Joseph Oelkers oral history, 1992

Worked for Acadiana Legal Services. Previously in civil division of Louisiana Department of Justice, and in private practice.

Oral history details

Storyteller: Joseph Oelkers
Interviewer: Leonhard, Brian
Date of interview: Jul 28, 1992
Where relates to: Louisiana
Topics: Civil legal aid: General
Law type: Civil
Collection: NEJL
Georgetown Law Library link (possible video): http://hdl.handle.net/10822/711918
Length: 1:14:41

Full text of transcript

Download PDF: Transcript

Georgetown University Law Center
National Equal Justice Library
Oral History Collection
Interview with: Joseph Oelkers
Conducted by: Brian Leonard
Interview date: July 28, 1992

BRIAN LEONARD: — the interview of Joe Oelkers, director of Acadiana Legal Services, headquartered in Lafayette, Louisiana. Today’s date is July 28, 1992. And the interview is being conducted at the Don CeSar in St. Petersburg, Florida. I’m Brian Leonard, the director of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, and I will be conducting the interview. The topic of the interview will be the history and development of legal services in Louisiana. How are you doing, Joe?

JOSEPH OELKERS: All right, Brian.

LEONARD: Good. Why don’t you start off and tell us a little bit about your background.

OELKERS: Okay. I’m from New Orleans, but I’ve spent most of my life in Lafayette. I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette. I went to LSU Law School. And I’ve been involved in legal services since 1978.

LEONARD: Mm-hmm. When did you graduate from law school?

OELKERS: 1975.

LEONARD: Okay. So what did you do between law school and Legal Services?

OELKERS: Well, while I was in law school, to back up a little bit, I worked with the legislative council for a couple years. And that was really my first practical experience in the law. I was involved in drafting legislation for the Louisiana state legislature on a year-round basis. Then after graduation from law school, I accepted a job as a law clerk with the 27th Judicial District. That’s in St. Landry Parish. For reference, for whoever’s viewing this, we don’t have counties in Louisiana. We have parishes. And I — I was a law clerk in the 27th Judicial District in St. Landry Parish for a year. After that, I went to work for the Louisiana Department of Justice in the attorney general’s civil division. I handled defense work, suits against the state. And then I left that position in Baton Rouge to go into private practice in Lafayette, my home, and my — my primary focus during my practice was to serve as the student government association lawyer at USL. It was a free advice office, legal advice office, at the university, for students. And I did that until I joined Acadiana Legal Services in 1978.

LEONARD: So when did you first hear of legal services? When you were at USL?

OELKERS: I might have heard about legal aid for the poor as far back as high school, when I was involved in debate activities. I think that’s probably when I first heard about it.

LEONARD: And when you first heard of Acadiana Legal Services, what did you expect? What did you think the program was all about?

OELKERS: Well, it was — it was a new program when I heard about it. I found out — I was contacted by a friend and a lawyer in the St. Landry Parish area who had — had joined the first board of directors. Let me know about the availability of the position. And I’d always been interested in legal aid to the poor, but I really didn’t know much about it at all, about where the funding came from, how it was organized, any sense of history about — about the movement in the United States. But it intrigued me, and after a short period of deliberation, I went ahead and submitted an application and was hired as the first project director for Acadiana.

LEONARD: What were your first impressions, starting to work for Legal Services?

OELKERS: Well, I was — initially, I was surprised at how much local control there was. When I — when I initially heard about the availability of the position and the funding from the Legal Services Corporation in Washington, I jumped to the erroneous conclusion that it was part of the federal government somehow. And I was surprised and impressed by the degree of local control that the board of directors had and by the size of the grant. It was a huge undertaking. I hadn’t been out of law school that long, so I guess I was surprised at the — the enormity of the task in front of us who were involved with Acadiana at that early stage.

LEONARD: We’ll be talking more later about the early years of your program and some of the other programs, but I think that first of all, for anyone who may be viewing this, it may be good to talk a little bit about Louisiana and poor people because it seems to have a slightly unique history.

OELKERS: Right. Louisiana, of course, is a Deep South state, and we share many characteristics in common with our states in the South. And in other ways, we are unique, as you said. The state of Louisiana, first of all, looking at it politically, has — has been — has been linked to populism in a very strong sense, going back to the days of Huey Long, who was a political leader in Louisiana in the ’20s and the ’30s and gained national prominence as a member of the United States Senate and was of course pursuing the — the Presidency at the time he was assassinated in the ’30s.He was the first modern populist, I guess you’d call him, in the — in the history of the state. He used a theme song that he wrote with the band leader at LSU called “Every Man a King.” And his message was that we can share the wealth. And that catapulted him into the governor’s mansion and national prominence. We seem in the state of Louisiana to have gone through a cycle in our politics of electing a populist-type governor and then after two or three terms of that type of government, reaching out for a reform leader, who usually only captures the attention of the electorate in Louisiana for about one term, and then we go back to populism. And so it’s a cyclical thing. After Huey, we had — we had his — his brother Earl. And he was another populist. We had Jimmy Davis, who I’m not sure where he fits. He had characteristics of both reform and populism. By the way, he was a songwriter too. He wrote what is now the state song, “You Are My Sunshine,” and is in the Country Music Hall of Fame. And we’ve had reform governors since then and other populist governors. The latest being our current governor, who I believe is serving his fourth term, Edwin Edwards, and he falls into the populist category. The state, I think, is intrigued by populism because it is so poor. It is among the poorest states in the union, as you know. The 1990 census indicated to us that we haven’t really made a lot of progress. In fact, there’s been some deterioration after some boom years that’s linked to the oil and gas industry. And of course, mining — mining industries are the same wherever you find them, whether it be gold, silver, other mineral wealth like oil and gas that we have in Louisiana. They’re boom and bust cycles. And the people in Louisiana were able to make a lot of money working in the oil fields with very little education, but when we’re on a down cycle like we are now, that lack of education leaves them in the lurch and makes it very difficult for people to get by.

