Saturday, May 16, 2009

Seeing The Poor

“The poor are despised even by their neighbors, while the rich have many “friends.” Proverbs 14:20. This too often is the case for the impoverished in the legal system. I don’t believe that judges or jurors want to or even intend to treat the poor differently; they just do.

Often, the reasons for decisions against the poor are couched in terms that allow the tribunal, social worker, or anyone expressing an opinion to feel OK about it. The poor mother cannot have custody because her house, where the children have lived all their lives, is inappropriate as compared to dad, who moved in with his parents after the separation. The poor father cannot have custody of his child because the grandparents, who saw the child sporadically before their daughter died, can provide a more stable environment, or they would go to a better school in a better neighborhood. A landlord can evict a tenant whose neighbor suspects she may be committing some crime just because she lacks the financial resources to stand against them. Why?

These things happen because they are poor. They happen because it is easy to look at someone and think that they are not worthy simply because they have little or nothing. We can look at the litigants on each side of the aisle and see the poor man in his shabby second hand clothes and the opponent in his nice suit and tie. It’s easy, but it’s wrong.

The church is admonished not to show favoritism to the rich over the poor in the congregation or give them status based on their wealth and dress. Just as important, I believe, is the need to change the way the courts, attorneys, social workers, those involved in the justice system, and even the public perceive those who qualify for free legal services; those who live in the neighborhood of the federal poverty level. Part of the problem in relieving some of the burden of the poor is how they are seen by those who are not poor.

I was in private practice for 19 years before choosing to leave my partnership to work at legal aid. I did a great deal of pro bono work, most of which was the referral of clients from the local legal aid office when it had conflicts or lacked resources to assist. On a number of occasions, I was in court with my pro bono clients at the same time legal aid attorneys appeared with theirs. There were obvious differences in the treatment of my clients and me as compared to the legal aid attorney and his clients. It was inexplicable given their similar financial status other than my clients were with private counsel and apparently able to pay their own freight.

In order to achieve justice, we cannot look at a man’s clothes, his station in life, the color of his skin, or the accent with which he may speak. We cannot apportion justice based on a person’s perceived importance to the community or ability to pay for representation. We see poor and assume any number of reasons for it. In most instances, those assumptions are simply wrong, particularly in the current economic environment in which many suddenly find themselves in financial distress through no fault of their own. Clearly, we must learn to control how what we see affects what we think and the decisions we make. We must see the facts but not see the circumstances of the litigants.

But, you may ask, exactly how do we do that. It's not easy. Let's face it, we have an almost instinctual ability to jump to conclusions. We see something and assume we know the answer even before we are sure of the question. That's why advertising works so well. They tell us something over and over again until it becomes the first thing in our head when the trigger is pulled. The trick is to overcome the knee jerk response.

We must remember the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
The courts, we as individuals, and society as a whole need to learn to take a lesson from lady justice and approach life blindfolded. Then, perhaps, we will realize the dream for the poor and for all of us.

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