Written by Chinh Le

Mar 30


Legal Aid Mourns the Passing of John Payton

Chinh Le, Legal Director

Late last week, the D.C. legal community and the nation’s civil rights bar lost a modern-day giant in the struggle for equality and opportunity. John A. Payton, the President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., and a tireless advocate for civil rights, died last Thursday after a brief illness. Prior to joining the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 2008, John was, for several decades, a partner at Wilmer Hale; he took leave from the firm to serve as the District’s Corporation Counsel from 1991 to 1994, and was also President of the D.C. Bar from 2001 to 2002. Legal Aid extends its deepest condolences to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund staff and board, and to John’s wife, Gay McDougall, a human rights activist and his partner in the ongoing fight for justice. As an alumnus of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, I am particularly saddened by this news and know how sorely John will be missed. Legal Aid intends to have a moment of silence to remember both John Payton and Tim May – true servants of justice both – at our Servant of Justice Dinner, scheduled for April 26, 2012 at the JW Marriot.

Mar 05


Legal Aid Testifies on OAG/CSSD Policies and Performance at D.C. Council Committee Hearings

Chinh Le, Legal Director

Last Wednesday, Ashley McDowell and Meridel Bulle-Vu, both Staff Attorneys at Legal Aid, and Project Attorneys at the Child Support Resource Center (recently blogged about here), gave written and oral testimony to the District of Columbia Council Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary regarding the Office of the Attorney General (OAG).  Their testimony specifically focused on the policies and performance of the Child Support Services Division (CSSD).  Vanessa Batters-Thompson, who is a Staff Attorney at Bread for the City, a project partner, also gave testimony as well.  

Meridel Bulle-Vu, Staff Attorney

Meridel’s testimony focused on CSSD’s policy of opposing the disestablishment of paternity in all cases, even when a parent has proof of non-paternity in the form of a DNA test.  In one case, a putative father signed an Acknowledgement of Paternity after his then-girlfriend told him that he was the father.  Three years later, after a child support order had been established, his girlfriend told him that he was not in fact the child’s father.  He promptly informed the court, and both he and the mother asked the court to grant a DNA test to determine the truth.  The court then ordered a DNA test which excluded the man as the father.  Notwithstanding these facts, CSSD fought the disestablishment efforts every step of the way, and it took nearly a year and a half of regular hearings before the case concluded and the mother could move on to establish paternity with the real biological father. 

Ashley McDowell, Staff Attorney

Ashley testified about CSSD’s enforcement policies and their failure to enforce child support orders in a timely fashion.  Her testimony described instances where CSSD has pursued low-income parents for child support that was due in the 1980’s and 1990’s, despite the fact that the subject children were often adults with families of their own.  Many of these parents were unable to pay child support due to long periods of incarceration, unemployment, or mental and physical disabilities.  Additionally, CSSD has often tried to collect child support judgments that have actually expired due to the statute of limitations.  She encouraged CSSD to focus these valuable enforcement resources on cases where collecting past due child support will have a more direct impact on the wellbeing of the District’s children.

 Their written testimony can be accessed here.

Feb 29


Jack Keeney, Jr. Named 2012 Recipient of CCE’s Justice Potter Stewart Award

Chinh Le, Legal Director

Legal Aid is delighted by the announcement today that John (Jack) C. Keeney, Jr., the Director of the Barbara McDowell Appellate Advocacy Project, will be a recipient of the 2012 Justice Potter Stewart Award from the Council for Court Excellence (CCE).

Jack Keeney, Director, Barbara McDowell Appellate Project

The Justice Potter Stewart Award, CCE’s highest public honor, is given annually “to individuals who exemplify the very best in the administration of justice” and who “have made significant and sustained contributions to the justice system in Washington, D.C.”  The award, named to honor the memory and public service of the late Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, was established by CCE in 1997.  Jack will share the award this year with Jim Lyons, a trial lawyer in private practice for more than 40 years and co-founder of the law firm of Kellogg, Williams & Lyons.  In 2006, Legal Aid and then-Executive Director Jonathan Smith won this prestigious award.

Jack Keeney, Jr., a former President of the D.C. Bar (2004-2005), has served as the Director of Legal Aid’s Barbara McDowell Appellate Advocacy Project since January 2011. Described as a “powerhouse attorney” by the Wall Street Journal and often selected as a “Top Lawyer” by the Washingtonian, he joined Legal Aid from Hogan Lovells (formerly Hogan & Hartson), where he had practiced law for more than 30 years and served as the partner-in-charge of the firm’s award-winning pro bono practice from 1989 to 1993.  Since joining Legal Aid, Jack has participated in numerous appellate matters in both the D.C. Court of Appeals and the D.C. Superior Court on a broad range of poverty law issues.  Indeed, just yesterday, he presented oral arguments before the Court of Appeals in an important child custody matter involving important questions of civil and appellate procedure, and he filed an amicus brief for five public interest organizations in an en banc matter pertaining to disability rights. Jack has also been active with the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs for decades and in June 2010, received its highest honor, the Wiley Branton Award, for his life-long commitment to civil rights leadership and service.

“Jack has had an impressive and high-profile career,” CCE Executive Director June Kress said. “His arrival at Legal Aid demonstrated the integrity for which he is known across the justice community. He now leads the fight for some of the District’s neighbors who are most in need of justice.”

The Council for Court Excellence will present the award at its annual dinner, which will be held on Thursday, May 10, 2012 at the Organization of American States (17th and Constitution, NW). Please join us in congratulating Jack on this prestigious honor and well-deserved recognition!



