GENERAL JAMES OGLETHORPE banned lawyers from the original Georgia colony, but he might have changed his mind if he'd met a certain few from Savannah.
More than 65 local attorneys were recognized at the Morris Center last Friday for volunteering their time and skills to fellow citizens who would otherwise not have had access to legal counsel as part of the Georgia Legal Services Program (GLSP).
Two million Georgians live under the poverty line, and many find themselves helpless in a complex civil justice system. While it handles no criminal cases, GLSP helps those struggling with domestic and elder abuse recourse, special needs rights and disaster displacement. Its attorneys handled over 180 cases in 2014, helping GLSP fulfill its mission to provide legal access to low-income Georgians.
“They aren’t just numbers, they’re not statistics. They’re not even clients,” said GLSP’s Heidi Behnke of those who benefit from the organization. “They’re people.”
The belief in “liberty and justice for all—not just those who can afford it” is the rallying ideal behind the work of GLSP. Francesca Rehal received a special award for Top Pro Bono Advocate of the year for her work with domestic violence victims and tenants needing counsel against unfair landlords.
“I grew up poor, and every time we needed something, my mother had to go find help,” explained Rehal of her efforts. “She raised me to help others.”
Managing attorney Bill Broker applauded Rehal’s standout dedication in his introduction. “She never says ‘no,’” marveled Broker. “I don’t think she’s ever refused a call.”
Broker also reminded that many of GLSP’s pro bono lawyers travel beyond Chatham County to reach those in 11 southeast Georgia counties, from Effingham to Tattnall to Toombs. Seventy percent of Georgia’s attorneys practice in the metro Atlanta area, while some areas have a dearth of legal options—six counties have no registered lawyers at all. This imbalance creates “islands of justice” as denizens the state’s rural regions are left uneducated on legal matters, and often represent themselves in court.
“It’s not like Savannah, where we have plenty of lawyers’ offices,” explained attorney Jerold Murray, who handles divorce cases and often arranges protective orders for abused spouses. “Here they’re like churches—one on every corner!”
GLSP’s cause has been heralded throughout the state by the event’s keynote speaker, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Hugh P. Thompson. In his first State of the Judiciary address last February, he highlighted the importance GLSP.
“As a result of the lack of adequate legal services, our courts are seeing a growth in the number of people representing themselves,” Chief Justice Thompson said in his speech at the state capitol.
“Judges worry not only about clogged dockets as a result of these pro se litigants, but more importantly, about unfair trials and unjust results.”
At Friday’s event, he again echoed the importance of legal access in what he calls an “adversarial system of justice.”
“The fact is, people who represent themselves often lose,” he said, lauding the room’s attorneys for their work in what were once simple civil matters.
“As our society becomes more complex, people have to interface with more administrative entities. It used to be that if a grandparent needed to get a grandchild into school, it was taken at face value.”
On the bench since 1979 and appointed to the Supreme Court in 1994, Chief Justice Thompson has a reputation for being a tough sentencer. According to Judgepedia, he has been rated as having “liberal ideological leanings” by a Stanford study that determines the partisan tendencies of state judges.
“I just call ‘em like I see ‘em” was his response to the Judgepedia report. With a chuckle he added, “Liberal, huh? Some people I know would take issue with that.”
For his part, the Chief Justice considers the work of GLSP to be non-partisan and wholly necessary.
“Equality before the law in a true democracy is a matter of right,” he says, quoting the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Wiley Rutledge.
“It cannot be a matter of charity or of favor or of grace or of discretion. “