The Center for Justice was born from an “out of the blue” phone call to lawyer Jim Sheehan.
The public defender accustomed to raiding his own closet to outfit his low-income clients had suddenly become a multimillionaire thanks to a 1997 bequest from his aunt Verle Pozzo, the widow of United Parcel Service’s co-founder.
“It was like winning the Lotto,” said Sheehan, 64. Twenty minutes later, he quit his job. But he knew immediately what he’d do next: found a “people’s law firm” as a gift to Spokane and the Inland Northwest.
“I know the crushing effect of poverty, and I’d often thought if I ever got wealthy, I’d have to share it. Wealth isn’t what you have in the bank, but what you have in your heart,” he said.
Flash forward to the center’s 10th anniversary, celebrated Jan. 20, the day Barack Obama became president.
Now, the nonprofit law firm that’s made waves in Spokane for forcing reforms and championing a clean Spokane River has a new challenge: weaning itself from $1 million a year of Sheehan’s wealth in the midst of a recession.
“Our board set the goal in 2006 to be independent of Jim in 2009. But the economic downturn is hurting us” as the center seeks more community and foundation support, said Breean Beggs, the center’s director.
It will downsize by not filling the jobs of two lawyers who have resigned from the six-lawyer staff. As it changes from a private foundation to a public charity, it must meet IRS criteria by broadening its contributor base by January 2010. But Sheehan says he’ll continue to help support the law firm – and vows it will survive despite the bad economy.
“There would be a great void in Spokane without the Center for Justice,” Sheehan said.
Working in the public interest
The center does what legal aid agencies receiving federal funds are barred by law from doing: It seeks class-action remedies and administrative rule-making and works broadly for the public good, said Jim Bamberger, the director of the Office of Civil Legal Aid in Olympia and a center board member since 2004.
“The center doesn’t have to have a designated client. It can simply work in the public interest. It’s quite unique,” Bamberger said.
Although it has made some enemies, most observers agree that the unorthodox law firm, using a mix of litigation and negotiation, has had a big impact in a conservative town. It has:
•Forced a restructuring of Spokane’s municipal court system in accordance with state law that calls for city voters to elect their own judges instead of contracting with the county.
•Represented an indigent man at a federal judge’s request in a ruling that declared unconstitutional the Spokane Police Department’s practice of conducting strip-searches of suspects in the field.
•Challenged public records and open meetings violations at public agencies statewide with the Allied Law Group of Seattle.
•Won an appellate ruling – still being appealed by the county – that said it was illegal for the Spokane County Jail to charge inmates a booking fee.
•Settled a federal lawsuit that halted the Spokane Police Department practice of towing cars of people arrested for driving with suspended licenses.
•Helped negotiate agreements with state agencies and growers to reduce smoke from wheat stubble and bluegrass field burning in Washington and Idaho after filing lawsuits on behalf of people with breathing problems.
•Fought several land use battles that led to sanctions against Spokane County for Growth Management Act violations.
•Won an agreement in a 2007 legal settlement with the city to remove crosses from police chaplains’ badges, a violation of church-state separation.
•Persuaded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to endorse stricter pollution limits than state regulators had approved for the Spokane River.
Through its Community Advocacy Program, the center also helps low-income people solve landlord-tenant disputes, restore driving privileges after license suspensions and repair bad credit. It also sponsors “Street Law” sessions where dozens of Spokane lawyers provide legal advice.
Looking for maximum impact
Since 2005, the center’s board has directed staff lawyers to focus on “impact litigation” – seeking results beyond an individual client.
For instance, the center represented Rodney Marchand, whose artificial leg was confiscated for over a year while he was being held in the Grant County Jail on robbery charges. Marchand badly injured his head and shoulders in November 2003 when his crutches slipped on a wet jail floor.
The center sued in federal court, charging that Moses Lake and Grant County violated Marchand’s constitutional rights to proper medical care while in jail. In a legal settlement last year, Grant County agreed to re-train its staff, install handrails and other safety devices and pay Marchand $32,000.
Although it’s not afraid to sue when necessary, the center’s philosophy is to negotiate and compromise when possible – and build positive relationships.
“I like collaborative outcomes. That’s what justice is. We’re listened to by various political entities – and we listen to them,” Sheehan said.
Jim Craven, the former city attorney under ex-Mayor Dennis Hession, said he met monthly with Beggs to discuss issues.
“We were able to reach mutually satisfactory results without fighting too much in the courtroom,” Craven said.
