It’s 8:30 a.m. and the telephones are chirping with desperate calls from poor people who need a free lawyer.
Seven minutes later, receptionists at Spokane Legal Services Center have booked all the child-welfare emergencies the office can handle for the next two weeks.
On a nearby telephone, office director Jim Bamberger makes his own emergency calls. He’s trying to save the center from politicians who want to cut off the cash that keeps the poverty law office alive.
Just as taxpayer-financed public broadcasting and arts are now under the budget knife, so are the legal centers that provide free attorneys for civil cases.
Critics call these lawyers liberal crusaders who incite the poor and needlessly cost businesses money. Some central Washington farmers joke that aggressive farm worker rights attorneys should be hanged.
Lawmakers are listening. The U.S. House budget committee chairman advocates pulling spending for civil legal services this year. Some Washington state legislators are calling for the same.
If both pipelines dry up, so does 75 percent of the Spokane Legal Services $1.2 million budget.
The 10 attorneys in the brick office building at 1704 W. Broadway usually dress in power suits and resemble staffs of most any other midsized law firm in the city.
But these attorneys don’t worry about billable hours, or becoming partner, or schmoozing corporate clients. These are legal EMTs. Their work is triage. They sift through tales of injustices for the strongest and most urgent cases.
Most of their clients are getting evicted from homes, getting their public assistance cut off, or trying to get their children out of danger. “We have clients who are really, really in trouble,” Bamberger says, noting his office must turn away 75 percent of the people who call for help.
The backlash against legal assistance programs is driven by farm owners, landlords and others who argue the public shouldn’t finance attorneys who cost them huge legal bills and worker rebellions.
The clash is so hot in central Washington farmlands that attorneys for Seattle-based Evergreen Legal Services have been threatened physically for defending migrant farm worker rights.
An Okanogan orchardist cradled his shotgun during a meeting last year with Evergreen attorneys.
Spokane Legal Services has its critics, too, but also many allies and broad respect - even among adversaries.
“I haven’t seen them taking cases just to harass landlords,” says Douglas Baker, a partner in Anthony, Baker & Burns, a major Spokane real estate firm. “And when you stop to look at the work they do - because there’s a lot of jerk landlords out there - there’s got to be somebody those people can go to.
“I wouldn’t want to give them more money,” Baker concludes. “But I wouldn’t want to strip it away either.”
One barometer of the center’s growing acceptance in its 27 years of business is its history with Washington Water Power Co.
Utility officials were so irked with center attorneys intervening on rate cases in the early 1980s they asked United Way to steer their corporate donation away from the organization. Now, WWP supports the legal center.
At a Tuesday morning staff meeting, 10 center attorneys and paralegals discuss potential incoming cases.
Staff attorney Teresa Faust recounts a visit from a woman who described the grim apartment she, her husband and three kids rent.
The back door has no lock. Wires stick out of baseboards in the living room. The oven and two burners don’t work. Mice and cockroaches skitter across the floor.
The woman fears social workers will again take away her youngest child, 18 months old, if her living quarters are deemed unsafe. But efforts to get the landlord to fix the problems have failed.
Faust is asked how the landlord responded to the request.
“He didn’t do anything. He put some tape on the sink pipes and said you can handle the rest.”
How’s the woman doing on rent payments?
She’s current on rent.
How much is it?
It’s $325 a month.
“They didn’t want to make any waves,” Faust says. “They’ve pretty much just lived with it.”
What is the family’s goal?
“They want to stay there.”
“Are you dealing with a notorious landlord?” Bamberger asks.
“Yes. It’s a repeater.”
“Let’s get out there and look at this place and let’s see how much property he owns,” says staff attorney Richard Sola, who runs the meeting.
Is the woman paid up on rent? someone asks again.
“Get it while it’s hot,” Bamberger says.
Tom McGarry describes Bamberger and his crew as “worthy adversaries.”
An attorney for Olson, Loeffler & Landis, McGarry frequently jousts with center attorneys while defending Spokane landlords.
McGarry says the attorneys are good, but sometimes spend public money on cases that don’t deserve it.
“They appear to have unlimited resources. When they commit to a case they seem to be able to throw as much into it as they want.”
Superior Court Judge Richard Schroeder often sees attorneys from Spokane Legal Services in his courtroom.
Schroeder says without them the courts would be jammed with people who could only afford to represent themselves.
“I’m sure it would make it more difficult,” he says. “In most cases they don’t know what they’re doing - in a legal sense.”
Judy Foster, executive director of the Spokane County Bar Association, says Spokane’s private attorneys are already swamped with free legal work.
Without the center, the burden would be overwhelming, she says. “If they lose funding … it would be absolutely devastating.”
Bamberger and the head of Evergreen Legal Services had a private meeting in Olympia recently with state Sen. Jim West, R-Spokane, and Sen. Bob Morton, R-Orient.
The meeting was somewhat hostile. The two attorneys were lectured on inciting workers and filing frivolous lawsuits.
Bamberger left fearing state money will end as soon as July.
Morton left the meeting undeterred. He says he plans to ask that the $10 million now routed to legal services programs be yanked from the budget.
Morton says he is inundated with complaints about Evergreen “which I believe has grossly abused the professionalism of the legal arena.”
U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., says he heard complaints about Spokane Legal Services while he worked as a Spokane attorney.
He says people griped that the organization pushes some weak cases too far. “That’s where the desire to cut comes from,” he says.
Nethercutt says he doesn’t know whether Congress will seriously consider eliminating legal services funding, but says he supports some cuts.
Nethercutt believes private charities and donations can
fill the gap. “Let’s give people incentive to give to the legal services.”
A photograph of former attorney general Bobby Kennedy hangs above Bamberger’s desk.
“Democracy lives and dies on whether people have access to justice,” says the SLS director, summing up his mission.
He says many advisers suggest he try to save his budget by distancing his shop from Evergreen’s farm worker rights litigation.
Bamberger says that would be selling out the office’s founding principles - to champion the rights of the poor.
“It’s a fundamental equal-protection issue,” he says. “You can’t walk away from it.”