Jan 18


Eric Angel to Receive 2012 John Minor Wisdom Award

Chinh Le, Legal Director

I am delighted to announce that Legal Aid’s Executive Director, Eric Angel, will be the recipient of the American Bar Association Section of Litigation’s 2012 John Minor Wisdom Public Service and Professionalism Award! This prestigious national award honors individuals who “have made outstanding contributions to the quality of justice in their communities, ensuring that the legal system is open and available to all.” Recipients are selected based on fulfilling one or more criteria of the following:

Eric Angel, Executive Director

  1. provided sustained, exceptional direct representation of poor, disenfranchised or other under-represented individuals or groups;
  2. created new or expanded means of access to the legal system for these individuals or groups; or
  3. provided representation in one or more cases that resulted in significant changes in statutory or case law to benefit these individuals or groups. 

The Section of Litigation will present the 2012 John Minor Wisdom Public Service and Professionalism Award during its Section Annual Conference, April 18–20, 2012 at the JW Marriott Washington in Washington, D.C. 

Please join me in congratulating Eric on this well-deserved recognition! All of us on the staff and board of Legal Aid are so very proud of and excited for him.

Oct 26


Legal Aid’s James Springer profiled in the National Law Journal

Chinh Le, Legal Director Jim Springer,

Jim Springer, Volunteer Attorney

Legal Aid volunteer attorney James Springer was one of the three lawyers featured in recent articles published by the  National Law Journal and the ABA Journal about attorneys who, after retiring from distinguished careers in private practice, dedicated their time and skills to a public interest legal services organization. Since 2005, Jim has been conducting intake and working part-time in Legal Aid’s public benefits unit, handling a variety of Social Security, Medicaid, and food stamps matters. He was previously a partner at Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky LLP, where he handled antitrust and other litigation for both plaintiffs and defendants, with a particular emphasis on appellate practice. In June 2007, Jim was named pro bono lawyer of the year by the District of Columbia Bar.

Oct 16


Legal Aid’s Rosanne Aviles To be Honored by the Hispanic Bar Association of DC with the Hugh A. Johnson Memorial Award

Chinh Le, Legal Director

The Hispanic Bar Association of the District of Columbia (HBA-DC) recently announcedthat Legal Aid’s Rosanne Aviles will be the 2011 recipient of the Hugh A. Johnson Memorial Award. The award goes to an individual “with visible ties to the DC Metropolitan area, especially its Hispanic community, who demonstrates unwavering commitment and achievement to public service and dedication to the principles of equality, cultural respect and social justice.” 

Rosanne Avilés, Supervising Attorney -Housing

We are delighted that Rosanne will be recognized for her amazing work serving persons living in poverty. Since joining Legal Aid in June of 2007, Rosanne has saved scores of individuals from homelessness, restored housing subsidies to the poorest members of our community, advocated for safe and sanitary housing conditions, and ensured protections for victims of domestic violence. She is an exemplary advocate for her clients and the community at large, bringing a formidable combination of tenacity and precision to everything she does. As a bilingual attorney who speaks Spanish fluently, Rosanne offers her Spanish-speaking clients the best quality representation in their primary language. Many of these clients would not be able to access the justice system but for Rosanne’s representation.  

Each year, HBA-DC recognizes three individuals and one organization with its Equal Justice Awards. In addition to Rosanne, the other awardees are: The Honorable Hiram Puig-Lugo, D.C. Superior Court Judge, who will receive the 2011 Judge Ricardo M. Urbina Lifetime Achievement Award; M. Lucero Ortiz, Special Assistant to the Chief of Staff, at the U.S. Department of Labor, who will receive the 2011 Rising Star Award; and Liberty’s Promise, a non-profit organization that supports young, D.C. area immigrants in need while encouraging them to be active and conscientious citizens, which will be the organizational recipient of the 2011 Hugh A. Johnson Memorial Award. This year’s award ceremony will take place on November 10, 2011 at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Washington. 

Congratulations, Rosanne!

Jul 08


Legal Aid’s Julie Becker Quoted in National Law Journal about Affirmative Conditions Calendar

Chinh Le, Legal Director

On Monday, July 4th, the National Law Journal ran an article  about the D.C. Superior Court’s Housing Conditions Calendar in which Legal Aid’s Housing Unit Supervising Attorney, Julie Becker, was quoted. This new housing conditions calendar, which began hearing disputes last spring, was established at the Court’s initiative, as a result of years of advocacy by Legal Aid and other stakeholders.

In 2008, following a series of articles in the Washington Post about the District’s failure to enforce the housing code, Julie and other advocates spearheaded efforts to persuade the D.C. Council to enact a law permitting tenants to bring repair claims in Landlord-Tenant Court. The effort sought an important change for D.C. residents; at the time, and for as far back as anyone could remember, tenants lacked any quick, inexpensive, or easy forum for resolving housing code complaints against their landlords.  The only meaningful way for a tenant to take legal action against the landlord regarding repairs was to withhold rent and be sued for eviction.  This was a risky strategy that put the tenant’s home immediately and unnecessarily at risk, especially if the conditions were dire and/or posed a serious threat to the tenant’s health or safety.

A consensus developed that this situation was unfair and unacceptable.  Ultimately, to its credit, the D.C. Superior Court took the effort upon itself, and in April 2010, the Housing Conditions Court opened for business.  Legal Aid, the Access to Justice Commission, and numerous other stakeholders, including landlords’ attorneys, worked with the Court to implement procedures for the new calendar.

Since then, Legal Aid has litigated numerous cases in that court.  Presiding Judge of the Civil Division Melvin Wright is to be commended for devoting countless hours to implementing the new calendar – and presiding over all of its cases.