LEONARD: And hasn’t the result of that poverty meant that Louisiana in many of the indicators of quality of life such as education, healthcare, infant mortality, that we rank at the bottom or near the very bottom?

OELKERS: Right. Right. The one statistic that impressed me that came out of the ’90 census figures that were recently disclosed was that Louisiana had the largest percentage increase since 1980 in the poverty population. What was already a huge percentage of the population living in 1980 expanded by a full 5 percent in the 1990 census. I think we have the highest per capita rating on citizens with disabilities. And yet, as you pointed out to me recently, we don’t qualify for disability benefits very competitively. We’re among the lowest in that category. Illiteracy is high. The disparity between the higher income median income and the lower median income is the greatest disparity between the high and the low in the United States. So a lot of people are in desperate economic situations in the state of Louisiana.

LEONARD: Okay. Thank you. Let’s refocus our attention now on Legal Services. Four of our programs this year are celebrating their 25th anniversary: the program in Shreveport, the one in New Orleans, the one in Lake Charles and the one in Baton Rouge. So if you go back 25 years to the year 1967, what can you tell us about that time period?

OELKERS: Well, I guess the largest program in the state is a natural place to start, and that’s the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation. Now, there was a legal aid operation that predates even 1967 in New Orleans, and that’s called the New Orleans Legal Aid Bureau. They were founded, I believe, in the late ’30s, but never were the recipient of OEO funds because they resisted client participation on their board. So the Office of Economic Opportunity funded the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation in 1967.

LEONARD: Do you have any idea who some of the early people were incorporating?

OELKERS: Well, that’s one very interesting thing about NOLAC, as we call the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation. The people who formed the corporation later reached levels of prominence in the legal community and in politics in the New Orleans area and in the state.

LEONARD: What are some of the examples?

OELKERS: Well, Ernest Dutch Morial is one. Dutch Morial was one of the original incorporators of NOLAC. He was, I believe, the first black LSU law school graduate. He was the first black elected judge in the state of Louisiana. And he was first black mayor of New Orleans. I’ve jotted down some other names. Revius Ortique was one of the incorporators. He later became a judge in New Orleans. He was also a two-term board member of the Legal Services Corporation.

LEONARD: The national board?

OELKERS: The national board. Right. And also serves to this day on the board of directors of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. I think he was president of the NLADA for one term. Judge James Gulotta, who later went on to become a judge on the Court of Appeal, was one of the original incorporators. Marcel Garsaud who later became dean of the law school at Loyola and is now president of the Louisiana Bar Foundation, which is the entity which administers the IOLTA program in Louisiana, was an incorporator. Jack Nelson, who recently retired after a distinguished civil rights career as director of the law clinic at Loyola Law School was in that number, as was AJ Wechter, who is a senior partner with Jones Walker, which is the largest law firm in the state of Louisiana.

LEONARD: Well, with those kind of credentials among the incorporators, I would think that NOLAC would have been quickly accepted in the legal community. Was that true?

OELKERS: If — if what you mean is that they were accepted for a lot of political potshots, monolayer — I don’t know how this fits in with the history of the development of Legal Services programs across the country, but when NOLAC was formed and received its OEO funding back in ’67, their focus was criminal defense rather than the delivery of civil legal services, which is, of course, the name of the game now. In fact, the majority of the paralegal staff at NOLAC today were with the program in the late ’60s, and their roles as paralegals at that time were to be criminal investigators for the defense work that was going on in the firm. A celebrated case that NOLAC was involved in in the late ’60s was their representation of several members of the Black Panthers. The reason it became celebrated is a couple of the NOLAC attorneys were counseling their clients in anticipation of a trial one night at the Desire Housing Project in New Orleans. At the time, there was a police raid of the apartment in the project. The fact that they were in the apartment with the members of the Black Panthers, their clients, became public knowledge. And it was picked up by then-Vice President Agnew. I believe I said this was in the ’60s. Obviously it was in the early ’70s when this happened. In any event, Vice President Agnew, who was at the time looking for issues like this, took on the Legal Services component of the Office of Economic Opportunity and started taking potshots not only at NOLAC’s activities but the activities of Legal Services lawyers all across the country, and was moving the Nixon administration in the direction of defunding legal services through OEO. And at that time, Judge Ortique, along with Carl Shoemaker, who was a white civil rights lawyer, intervened. He took a trip up to Washington and had a meeting with Vice President Agnew, I think involved members of the Louisiana Congressional delegation, and essentially defused what was becoming a politically explosive situation that could have led to the demise of federally funded legal services through OEO.

LEONARD: Well, wasn’t one of the results of all this controversy that NOLAC for a period of time didn’t receive any funding?

OELKERS: Right. While this thing was simmering at the national level, the officials at the Office of Economic Opportunity were prevailed upon to suspend funding to NOLAC, and I think to the credit of the program and the people who worked there, this did not deter them. They kept working, and there was a period of some six to eight weeks where the staff operated without salaries because the grants were terminated. It also led to the provision in the LSC act and regs some years later that essentially prohibits the use of LSC funds for criminal representation.

LEONARD: Can you think of any other significant litigation that NOLAC was bringing at that time?

OELKERS: Well, there were two cases I’d like to mention. And they’re — I think they’re significant cases not only in Louisiana but on the national scene as well. During those early days, a number of the staff members were graduates of Ivy League law schools, and they were very dedicated to social change. Some of the impact litigation on the civil side they were involved in was very significant. One case was called Hamilton vs. Schiro. It was filed in 1969, and it’s still being litigated to this day. It was — it was significant for a number of reasons. It was the first or the third prison lawsuit over prison conditions filed in the United States.

