corresponding imperative to change things, to anticipate what was coming, and we did anticipate. We saw there were how many versions … You know this, how many versions of the Legal Services Corporation Reform Act, from 1988 to 1994? I mean, we knew what was coming, and we knew how pernicious it was going to be, and we knew what the impact was going to be now that the House of Representatives had changed.

James Bamberger:
We also knew at the time, because in our state, our state legislature changed. The Senate was Democratic. But for the first time we had a state House of Representatives… In 1994, the speaker, the majority leader, and the caucus leader in the house were all from central Washington, all affiliated with agriculture, all had been fed the national line on legal services versus the farmer, and legal services versus the family. One member of that delegation, I remember this vividly, got on the floor of the house and said, “I ran for and got elected to the House of Representatives to bring Evergreen Legal Services to its knees.” That was the environment. We understood that. At the same time, we knew that there was a time to act.

James Bamberger:
At the time, I was entrusted with leading Spokane Legal Services. My colleague John Purbaugh was entrusted with leading the Puget Sound Legal Assistance Foundation. For us it was a little more difficult because we were seen as the programs that, back in the 70’s, were able to protect themselves from the behemoth that became Evergreen Legal Services. The director of that program, Greg Dallaire, wanted at the time to create a statewide program. So, there was a lot of pressure. How can you be doing this? How can you be giving up authority and influence and our ability to control our legal aid program, and giving it over to Seattle? That was the message, that was the model.

James Bamberger:
My job at the time was to lead my board through a very difficult conversation, and John did the same thing. I had a client board member at the meeting where action was going to be decided. Well, we had walked through all of the pros, all of the cons, and I made a pretty strong impassioned case for giving up the program, and merging into this new thing that we’d call Columbia Legal Services. I had explained why, and we didn’t have a lot of farm workers in our region. We didn’t do a lot with the prisons in our region. So why is this our issue? This is Evergreen’s issue. So, I had this client member who had a developmental disability, but he understood things at the macro level. His name was Ron Helgeson, and he’s no longer with us. But he was a really wonderful man. He said to the rest of the board, “If I understand it correctly, this is what we need to do to protect the ability of poor people to get legal help. We have to do it.” He had this big booming voice. It just turned the conversation at the board meeting and they did it. We went through a very long process. John Purbaugh’s program had the same difficulty and the same challenge, but they did it. We did a long transition period, a two year transition period where the new leadership from Columbia, which Ada became the director of the program, would meet regionally with the now advisory boards, the former boards of the two other programs until such time that we realized that there is trust and confidence here, we’re not just running everything out of Seattle without regard to what’s going on in Eastern Washington, or what’s going on in South Puget Sound region.

James Bamberger:
So, it was challenging, but it was absolutely the right thing to do. When I think about the people who were at the table who were pushing this, Ada Shen-Jaffe, John Purbaugh, John McIntyre, myself, and some of the people affiliated with the access to justice program, one of the heroes of those whole conversations is a fellow by the name of Paul Bastine, I call him the Forrest Gump of legal aid in Washington State. In the State of Washington, there hasn’t been anything that was done related to legal aid that he wasn’t involved in, whether it was the creation of Evergreen Legal Services in 1975. He served on the board of Spokane Legal Services before that. He led the task force in ’75. He was on the first Access to Justice Board. He’s just been everywhere in every situation. If you took a picture, there would be Paul. He became a judge, he still did all this work. He is a hero of mine.

Alan Houseman:
Okay, we’ve got two more things to go and both of them pretty quick. First, is what do you do now? What’s your role now, and what are some of the things that you’re trying to accomplish?

James Bamberger:
Well, by statue, my role is fairly limited. I manage and oversee the state appropriation. I submit budget requests and rationales to the legislature. I report regularly on the status of access to justice for low income people eligible for state legal aid. That’s what the statute says. From my perspective, my job is, within the limitations of my current office, to continue to be a servant leader to the movement, and to work in any way that I can, to move the resource base to ensure accountability. Even though our funding is restricted, I am very involved in the access to justice process. I’m very involved in making sure that when we have decisions as a community to make, we make them on the basis of the values that we have articulated, and re-articulated over time, and it’s not just about how much money can we get, and how much money can we co mingle with LSC funds. It’s really about staying true to our principles, our values, our goals.

