Written by Jonathan Smith

Oct 22


Farewell and Thank You

Jonathan Smith, Executive Director

This is my last blog on and my last day at Legal Aid.   I have accepted a position in the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice.   I am excited about the new opportunity, but it is hard to leave my friends and work at Legal Aid.   I have been very proud to be part of the terrific team at Legal Aid and to be a member of the equal justice community.

I have tremendous admiration and confidence in the extraordinary people at Legal Aid.   There is great leadership at every level of the organization.   My departure will not affect the high quality and effective legal and policy work that our staff engages in every day.  Eric Angel, the Acting Executive Director, has been Legal Aid’s Legal Director for the last ten years and there is strong subject matter expertise in each of our practice areas and a shared vision for the work.  We have an effective Board and solid pro bono relationships.  All of which will ensure that the program remains strong through this transition.

This is a unique moment to join the Civil Rights Division.  In my new position, I will be the Chief of the Special Litigation Section.   The Section is charged with civil enforcement of federal civil rights statutes concerning conditions of institutional confinement prisons, jails, nursing homes, juvenile detention facilities, mental hospitals; conduct of law enforcement agencies; access to reproductive health facilities and to places of religious worship; and religious exercise of institutionalized persons.

As I make this transition, I have had the chance to reflect on my tenure at Legal Aid. It has been humbling and gratifying to work with so many effective and committed advocates.   Through our work together, thousands of District residents have found justice.  I have been honored to have contributed to efforts that have made the laws, administrative processes and judicial systems more just.

I am sobered, however, that poverty, income inequality and the resulting injustices grow unabated.   The boom years were not kind to people in poverty, bringing displacement from gentrification, a Darwinian job market and a frayed safety-net.  The Great Recession drove more people into poverty and increased the despair in poor communities.   There is no relief in sight.

There is a deep and unwavering commitment to achieving justice and ending inequality that is expressed in all the work Legal Aid does.   It is about ending poverty — changing the circumstances — not about just helping clients live within the systems that keep them poor.

While I move on to continue this work in another form, I will deeply miss my friends at Legal Aid, in the D.C. legal services community and all of you that I only communicate with through this blog.   Thank you for reading and for being a part of this community that strives to make justice real.

Sep 30


Hearing on Hypothermia Plan

Jonathan Smith, Executive Director

District of Columbia law requires that the City provide overnight shelter on cold nights to people who are homeless.  Each year, the District develops a hypothermia plan to coordinate services and ensure compliance with this mandate.   The plan is often incomplete or ineffective.   It is especially of concern this year with reduced services and homelessness on the rise.

The Committee on Human Services for the D.C. Council is holding a hearing on the plan for the winter season that begins on November 1, 2010.   The notice of the hearing is copied below.  We can only hope that Council scrutiny will help the District get it right this year. 


Council of the District of Columbia
Committee on Human Services
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Room 117, Washington, D.C. 2000





WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 6, 2010 — 1:00 P.M.



ROOM 500
Washington, D.C. 20004

Councilmember Tommy Wells, Chair of the Committee on Human Services, announces a Public Oversight Roundtable on the Status of the 2010-2011 Winter Plan.  The roundtable will be held on Wednesday, October 6, 2010 at 1:00 p.m., in Room 500 of the John A. Wilson Building. The roundtable will provide the District government with the opportunity to brief the Committee on the status of their plans to develop a winter plan to protect the lives and address the needs of the homeless population during hypothermia season. The Winter Plan, also referred to as the “Hypothermia Plan”, reflects the District’s effort to coordinate service delivery among local agencies and providers who participate in providing hypothermia shelter to individuals and families who are homeless. The 2010-2011 Winter Plan is scheduled to be in place from November 1, 2010 through March 31, 2011.   Hypothermia services will officially begin when the actual forecasted temperature, including the wind chill factor, is 32 degrees Fahrenheit or below.

Those who wish to testify should contact Ms. Vivian McCarter of the Committee on Human Services by e-mail at or by telephone at (202) 724-8191 by Monday, October 4, 2010.  E-mail contacts to Ms. McCarter should include the residential ward, full name, title, and affiliation — if applicable — of the person(s) testifying.  Witnesses should bring 15 copies of their written testimony to the roundtable.  Those testifying will be allowed a maximum of three (3) minutes for oral presentation.

If you are unable to testify at the roundtable, written statements are encouraged and will be made a part of the official record.  Copies of written statements should be submitted to, Secretary to the Council, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Suite 5, Washington, D.C. 20004, no later than 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, October 13, 2010.

Sep 22


More on the Poverty Numbers

Jonathan Smith, Executive Director

It has been a little Orwellian the last few days.   On the one hand, poverty has taken a sharp turn upwards with record numbers of people living below the federal poverty line and unemployment is persistently high.   On the other, the stock market has continued its rise and the recession is “over,” at least from the perspective of economists. 

 In response to the new census data and the crisis in the real economy, there have been a number of good reports that provide important insights.   The following are worth a read: 

Finally, the anti-poverty community mourns the loss of Ambrose Lane  a clear and consistent voice against inequality.   In his advocacy and on his WPFW radio show  he reported on the connection between race and poverty and gave voice to those who are often ignored.    He is missed.

Sep 17


The Poverty Statistics

Jonathan Smith, Executive Director

The most recent numbers out of the Census Bureau on poverty are shocking.  There are more people living in poverty than any time since the 1950’s.   More than 107,000 District residents are below 100% of poverty and more than 207,000 live below 200% of poverty, a measure that more accurately approximates the minimum income needed to pay for  basic needs. 

There is a lot of good work being done by advocacy groups to try and understand these numbers.  I won’t try and repeat the analysis in this blog.   See

There are, however, a couple of observations that have been buried in the reporting:

  1. Poverty is not a by-product of the recession.   Poverty has been a persistent problem in the United States and has remained well above 10% of the population since the end of World War II.   In fact, the rate of poverty was higher in the early 1960’s, 1980’s and 1990’s than it is today.  While it is terrific that the media has finally awakened to this issue, the newly announced rates should not be a surprise to anyone who has paid even passing attention.It is important that the goal not be to return to historic poverty levels (down from 14.3% to 12%), but to eliminate poverty altogether.   This issue should not go away just because we are no longer at record numbers of people who are poor.   Even at half of the current rate, the shame of hungery children, jobless parents and seniors without adequate shelter in this land of plenty should move us to action.
  2. The rate of poverty is not because there is not enough to go around, but income inequality plays a role:   As we have previously written in this blog, the economic pain caused by the recession is not equally shared.  Record rates of poverty are accompanied by a record income inequality.  Those at the top of the economic scale are doing better than ever.
  3. Ending poverty is neither impossible nor a mystery:   It will take political will and persistence to end poverty, but it is possible.   It will require a long term commitment to create real jobs with living wages and programs that connect those who have been excluded from the work force to them.   Income supports will continue to be necessary, but in a functioning job market, they will be required much less.

Sep 10


Income Inequality

Jonathan Smith, Executive Director

As the recession lingers and unemployment remains high, pundits are beginning to talk about “structural” changes in the economy that may make it nearly impossible for the United States to ever achieve full-employment.  Those jobs that are being created are, disproportionately, less secure with lower salaries and fewer benefits.  Globalization, changes in competitiveness and even government regulation are blamed.

But what is the role of income inequality?  Even after the Great Recession, the gap between rich and poor is at historic levels.  Slate is doing a terrific series on the origins and effects of income inequality.  The series examines income inequality through the lens of race and gender, government policy, globalization, technology and politics.  It busts many myths and is rich in data.

This issue is of particular interest in the District of Columbia.  For many years, the income gap has been greater here than most of the rest of the nation.   The recession has aggravated the difference between the haves and the have-nots.  Historically wealthy neighborhoods have weathered the crisis and prospered while low-income communities have fallen behind.  The difference in unemployment numbers between Wards 3 and 8 are chilling.  The rate in Ward 8 is 28%, almost 10 times Ward 3 which stands at 3%.   Too bad that this question has not been more of an issue in the local election campaigns.

Sep 08


People’s Candidate Forum – Defeat Poverty

Jonathan Smith, Executive Director

DC The District’s primary election is soon upon us. The vote is being held in the aftermath of the economic crisis. The reality in the District is that:

  •  one in every five people and one in every three children live in poverty, 
  •  the recession is lingering in low-income communities causing real suffering, 
  •  unemployment rates among African American and Latino District residents rival rates during the great depression and, 
  •  the social safety-net has suffered from budget cuts.

One could imagine that these issues would dominate the election. However, the candidates for Mayor and other offices have said little and offered few specifics about how they will address this crisis. Defeat Poverty DC is organizing an alternative to the typical candidate forum. This forum will provide residents an opportunity to voice their views — to make proposals that they wish the candidates had made.

Date & Time:    September 13, 2010 – 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm
Location:           Busboys & Poets, 1025 5th Street NW (5th & K), Washington, DC
RSVP:                  Liz at

Sep 07


New Veterans Legal Project

Jonathan Smith, Executive Director

Legal Aid has been awarded an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow to help us launch a project that will serve low-income veterans in the District of Columbia. Legal Aid’s efforts will initially focus on issues arising out of child support obligations that pose a barrier to employment. We are working with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and the law firm of Arent Fox to develop an expanded project to address housing and benefits needs as well.

We are thrilled that Jennifer Cheung has accepted the fellowship and will be joining Legal Aid’s staff on September 9. Jennifer has worked the last two and a half years as a staff attorney in the Mental Health Law Project of MFY Legal Services in New York. At MFY she carried an active caseload on a broad range of issues and participated in systemic advocacy.

Arent Fox has adopted the veterans’ project as part of the Senior Attorney Initiative for Legal Services (SAILS), a joint initiative of the Access to Justice Commission and the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program. SAILS is working with area law firms to support partners who are transitioning from active firm practice to make a substantial commitment to local legal services organizations. Marc Fleischaker of Arent Fox Chairs SAILS and has committed his firm to work with Legal Aid to serve veterans.

Low-income and homeless veterans face a host of problems from physical and mental disabilities to indifferent and dysfunctional governmental agencies. Barriers to employment or housing stability compound the challenges that they face. This project will be designed target veterans’ unique needs and hopefully by leverage the resources of Legal Aid, the Legal Clinic for the Homeless and Arent Fox, we can make a difference.

Aug 20


Candidates for Mayor Complete Questionnaires on Poverty Reduction

Executive Director

Defeat Poverty DC has reached out to every candidate running for local office and asked them to say what they will do to end poverty.  Defeat Poverty DC is focusing on three questions:  what will the candidate do to make work pay, make work possible and make basic needs affordable?  The candidates were asked to complete a questionnaire.  Both Mayor Fenty and Council Chair Gray have submitted responses which are posted on the Defeat Poverty DC web page.

They are worth a read, not only for what they say, but what they don’t say.  There are some important commitments at a very high level of generality, but precious few details or specifics.  When the candidates come knocking on constituent doors or appear at a debate or forum, let’s hope that pointed questions will draw out precise commitments to programs, policies and initiatives.  We need those commitments to hold the candidates accountable after the election.

It has not always been so hard to get candidates to talk about the issue.  Check out the great blog on Bobby Kennedy’s campaign that was posted this morning on the Washington Post web page.

Aug 18


Language Access in the Courts

Jonathan Smith, Executive Director

On August 11, 2000, President Clinton issued an executive order requiring that all agencies who receive federal funds become accessible to persons who have limited or no English.   As a result of federal grants and other funding, virtually every courthouse in the nation is covered by this requirement.  Sadly, implementation has been spotty at best.   A study completed last year by Laura Abel of the Brennan Center found that in the 35 state court systems researched:

1.  46% fail to require that interpreters be provided in all civil cases;
2.  80% fail to guarantee that the courts will pay for the interpreters they provide, with the result that many people who need interpreters do not in fact receive them; and
3.  37% fail to require the use of credentialed interpreters, even when such interpreters are available.

In response to the continued need for state courts to improve language accessibility, on August 17, Deputy Attorney General for Civil Rights Tom Perez wrote to the state chief judges.  In his letter he recognized the complexity of the issue and the pressures created by the recession on court budgets, but concluded:

Language services expenses should be treated as a basic and essential operating expense, not as an ancillary cost… Budgeting adequate funds to ensure language access is fundamental to the business of the courts.

We recognize that most state and local courts are struggling with unusual budgetary constraints that have slowed the pace of progress in this area… Fiscal pressures, however, do not provide an exemption from civil rights requirements.

The judicial process means nothing if a participant cannot obtain information about a case or the process, understand the proceedings or make herself heard.   From the door of the courthouse to the issuance of a final order, language barriers for limited English speakers can be insurmountable.   While essential, it is not enough to have an interpreter in the courtroom.  A litigant cannot get a fair result if she or he cannot file a complaint or understand the summons that came in the mail.   Thing as simple as the security screen at the front door, the information desk or directional signs are barriers if they are not accessible.

The good news is that there is progress in the District of Columbia.   Last year, Superior Court Chief Judge Satterfield issued an Administrative Order improving access to interpreters and he has agreed to work with the D.C. Access to Justice Commission to extend language access to Court operations beyond the courtroom.   In addition, Mary Walker, Chief Judge of the Office of Administrative Hearings, the District’s administrative court, has agreed that her agency is covered by the Language Access Act and has taken important steps to implement its terms.  While there is a long way to go for these Courts to be fully accessible, these are important developments and we are grateful to the Chief Judges for their actions.

Aug 18


David Reiser Receives Pro Bono Publico Award from ABA

Jonathan Smith, Executive Director

“What is really at stake is nothing less than the legitimacy of our legal system and the rule of law.” This is what David Reiser had printed in the program book when the American Bar Association awarded him its Pro Bono Publico Award. The presentation took place on August 9 at the ABA annual meeting in San Francisco. We heartily congratulate David for this well deserved honor.

David is an important part of the Legal Aid team. He joined us as a volunteer in 2004 as we were developing the Appellate Advocacy Project. He worked closely with Barbara McDowell, the first Project director, to help her build the program to be a respected voice on poverty law issues in the D.C. Court of Appeals. David was instrumental in keeping the project going after Barbara’s death in early 2009 and has continued to support and partner with our current Appellate Director, Bonnie Robin-Vergeer. He has dedicated thousands of hours to the project.

David Reiser

David’s contribution has extended far beyond our Appellate work. He has mentored staff on complex trials and been wise counsel on policy issues. But the thing we value most is his commitment to ensuring equal justice for people living in poverty. He is relentless and uncompromising in his advocacy that the Courts must protect the substance of justice – a fair process is not enough. This point was best made in the acceptance essay David wrote for the program book (he was not permitted a speech at the luncheon):

It is a misconception that the legal problems of poor people are easier to solve than those of businesses or wealthy individuals, or that poor people have less need of skillful and experienced lawyers. Although the representation of poor people is sometimes a matter of routine, that is because a lack of resources sometimes makes creativity impossible, not because creativity is any less needed or desired. In the six years of work on the appellate project, we have consistently found that the skills of experienced and highly trained appellate lawyers make a difference in the outcome of cases….

[P]ro bono service is not merely an ethical requirement – a quid pro quo for a bar license – it is a moral imperative because without it the law systematically aids the wealthy and disadvantages the poor, becoming a system of coercion rather than one than honors individual autonomy and choice.

The importance and complexity of the work done for poor clients should not be measured in dollars. For a poor family, the foreclosure of a $100,000 townhouse is every bit as momentous as a $100 million bankruptcy, and may present just as many cutting-edge legal issues. Without the best lawyering, a parent’s connection to a child can needlessly be severed with a penstroke. That is something hard to price…

The ABA prepared a video on David’s work. It can be viewed HERE.

David’s efforts would not be possible without the generous support of Zuckerman Spaeder where he is a counsel.   The firm encourages not only David, but other lawyers to work with Legal Aid.  The firm has taken cases pro bono and helped in innumerable ways.