LEONARD: Who was it filed against?

OELKERS: It was against the mayor of the City of New Orleans, Vic Schiro, over conditions at the city prison. And as a result of that litigation, a decision was issued — as I said, it’s still being litigated — but the early decision-making processes led to the federal courts backing away from their original and longstanding policy of saying hands-off when it came to prison conditions. They were not involving themselves in prison condition suits. And this litigation led to a rejection of that doctrine. It limited the prison population. It ordered sweeping reforms in the operations of the prison. And the reason it’s still ongoing today is because there’s further attention being given by NOLAC attorneys to the medical care and the quality of medical care in the prison. So it had implications beyond the boundaries of New Orleans. Another important case that many advocates in the Legal Services community can point to as among the most significant lawsuits ever filed by a Legal Services program was a lawsuit called Cooke v. Ochsner, which was filed by NOLAC attorneys, co-counseled with CLASP, the Center for Law and Social Policy. And this was a lawsuit against the hospitals in — in the New Orleans area.

LEONARD: About how many? Do you know? Close to a dozen?

OELKERS: Yeah. I was going to say over ten hospitals were affected. And it led to decisions that affected the way Hill-Burton requirements were later enforced. For example, it’s the first time — it was the first time that indigent patients were recognized as having the right to sue to enforce the Hill-Burton requirements. It led to a national regulation that required hospitals to provide free care. And it established that the Hill- Burton community service requirement mandated hospitals to accept Medicaid, which hadn’t been established before, these things that we kind of take for granted now because we’ve relied on Cooke v. Ochsner for these foundation principles. It also led to the enforcement by Health, Education and Welfare of Title VI, which said that it was the duty of hospitals to take affirmative action to correct the vestiges of past discrimination on patient admission. And the reason it’s so significant is because it’s been used by Legal Services programs across the country, and it’s meant multi-millions of dollars spent on healthcare for poor people throughout the country.

LEONARD: Is there anything else in the history of NOLAC that you think is important to mention?

OELKERS: Well, I think a recurring theme as we were preparing for this interview was the change in relationship between Legal Services programs and the local bar associations, that they —

LEONARD: Tell us about that.

OELKERS: — they work with or against. The New Orleans Bar Association was an invitation- only bar association for many years. It no longer is. But back when NOLAC was starting, none of the NOLAC attorneys were invited to participate. It was also notorious because it was a segregated whites-only bar association for many years. But invitations were never issued to NOLAC attorneys to join the New Orleans Bar Association. Contrast that with what’s going on today. The New Orleans Bar Association is a major supporter. They assist in fundraising activities. They provide discounted community legal education events for NOLAC attorneys. They provide a discounted dues schedule for NOLAC attorneys. They help in joint clinics to actually deliver legal services. And they’re also integrally involved in the pro bono program in the New Orleans area. So that’s something that is significant, and that has changed. The program grew in the ’70s with Legal Services’ expansion to include the parishes of Jefferson, Plaquemines and St. Bernard. In 1981, they expanded to another parish, St. Charles. By the mid-’70s, they had doubled their staff to over 31 lawyers. And of course with the retrenchment of the ’80s, there was some reduction, but they still maintain a staff of lawyers of over 20.

LEONARD: Now, there are three other programs that got their start in 1967: Shreveport, Baton Rouge and Lake Charles. What can you tell us about their early beginnings?

OELKERS: Well, Shreveport, as I understand it, started out as a project of the bar associations. Caddo- Bossier Legal Aid, I think it was called, when they received OEO funding. Two of the incorporators are now members of the judiciary: Judge Henry Politz, who sits on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and Justice John Dixon, who has recently retired as the chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, were incorporators of that program. They had an all-volunteer staff of local lawyers delivering services to the poor. And then they went on to become Northwest Louisiana Legal Services, which is headed by Leon Emanuel now. The program has always had a strong emphasis on community legal education. They founded what we call now Community Legal Education Month in Louisiana. It, at one time, had been Community Legal Education Week. At one event within the last couple years, I understand they had over 3,000 clients at a CLE event in Shreveport. So that’s a little bit about that organization.

LEONARD: Well, thinking back to what New Orleans’ situation was, where they had the legal aid bureau, and the legal aid bureau was opposed to client involvement, do you have any idea how that worked out in Shreveport?

OELKERS: I understand that they always had client members of the board of directors, going back to the original days. They’ve probably had among the oldest client council organizations. And I think that perhaps this is the reason why there’s been such a strong emphasis on community legal education in that program.

LEONARD: Okay. What about Baton Rouge?

OELKERS: Well, Baton Rouge, the program there now is called Capital Area Legal Services. It’s a grantee of the Legal Services Corporation since 1978, but prior to that time, going back all the way to 1954, there was the Baton Rouge Legal Aid Society, which received OEO funding in the ’60s.And that program obviously has a rich history. As I said, it’s headed by Jim Wayne. Some of the individuals who have been involved in running that program have been Gwen Crockett, Colonel Bushey, Ed Dixon, Sylvia Taylor, Murphy Bell, Etta Kay Hearn. And they’re doing some interesting things now. Of course, Capital Area is headquartered in Baton Rouge, the state capital, and they’ve been involved in the last couple years especially in some important legislative and administrative advocacy activities that have effectuated change; one of the most interesting being some administrative advocacy with the Louisiana Public Service Commission, which has led to a reexamination of the way poor people are treated by utility companies. There’s been some movement by the Public Service Commission to encourage utility companies to end late fees for poor people, to be flexible when it comes to the due date so that poor people can pick their due dates according to when they receive their public benefits checks, so that they can pay them on time, and other breaks that — that they might be able to get. And that’s going to be applied in a statewide way, as I understand it. So Capital Area is really at the forefront of some of those activities now. They grew from a seven-parish program when they were funded by the Legal Services Corporation in ’78 to 12 parishes today. And Jim was also involved in the expansion of legal services into some rural areas that I guess we’ll get to a little later.