James Bamberger:
Then, most importantly, what I’m doing is building the case and the legislative support for what I call the civil access to justice reinvestment plan. It’s the plan that I’m developing in partnership with the ATJ Board, in partnership with the providers of legal services, and in partnership with a bi-partisan group of legislators to address what we have learned in this most recent 2015 civil legal needs study update. Not only the quote unquote justice gap, but also some of the other important findings, not the least of which is that more than half of the people who actually experience a legal problem have no idea that problem is legal in nature, and don’t ask for legal help. They don’t self diagnose, they don’t self refer, and they don’t get it.

James Bamberger:
So, I’m pulling together this two-biennial plan, where at least as we currently cost it out, we are going to seek $31 million in new dollars biennially, over the course of the next two biennia. We’re going to bring our basic field staffing level up to what I now characterize as minimum access, which is one to five thousand at 125% of the poverty guideline. But basically, build and tell the state, “Your job is to build the infrastructure and maintain a civil legal aid delivery system.” So, that’s the big area of my current work.

Alan Houseman:
Finally, what is your vision for the future of civil legal aid? You talked obviously, putting pieces together from what we’ve talked about, but just lay it out there.

James Bamberger:
Well it’s interesting, because the more I’ve thought about this, the more I actually realize that some of my heroes — Professor Jerry Lopez at UCLA Law School, the folks who ran the Reggie program, the folks who built the OEO program — understood that legal aid, to be effective, needs to be deeply connected to the communities that it serves. In this day and age, civil legal aid needs to be deeply, deeply connected to communities of color, and to undertake very intentionally, efforts in solidarity with, and in partnership with a much broader community of organizations then we have most recently found ourselves working with, with a lot of exceptions, to identify and remove the systems and reform the systems, the structurally racialized systems that drive the level of disproportionate outcomes across the board. You’re a Michigan guy, so you’ll get this.

James Bamberger:
I go back, and I think about what happened? Why did we end up here? I end up thinking about two Supreme Court cases, there have been many, but two Supreme Court cases that I believe really served as the keystone to a social and economic system that continues to perpetuate structural racialization, and structural racialized systems. It’s the Milliken decisions, the Detroit educational busing cases. The court basically granted a green light in those cases for people to discriminate with their feet and have no accountability for it. It drives wealth differentials. It drives law enforcement differentials. It drives all of the other things that fall from that. My sense of legal aid is that we need to on the one hand reconnect with the roots of the movement, the things that you guys really understood, and the communities that we serve, and we need to bear witness to, and bring down the systems and structures that really operate to disproportionately affect people who have no voice, and who are now in the current dialogue, who are now even targets of very, very unfortunate and hateful dialogue.

James Bamberger:
So, that’s my vision. I really want to see us grow, I want us to serve more clients, I want us to be much more authentically engaged as I said earlier, in and with the communities that we serve. We’ve got to move out of the “come to our shop” law firm model of legal aid delivery. Now, whether we can get the political world to support that kind of a change, whether we can get legal aid lawyers, and legal aid programs to support that kind of a change, I don’t know. But I do think that we in many places, have allowed the sources of funding that we receive and that my agency provides, to compromise our core mission, our core sense of purpose, and our core values in ways in which the worst characterization is that we might just describe ourselves as yet another cog in the non-profit industrial complex. That troubles me. So, that’s my vision.

Alan Houseman:
Okay, well thank you. This has been terrific. Unless there’s something you need to add, which is fine –

James Bamberger:
No, I think I’ve talked out.

Alan Houseman:
Okay, and it’s been great. This has been wonderful, so thank you very much.

James Bamberger:
Thank you.


END