Spokane Mayor Mary Verner recently included Beggs on a panel of lawyers helping her decide who should be appointed as new municipal court judges – even though the center had successfully sued the city over the court issue.
“Breean was the attorney who brought the case, and we thought we should include him. We have a good working relationship,” said Verner. She has sought the center’s input on a variety of issues, including the proposed police ombudsman and a panhandling ordinance that center lawyers thought was too restrictive.
“I don’t always agree with them. But it’s important for Spokane to have a Center for Justice,” Verner said.
The center hasn’t won every battle – especially in the area of police reforms.
Beggs said he’s “mildly disappointed” the city hasn’t acted more quickly to hire an independent police ombudsman after an agreement with the police unions was reached last year and the Spokane City Council voted to create the position. The center has criticized the ombudsman’s office as too weak to ensure adequate citizen oversight.
“We hoped it would be more independent. But the opportunity for it to get better will be there,” Beggs said.
Also, the center’s representation of the estate of Otto Zehm, a mentally disabled man who died in 2006 after being beaten with a police baton, Tasered and restrained on his stomach, has been mired in closed-door negotiations with city lawyers. Some other lawyers in town who asked not to be identified are critical of the amount of time that’s passed and ask why the center hasn’t filed a lawsuit over Zehm’s death.
That may be coming, Beggs said.
“We’re still exploring settlement options, but the three-year anniversary of Otto’s death is coming up in March, and if we don’t settle by then, we’ll sue,” Beggs said.
Conflict with the county
The center has represented Spokane County landowners combating sprawl, pushed for more stringent pollution limits in the Spokane River and sued the county over the jail booking fee. It won a Court of Appeals ruling on the jail fees; the county appealed and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in January to hear the case later this year.
The center is too litigious in its approach to county issues, said Spokane County Commissioner Mark Richard.
“They have some very bright people. But they’ve strayed from their original mission to help the poor and underserved and they’ve become more political,” Richard said.
He’s unhappy that the center is seeking to apply the booking fee case to all jails statewide.
“They are asking for over $1 million and are demanding that any money not returned to inmates stay with them. It’s a trial lawyer approach, and it will hurt the reforms we’re trying to make at the jail,” Richard added.
The center has pursued a class action for all inmates in Spokane County, Beggs said. But before it filed suit, the center wrote to every county, informed them the booking fee was likely illegal and asked them to stop collecting it. Most counties stopped, Beggs said.
“Spokane County was one of the few that didn’t – and their lawyers told us to sue them, so we did,” he said.
Richard is also annoyed that Sheehan backed his opponent in the last election while the center was suing the county. Beggs said the center doesn’t engage in partisan politics, and while Sheehan is a board member, he has no input into the cases the center decides to litigate.
On Spokane River issues, Richard says the center is more extreme in its positions than the Lands Council, a Spokane environmental group, and is threatening lawsuits in partnership with the Sierra Club over the county’s proposed new sewage treatment plant.
The only parties that have threatened to sue over the contentious Spokane River issues are some of the river dischargers, Beggs said.
“The center has been publicly commenting, but we haven’t threatened a lawsuit. We’ve always wanted to collaborate on a healthy river,” he said.
This year, the law firm plans to take a closer look at the proposed new county sewage treatment plant, analyze the county’s plans for a new jail, and work on health care issues in prisons and jails.
Its Spokane River initiative may become part of the national Riverkeeper program founded by Robert Kennedy Jr.
Meanwhile, Sheehan’s interests have expanded beyond the “people’s law firm” he founded a decade ago.
He recently built a “green” house in Peaceful Valley, complete with solar panels and century-old fir recycled from the remodeling of one of the historic downtown buildings he owns.
Although his wealth would allow him to live in far ritzier cities, the Seattle native says his roots are in Spokane, the town where he went to law school. His grown son Joe Sheehan has returned from Seattle to work with him.
From his red-brick office in the Community Building he owns – where the Center for Justice is housed – and with a large poster of Martin Luther King Jr. behind him, Sheehan has a sweeping third-floor view of the other East Main properties he’s purchased with the goal of further community-building.
There’s the Saranac and other buildings just to the east. And across the street, a former Goodyear Tire shop will be transformed this year into the Main Market, a food cooperative. Sheehan has big visions for this eclectic and funky section of downtown.
“We wanted to bring people together in a way that’s life-giving. It’s really worked,” Sheehan said.