LEONARD: Okay. How about Lake Charles?

OELKERS: Lake Charles was also OEO-funded. Southwest Louisiana Legal Aid Society, I think was their original name. Now they’re called the Southwest Louisiana Legal Services Society Incorporated. They’ve retained the old name of “society” in their — in their modern title. And as I understand it, they were funded by OEO and of course have now become a Legal Services program. They’re very much involved with social security disability advocacy. They’re led by Lonnie Smith, who originally joined the program in 1981 as a staff attorney and is now the project director. Names of some of the individuals who have been involved in that program: Elsie Whitman, Fred Selby, Steve Benyard, David Chretien, Mark Holden, Bobby Ross. Preceded Lonnie when he took over in 1987.They have suffered significantly in the retrenchment by having to close branch offices. They had to close three of the branch offices in the service area during the retrenchment of the ’80s.

LEONARD: Now, wasn’t there one other program in the ’60s that isn’t with us today? What can you tell us about that?

OELKERS: I’m not sure which one you’re talking about. You’re talking —

LEONARD: Alexandria.

OELKERS: Oh, yeah. Well, we still have the Alexandria Legal Services program, but it really cannot trace its roots to the OEO program, which as I understand it, was funded for about nine months of one year, 1967, in Alexandria. It was viewed by local community leaders and politicians as a group of outside agitators. That’s not unusual in the development of Legal Services in the ’60s and ’70s in Louisiana. But what was unusual was the fact that these politicians and community leaders bent the ear of the governor at the time, who in turn had a contact in Washington and was successful in getting that program defunded after only nine months of operation. So you really cannot trace the history of Central Louisiana Legal Services, the current LSC provider, back to those days.

LEONARD: Okay. And after nine months, it shut down; is that right?

OELKERS: That was it. Right.

LEONARD: Okay. Okay. So we have the original four programs. And then sometime in the intervening 10 years, two more programs were started: Bayou Lafourche, which you started to tell me about a minute ago.

OELKERS: Yeah.

LEONARD: And the Monroe program. What do you know about the early days of Bayou Lafourche?

OELKERS: Not a whole lot. I do know that — that it was part of the development of grants from the Legal Services Corporation to Legal — new Legal Services programs in rural parishes in Louisiana. Up to that point, most of the action had been built around urban centers, as we’ve just talked about. They had their roots in OEO programs in Alexandria or Shreveport or New Orleans or Lake Charles. Jim Lane, who currently is with Capital Area Legal Services, was successful in getting funding for Bayou Lafourche. And as I understand it, there was resistance on the part of Legal Services Corporation people at that time to start funding rural parishes. They wanted to focus on the development of the programs that had already been funded with LSC money in the urban areas. Jim says he contacted Senator J. Bennett Johnston, who is now the senior senator in Louisiana, who contacted then-Vice President Mondale in 1976 or ’77. And the money started flowing, not only to Bayou Lafourche, but to other basically rural-based programs; the one I’m associated with in Lafayette, programs —

LEONARD: The Monroe program —

OELKERS: The Monroe program.

LEONARD: — would be in that same time.

OELKERS: Right. Jim worked with people like Galen Brown, who was an early director of NOLAC, in moving around the state and getting grant applications put together. For example, he worked with Larry Rochon, who’s the board chair of Acadiana Legal Services. And the contacts that he established to develop the grant application process was basically through the community action network. Larry was director of the community action program in Lafayette. Ed Dixon in Natchitoches was involved with community action. And that was the network that was utilized to begin filing grant applications with LSC, not within the community action programs, but alongside them.

LEONARD: I met — I know that that’s how the Monroe program started as well.

OELKERS: Yeah. The program in Monroe, which is North Louisiana Legal Assistance, did start that way, and it’s presently — it’s presently led by AJ Jones. Dick Bailey is a former leader up there. And the original — one of the original directors, if not the original, was Lila Tritico Hogan, who was one of your predecessors at Southeast Louisiana —

LEONARD: Yes.

OELKERS: — Legal Services.

LEONARD: Yeah.

OELKERS: And if I can find my notes on Monroe, we’ll talk a little more about that organization, if you want to.

LEONARD: Well, let’s go on to Acadiana Legal Services.

OELKERS: Okay.

LEONARD: Because that was the next program to start up. And I know that you’re intimately familiar with Acadiana. So I wanted to talk to you a little bit about that. You were the first and only director of Acadiana.

OELKERS: So far.

LEONARD: So you can tell us about those first days.

OELKERS: Right.

LEONARD: How did you go about setting up a Legal Services program?

OELKERS: Well, let me back up a little bit. I mean, we’ve already said that Larry Rochon, who was a community director, met with Jim Wayne and other interested attorneys in the area, most of whom were black attorneys, who were interested in seeing a Legal Services program established. They submitted the grant application, which was funded in ’77.Because of a couple of false starts, the first director, myself, was not hired until 1978. And one of the first things that I did was traveled to Atlanta to meet with officials of the Atlanta regional office of the Legal Services Corporation. Cliff Jackson, who is the administrative director at Acadiana, was also hired in ’78, and myself traveled to Atlanta. We met with Clint Lyons and Bucky Askew, who — Bucky, I believe, was the regional director at the time, and Clint was deputy director. We met with Guy Lescault, who was a staff attorney at the Atlanta regional office. And they oriented us to the Legal Services Corporation Act, the regulations, how programs developed. One very sage piece of advice that they gave me and which I tried to implement as we developed the program is they urged that we be very deliberate in how we organized the program. And as I prepared a timeline for presentation to my board of directions, which was very supportive about the organization of the program and being deliberate about it, I tried to incorporate that into the timeline planning. So for the balance of 1978, for about six months, we staffed up. And there were problems in that, that we overcame. And by January 1 of ’79, we opened our first office in Lafayette on West Third Street.

LEONARD: You mentioned there were problems that you overcame. You mean problems with not opening up immediately or what?

OELKERS: Right. There was a lot of money that had —

LEONARD: Yes.

OELKERS: — that had come through the pipeline both in 1977 and ’78.And I think it’s to the credit of the regional office that instead of telling us hurry up and spend the money, their message was be deliberate about what you’re doing because some of the most important decisions you’ll make in the history of the program will be made in the first six months: what your organizational structure looks like, what your policies of organizational systems will be, who you hire to do the actual work. And that, as I said, was to their credit, but there was a definite pull on the program, which had been announced in the community, to start delivering services. And I tried to hold the line, to not accept cases, even as we were developing the staff, until we were ready, and I think that served the program well, although looking back on it now, I don’t think you could say we exactly hit the ground running.

LEONARD: Mm-hmm. What about the demand for your services? I’m sure the community thought that there were no poor people who were missing out on lawyers — or at least the legal community.

OELKERS: Well, the legal community.

LEONARD: Yes.

OELKERS: Right. We were — we were not exactly welcomed with open arms. And as I said before, this is not atypical in the development of Legal Services programs in Louisiana in the late ’70s.I asked to make presentations at local bar association meetings, which I was allowed to do and then roundly denounced as being — being an outside influence that was not requested nor needed in the area. The position of the local bar associations is we take care of our poor people. We do pro bono work, although I’m not sure that term was as in vogue as it is today, and I’m not sure it was used back then in the late ’70s. But that was the message. Get out of town. We don’t need you. We don’t need another federal welfare program complicating things. We can handle our own problem. So that was very disconcerting to me and to the staff. And I think it led to a wall between the private bar and the Legal Services staff that has since gone the way of history and it has been broken down, but it didn’t make starting the program any easier, to have to deal with that kind of an attitude. Of course, we were welcomed, I think, by people in the client community, not with open arms because they didn’t know us, but they weren’t actively resisting us either.

LEONARD: And was there a lot of demand for your services once you —

OELKERS: Sure.

LEONARD: — opened the doors?

OELKERS: Yeah. I — there was plenty of demand. And we were all very green. None of us had a wealth of legal experience when we started. We didn’t have a good grip on the case priority process. We accepted just about everything that came through the door that was civil. We did not have a good lawyering concept of deciding which cases had legal merit and therefore should be accepted and which didn’t have legal merit and probably should be rejected. I can remember accepting cases that we would realize, after being involved in them for a few months, that there was no legal merit and we had bought time and little else for the client who was pursuing a claim or defending an action. So we had to mature as lawyers and as a law firm, which I think we’ve done now, but the demand was always there. And of course, as my board chair, Larry Rochon, is often heard saying, we’re sometimes victims of our own success. Once we did mature as a law firm and start winning cases, there was even greater demand. And it’s difficult to keep up, especially after the ’80s cutbacks. But there was good work done in the program. And I’ll just say a few things about that, and we can talk about some other programs in the state. When we first started, we had a vice president of the board of directors who was a real leader, Dicky Haik, who within the last couple of years has become a federal judge in Lafayette. Our first senior attorney in charge of litigation was Henry Cliff Rem, who handled a number of major lawsuits for us. He filed a lawsuit against the State of Louisiana that resulted in the state distributing free eyeglasses to all qualified individuals who applied for them. Prior to that time, the state was giving eyeglasses under the Medicaid program to only cataract patients. And of course, that was unlawful. Cliff recognized that, filed a class action suit, and tens of thousands of free eyeglasses under the Medicaid program were made available to poor citizens of Louisiana. Of course those were also the days where the prisons were in terrible condition. And since NOLAC had kind of opened the door to prison condition litigation, we did file several lawsuits against parish governments concerning the conditions of their prisons.

LEONARD: How successful do you think those were?

OELKERS: Very successful. There have been at least four new prisons built in our eight-parish service area since we started litigating. They’re first-class facilities. They have good medical care. They have law libraries. They have exercise facilities. They’re still jails, but they’re operated in a much more humane way than had been the case before we started litigating those cases. Cliff Rem, by the way, is now an administrative law judge with the Office of Hearing Appeals with the Social Security Administration. And that’s, I think, a sign of the maturation of the program and the people who worked with it. Another key player who I want to mention is Cliff Jackson, who was the administrative director for the program. Cliff helped greatly in the development of the program by taking a lot of the financial hassles off of my desk and dealing with them from the perspective of a financial administrator and freed my time up to focus on community involvement and case systems, case management and other more lawyerlike tasks that I would not have been able to pay as much attention to, had he not been there. And Cliff has played a role as president of the Louisiana Administrators Association. He served on the ad hoc committee which led to the formation of the Southeast Administrators Association, who we meet with jointly each year in St. Pete, and has been a key player at Acadiana Legal Services and is still with us to this day. Recently, we’ve kept up a high standard of litigation. Becky Kirk, who runs our family law unit, in addition to maintaining a high level of advocacy in the family law area, especially on children’s issues, has started an AIDS project within the program, where we handle cases of legal concerns to people who are HIV- infected.

LEONARD: In fact, she received an award from the state bar association —

OELKERS: Right.

LEONARD: — for doing work above and beyond her Legal Services work.

