19 Dec

Southern Legal Counsel celebrates 25 years of service

first_imgSouthern Legal Counsel celebrates 25 years of service Senior EditorIt was born of a dispute between President Nixon and Congress over the expenditures of federal monies.Its environmental work helped spawn 1,000 Friends of Florida. Carol Browner, former director of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and federal Environmental Protection Agency, was a law clerk there.It brought high profile litigation that helped close down a poorly-run state facility for disabled and retarded citizens and also closed a “training school” for juvenile delinquents that included hog-tying among its disciplinary methods.Yet few lawyers, and probably fewer Floridians, are familiar with Gainesville-based Southern Legal Counsel, a public interest law firm celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.“What this organization does is help serve people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to legal counsel,” said Tampa attorney Richard Gilbert, a member of the Bar Board of Governors and chair of SLC’s Board of Directors. “It represents indigents, children, institutionalized people; it deals with education efforts.“It takes to heart the belief of equal access to justice and tries to take those cases that provide equal access to those people who otherwise could not afford equal access.”And a key point in that mission, he added, is helping people who can’t be represented by other legal aid organizations; sort of like plugging the holes in the legal aid dike.“Our mission statement niche says we want to promote access to the courts, and we want to represent people who are un- or under-represented,” said Alice Nelson, executive director of SLC. “Part of our mission statement is to do work that other folks don’t do.. . . We’ve been very interested over the years in trying to get the human service delivery systems to operate in conformance with their broad aspirational goals.”A hole the agency is plugging now is taking class action suits representing poor people suing government, especially federal agencies. Changes to the national Legal Services Corporation last decade prohibited federal legal aid funding for those types of suits. The SLC funding for that purpose comes from The Florida Bar Foundation.Taking on orphan causes is how the organization began. It originated when Jon Mills, now the University of Florida law dean and a former speaker of the Florida House, headed up a special project to do legal research on former President Richard Nixon’s impoundment of funds authorized by Congress.Mills was looking to a third-year law student to help with the work, but a second-year student, Al Hadeed, made such a persuasive case, that Mills took him on.“It started as a funded public interest research project at the University of Florida to study presidential impoundment of congressional appropriations,” Hadeed recalled. “We provided information for congressional committees, particularly in the Senate.”The project also did amicus briefs, including for the U.S. Supreme Court when it handled the issue. “The courts were quoting us, or citing us, or referring to us and that emboldened us,” Hadeed said, and the project began looking at other areas.But at the same time, “The university law school. . . decided that the pursuit of public interest litigation needed to be physically outside the law school, but affiliated with the law school through using faculty and students,” Hadeed said.That led to the creation of the center in 1977. The first Board of Directors included former Bar and ABA President Chesterfield Smith; then UF law Dean Richard Julin; former Gov. LeRoy Collins; attorney Randolph Thrower, a former commissioner of the IRS who stood up to Nixon over the misuse of IRS records; and Rod Petrie, former director of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and now director of the LeRoy Collins Center in Tallahassee.Mills headed the new organization for its first few months and then Hadeed, now a licensed attorney, became the executive director and the only staffer.“They were looking for some single guy who didn’t care about launching into an unsure venture,” he said with a laugh, noting the country was in recession and grant money for such ventures was drying up from private foundations. Nonetheless, the public interest law firm was organized and open. They found no shortage of issues.“We operated on a shoestring budget,” Hadeed said. “We tried very carefully to pick our initial cases. We knew that those cases would define us for many years. This is why the board was so valuable; they had a good feel for public policy issues in Florida and those that weren’t getting attention.”Nelson and Hadeed said among the cases and issues that have involved and defined SLC over the years include:• Bringing court cases to enforce Florida’s landmark Sunshine Laws. Although approved by voters as a constitutional amendment at the behest of former Gov. Reubin Askew, those laws were not followed or enforced in their early years. Southern Legal Counsel’s efforts included bringing a case that eventually went to the Florida Supreme Court over a legislatively proposed amendment in 1982 that would have repealed much of Askew’s sunshine amendment. The SLC successfully got the amendment struck, arguing its ballot language was misleading and could cause voters to vote the opposite of what they intended.• Brought federal lawsuits that wound up closing substandard state facilities for the disabled, retarded, and juvenile delinquents. Efforts in the latter case lead to a whole new juvenile justice act in Florida.• Presented the factual data in the case that led to the approval of the Interest on Trust Accounts program.• Handled many environmental cases which led to the SLC helping form 1,000 Friends of Florida. SLC was 1,000 Friends’ general counsel for its first several years.• Formed a relationship with the Advocacy Center for People with Disabilities that resulted in several groundbreaking cases. SLC also has a long interest advocating for the education rights of children with disabilities. The agency, Nelson said, is working on a conference set for next month to bring IOTA grantees and other interested parties on that issue.Nelson attributed the success on the broad range of issues to the leadership of SLC’s board. Members over the years have included former Bar and ABA President Wm. Reece Smith, Florida State University President Sandy D’Alemberte, late Supreme Court Chief Justice Alan Sundberg, Marilyn Holifield, F. Malcolm Cunningham, and many others. A complete list — as well as more information about the organization — is on the SLC’s website at www.southernlegal.org. Current board members include former Bar President Steve Zack, former U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge and Florida Supreme Court Justice Joseph Hatchett, former Supreme Court Justice Raymond Ehrlich, former St. Thomas University law Dean Jacqueline Allee, and attorneys Eli Subin and Bill Wagner.Over the years, the staff has grown to three attorneys, plus an additional position funded by the National Association of Public Interest Law program. Nelson said the agency would like to find additional funding to add two to three more attorneys as well as offering internships.“We’re interested in a program that would bring young lawyers in for a couple years,” Nelson said. “It would emphasize public service and pro bono work, and give people an opportunity to be exposed so when they go on to the rest of their careers, they remain exposed to public interest work.”Preliminary plans for the 25th anniversary celebration include dinner for current and past board members on June 20 during the Bar’s Annual Meeting in Boca Raton. Southern Legal Counsel celebrates 25 years of service March 15, 2002 Gary Blankenship Senior Editor Regular Newslast_img

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *