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Author: Courtney McKinney

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Three Phases of Justice for the Poor: from Charity to Discretion to Right, by Justice Earl Johnson Jr. (Ret.)

[Editor’s Note: Earl Johnson Jr., retired associate justice of the California Court of Appeal, presented the closing keynote speech at the Pathways to Justice Conference in Los Angeles, California, on June 7, 2008; the speech has been adapted slightly for publication here. Justice Johnson is scholar in residence at the Western Center on Law and Poverty and chairman of the Right to Legal Services Subcommittee of the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily of the aforementioned organizations  with which he is affiliated.]

As I began work on my new book, a history of legal aid from the beginning to the current day, I made a couple of surprising discoveries. First, that 44 years have passed since I first became a legal services lawyer and thus found the cause that was my vocation for several years and my avocation ever since. But then I did another calculation and realized that 44 years before my entry into the field was when the national legal aid movement first started—in 1920. So in one way or another I’ve been involved for half the time the legal aid movement has existed. I had always thought of the start of that movement as being back, way back, in the mists of time. Especially for the younger readers of this article, 1964 must also appear to be way back in the mists of time.

Reflecting back, I was struck with the symmetry—44 years of justice for the poor being a matter of private charity followed by another 44 years of justice for the poor being a matter largely of discretionary government funding. And now, on the horizon at least, is perhaps a third phase—justice for the poor as a matter of right.

And so I thought I would speak to you today about how each of the first two phases got started and then explore the prospects for that third phase coming into existence. Although the first and second phases may seem obvious and inevitable developments in retrospect, both were born despite serious controversy over whether they should happen.

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