OELKERS: Right. The work that she did outside of our office, she did receive a pro bono award two years ago, I believe it was, from the state bar association for that work. She also was essential in starting a AIDS panel with our local pro bono project, Lafayette Volunteer Lawyers. Another senior attorney with our program, Greg Landry, has been very focused on housing issues and has filed a number of class action suits contesting the procedures for grievance hearings and evictions in federally subsidized housing projectionist. Thompson, a senior attorney with our program, focuses on social security disability law. Recently signed a consent agreement or is about to sign a consent agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office on a class action suit entitled Turner versus Secretary of HHS, in which we applied the Zebley principles on childhood disability to widows and widowers who apply for disability benefits in Louisiana. We’ve also been fortunate to receive the grant for the statewide farmworkers program, farmworkers legal assistance project. And some fine lawyers have been involved in that. It’s currently headed by Knowlton Senegal. The first director was Sidney Watson, and Stanley Halpin was also associated with that program for a good time. One of the interesting things that happened as far as the Reagan years in Legal Services was we had accumulated a fund balance and budgeted it for a building. And just as we were about to expend the money on the building, Reagan’s people in the Legal Services Corporation said not only stop the building project, but give the money back, which at that time amounted to almost $800,000.So we had to get into some — a litigation stance with our funding source and were successful because of prior approvals we had received from the Legal Services Corporation during friendlier days. And we now have a 15,000-square-foot office building in Lafayette that is completely debt-free and I think serves the program well and also serves the client community well because we don’t have to spend as much money as we would have in buying space. As part of that building project, we dedicated our law library to Judge Ortique, who I mentioned earlier. And we now house the Judge Revius Ortique Law Library in our office at Acadiana.

LEONARD: Great. Well, you-all’s is not the newest program. After you-all opened, there were several others to come along: Southeast, Kisatchie, Tri-Parish and Central. Why don’t you spend a little bit of time telling us about their —

OELKERS: Well, let’s start with Tri-Parish. Concordia, Catahoula, and I forget the third parish there up in the top of the foot in the boot of Louisiana, was defunded some years ago and is now served by Southwest Louisiana Legal Services, the project in Lake Charles.

LEONARD: Tri-Parish was a Judicare program, wasn’t it?

OELKERS: Yeah. It was exclusively Judicare. The only attorney that they had on staff was the director, as I recall it. And its demise was several years ago.

LEONARD: Mm-hmm.

OELKERS: But as you said, there are other programs. Central Louisiana Legal Services, now headed by Harold Murray, which does not have a direct link to the OEO program because it was so short-lived, is the provider there. There are discussions under way now to merge that service area of Rapides, Avoyelles and Vernon Parishes into Acadiana Legal Services service area. But they’ve done good work in the last several years in building support for battered women’s advocacy, in improving bar relations and starting a pro bono project. It’s — the program’s really come a long way. And I’m looking forward from the perspective of Acadiana of being involved with Harold in the delivery of legal services in those three parishes.

LEONARD: What about Southeast and Kisatchie? What do you know about that?

OELKERS: I don’t know anything about Southeast, Brian.

LEONARD: Oh, really?

OELKERS: Actually — actually, that’s your program.

LEONARD: Yes.

OELKERS: And of course you’d be in a much better position to be in this seat talking about Southeast, but I can tell you a little —

LEONARD: Okay.

OELKERS: — a little bit about it from my perspective. The program director is Brian Leonard. And Brian Leonard, you’ve been with the program — I feel like Ralph Edwards on This Is Your Life. You’ve been with the program since 1980 —

LEONARD: Yes.

OELKERS: — as a staff attorney. And the program was funded in 1979 for three parishes. It received expansion funding in ’80 to go up to five parishes. Right?

LEONARD: Yes.

OELKERS: The first program director there — and I think this is a unique story in the development of Legal Services in Louisiana — was Lila Tritico Hogan, who I mentioned when we were talking about the Monroe program. She also started the program in Monroe, okay. And as you have told me and as Lila has never told me because she doesn’t blow her own horn too much, she was able, because of her experience in Monroe in meeting the resistance of the bar and the judiciary, to avoid a lot of those pitfalls as she built the organization that’s now known as Southeast Louisiana Legal Services.

LEONARD: In fact, she required the staff to not only live in the service area but actively participate in the community and the bar association.

OELKERS: Right, right. I understand that she had a — somewhat of a tightrope to walk as concerns the judiciary, though, because soon after being named the director of the program in Hammond, a local district judge appointed her to represent a client in a juvenile case. And this was of concern to her, as I think it is a concern especially to new project directors, because it might have set the standard that the program’s caseload would have been controlled by the judiciary rather than by the law firm itself. And I’m sure it was a difficult decision for her to make because she was trying to cultivate the judiciary as an ally, but at the same time, she didn’t want to do that at the expense of letting the judiciary run the program. So when she was appointed in the juvenile case, as I understand it, she appealed the right or the power of the judge to appoint her to the case. Needless to say, this did not endear her to the judge, but she did prevail in the court of appeals. And the court of appeals ruled that the judge did not have the power to appoint her to the case, so she made her point. She set her precedent. The judiciary was put on notice that while the program wanted to work closely with the judiciary, that the program had to be independent and make its own case acceptance decisions. And interestingly, she turned around and represented the client anyway after it was clear that the program did not have to accept the appointment, but she went ahead and represented the client’s interest, and I understand that the judge is now a friend and ally of the program.

LEONARD: Absolutely. Absolutely.

OELKERS: Yeah. I understand that by going around those pitfalls, that Lila built a strong foundation for your program. I do know that she brought suit against a local council on aging through the program staff in Tangipahoa Parish that was being run as kind of a personal fiefdom, as sometimes happens in Louisiana. And I believe the subject of the suit was the composition of the board of directors. She prevailed in that suit, and Southeast was able to improve the council on aging. They reformed, and the council on aging now, as I understand it, is being run on a businesslike manner. There were also other important social initiatives that had their genesis in Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. A battered women’s program that started as an all-volunteer project of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. The people who gave the legal advice to the battered spouses were Southeast Legal Services staff, and it’s now spun off to its own freestanding organization in the community. There was a food program, a food pantry program, that had its origination in Southeast, as I understand it. And the program is also taking initiatives with the private bar to further make available legal services to the poor in that area. How did I do?

LEONARD: I think that was real good.

OELKERS: Okay.

LEONARD: Real good. What about Kisatchie? That’s the one we haven’t talked about.

OELKERS: Yeah. Kisatchie is led by Sarah Jamie Campbell, who was the first staff attorney for that program. And the program was part of that rural orientation that we’ve mentioned before. Ed Dixon, who was the community action director there, worked with the local district attorney in starting the program, in getting the funding. I understand there was strong resistance by the local bar, along the same lines that we’ve talked about with several other programs. That was not helped by the fact that they filed a jail conditions suit in Natchitoches Parish, which greatly improved the conditions at the jail and did the trick for the clients but didn’t help them develop rapport with the local bar and the local leadership, but that’s come around too. There’s been good work with the judiciary and with local bar associations. The original director there was John Fontenot. He was later succeeded by Ed Dixon and ultimately by their first staff attorney, Jamie Campbell. There have been systemic changes in the marketing of insurance that’s directed to poorer people in that area because of negotiations that grew out of that program. And it’s a day-to-day service-oriented law firm that started a new pro bono program in 1991.So that program — originally, by the way, it was called North Central Louisiana Legal Services, which is a mouthful. And the name was changed to Kisatchie. Kisatchie is the name of a national forest in north central Louisiana, and they took that rather unique name for the program that is headquartered in Natchitoches. And Natchitoches is significant historically as one of the first settlements in the country, right?

LEONARD: Yes.

OELKERS: On the Red River or the Natchitoches River.

LEONARD: Cane.

OELKERS: The Cane River. Okay. Not exactly my service area, but it’s a very old settlement in Louisiana where Kisatchie is headquartered.

LEONARD: Now, in February of 1978, two historic things happened. One of course was I began working for Legal Services.

OELKERS: Mm-hmm.

LEONARD: But that was also the beginning of state support.

OELKERS: Right.

LEONARD: And the first time that, you know, all these programs from all these different backgrounds came together and, like, started working together. Can you tell us a little bit about the history of state support?

OELKERS: Well, once again, this is something that you probably were more intimately involved in than I was because you were working with, an early part in your career, with state support in Louisiana. I can remember working with — with Galen Brown at a — one of the first Legal Services meetings I attended after joining Acadiana Legal Services. Galen was one of the early NOLAC program directors, who preceded Mark Moreau, who’s the program director there now. But as I understand it, the Louisiana Legal Services Association, as it was called then, grew out of the legislative advocacy unit of NOLAC. Legislative advocacy was going on at New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation. And in 1978, program directors from around the state came together and made a decision to cooperate with each other for a statewide legislative advocacy effort. And they later made a fundraising commitment by chipping in money from each program budget to do legislative advocacy. And that was the genesis of what we know as state support in Louisiana. And then there was a change, a change later on, with the — I believe it coincided, and correct me if I’m wrong, with the advent of the restrictions on legislative advocacy. The project directors came together again with the involvement of some of the client leaders in the state and made a decision to change the focus of the program away from legislative advocacy toward training and networking and clearinghouse functions. And along with that, changed the name of the statewide program to the Louisiana Legal Consortium, which exists today for state support in Louisiana and is led by Spencer Livingston. Some of the former leaders of state support in Louisiana: Cathy Lafleur, Chuck Amato. Am I leaving anybody out? Of course you were.

LEONARD: Pam Barker.

OELKERS: Pam Barker, right. Pam, who’s now with NOLAC. Led that organization as a strong state support entity in the state of Louisiana. Its focus has changed, its name has changed, but it’s still working to support the delivery effort in Louisiana.

LEONARD: Now we’ve talked a lot about the development of programs, but I think that we had some pretty special clients that were involved statewide in Legal Services.

OELKERS: Right.

LEONARD: Can you tell us a little bit about some of the personalities from the client side?

OELKERS: Yeah. You know, I’ve worked with a number of great individuals who were eligible clients and involved in the client movement for Legal Services. Leroy Jones served on my first board of directors, and he’s now, I believe, serving in North Carolina with the statewide program there. I’ve worked for years with Annie Smart, who was the leader of the Louisiana welfare rights organization in Baton Rouge. She has always been outspoken on behalf of clients in Louisiana, attends a lot of meetings, has a very high profile. Even ran against one of the most powerful United States senators in the country, Russell Long, in a reelection race. Of course, she wasn’t successful, but she saw to it that the concerns of disadvantaged people were voiced in that election contest. Probably the most famous client from Louisiana who’s had an impact nationally was Mary Ellen Hamilton, who’s no longer with us, but was a leader in the national clients council organization and a leader in the development of Louisiana clients councils all across the state.

LEONARD: Okay. I think that we have a fairly good picture of what was happening in the late ’70s. I think that the next major event for Legal Services across the country were the cuts that came down in 1982.Why don’t you tell us a little bit about how that affected your program, how you dealt with it, if you think anything positive came out of it.

OELKERS: Well, of course first, we were dealing with survival. And while there was a positive aspect to that, it was a — you know, it was a negative experience to have to deal with your program and the programs around you coming apart at the seams. It was a necessary exercise because it was survival, but it was not a positive experience overall. There were positive things that came out of it. We had to get our business in order. We had to focus on what were the most important priorities. At Acadiana, one of the changes that I think have — that have — that has benefited us greatly was the necessity that we had to specialize in our practice of law. We probably should have done it before, but when we started, we were all generalists. Each lawyer did any type of a case. We did not have the opportunity to develop the expertise that specialization has now allowed us to develop. And if there was a positive aspect to what went beyond belt-tightening, to restructuring, to retrenchment, to reductions in force, it was probably the necessity to reexamine who we were and how we could go about restructuring ourselves to make a difference in the day we — in the way we operated on a day-to-day basis.

LEONARD: Okay. Well, let’s move to present day now. Have there been any changes as far as in the environment that Legal Services now finds themselves working in?

OELKERS: Well, one, I think I’ve already alluded to. We have much better relations with local bar associations. They view us as a part of the legal community, as an essential, integral part of the way legal services are delivered and the way the public perceives of the legal profession. I think that’s positive. There have been similar developments with state bar association. We were definitely viewed with less than support during the early days from the state organization. We were simply ignored by the state bar association. Now, we are viewed as part of the state bar’s work plan to deliver legal services to the entire citizenry in the state of Louisiana. Last year, the president of the state bar association of Louisiana was Rutledge Clement, who I met 10 years ago 47 when he was chairing the legal aid committee. I don’t remember any state bar association president who had ever been associated with the legal aid committee. By the way, it’s now called the legal services committee. But that was a breakthrough, that we had someone come up through the ranks who had been associated with Legal Services and Legal Services issues and issues of critical importance to the poor, who came up through the ranks and became president of the state bar association. We’ve also had the state bar association leadership bring a mandatory IOLTA program to Louisiana. Last year, over a million and a half dollars was distributed to Legal Services pro bono programs and other programs that deliver services to the poor or are involved in community legal education. So things have come a long way in that 15-year period or so, from antagonism to indifference to outright support. I can remember a local bar leader telling — telling me, “We don’t need you here. We want you to go away. We take care of our own business.”And then five years ago, the person who held that position was saying, “Why can’t you take more cases? Why aren’t you handling judicial separations? Why can’t you handle this and that? Why weren’t you able to help the lady who I sent by your office?”To now, more enlightened understanding of what we’re about, about case acceptance and actually being supportive, to the point of directing money to our organizations and creating along with us pro bono programs to help deliver the services. So I think it’s definitely a positive development, and it came out of a decade of great uncertainty in which at one time, we were wondering whether we’d even survive and be around. So I think that’s real positive.

LEONARD: I know that as an alumni of LSU, both of us are, that the law schools were also fairly hostile or at least extremely indifferent —

OELKERS: Yeah.

LEONARD: — to the poor. Has there been any improvement in that area?

OELKERS: Oh, sure, sure. We’ve got active law school clinic programs in three of the four state law schools. We’ve got a poverty law center at Loyola which provides technical support to Legal Services and pro bono.

LEONARD: How did the poverty law center come about?

OELKERS: There was a special grant made to Loyola for the establishment of a poverty law center at their law school, to be named in honor and in memoriam for Gillis Long, former Congressman from Louisiana, who was always a proponent of the Legal Services Corporation. They received a one-time endowment of I think about $1.5 million several years ago after his death. And that money is being used today for the direct delivery of legal services to the poor, as well as technical assistance and other support for legal services providers in Louisiana.

LEONARD: To end the interview, I’m going to want to ask you to reflect on two different questions, but before we get to that point, is there anything else that you think of that you might have forgotten or that you want to add?

OELKERS: Not really. I’m sure there are a number of individuals who I haven’t named who have played important roles in Legal Services, and I can only say that I apologize to them for leaving them out. But I think we’ve taken a good overview. It’s really been an interesting experience for me to look back over these last few days as we were putting together the interview. And I hope someone down the road in the future gets something out of this oral history.

LEONARD: Okay. The first thing I wanted to ask you was: When I joined Legal Services in, you know, the late ’70s, ’78, and that was about the same time you were starting, I had the sense that we were a part of history, that we were making history. And I guess, you know, now that I’ve waited 15 years, it’s sort of validated in that somebody wants to actually take the history of Legal Services. I wonder, could you reflect for us to what extent the time period we’re in now is historical for Legal Services?

OELKERS: Well, I think that the answer to that question is something that’s really beyond my ability. It’s something that — that will be answered. Time will take care of it. But I think that we’re on the threshold of a new era. We have emerged from the ’80s, where first we had to struggle for survival. And then after we were assured of some level of survival, we had to deal with a hostile bureaucracy who we had at one time depended on for technical assistance and support. It seems that things have evened out there, but there are other challenges ahead, both from our funding source and from, you know, the client community as a whole that it’s time for us to reflect back, but it’s also time for us to look forward. And I think this is a good break, a good opportunity for us to do both of those things, and consider where legal services can go after a tumultuous decade and how we enter the next century, how we deal with our work. So I think there is more history to be made. I guess we’re — those of us who have been around for at least 15 years are a little battle weary, but I think there’s still enough fight in us to do the job.

LEONARD: Okay. The other thing that I wanted to ask you about, when I started Legal — started in Legal Services, it was with no less of a goal than to change the lives of the poor in Louisiana. Do you think Louisiana’s changed? Do you think the poor have changed? Do you think Legal Services has been the ones to change? Or —

OELKERS: I think it’s probably all three. I think we’ve made a difference in our clients’ lives. We’ve not made a difference in the lives of the people who we were not able to serve or who we were not able to prevail for. We’ve definitely changed as lawyers. I mean, we’re mature. We’re topnotch law firms across the state and across this nation. We’re not green, out of law school anymore. We don’t make the mistakes that we used to. We don’t have a case drawer full of what my staff attorneys started calling “dogs” after a couple of years of practicing. We’ve got good litigation. We’ve got good ideas about policy advocacy that still need to be tested in the state. So there’s a lot of work to be done. I think we’ve made a difference, but only for a handful of the poor. And the poor are still with us, especially in the state of Louisiana, and there’s going to be a lot more work to be done.

LEONARD: Thank you very much, Joe.

OELKERS: Thank you, Brian.


END