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Justice Laurie Zelon honored with
Benjamin Aranda Award

Laurie Zelon
Laurie Zelon

As a lawyer, Justice Laurie Zelon worked for major law firms and represented clients who could well afford her services. But through all those law firm years as well as her time as a Harvard law student and more recently as a judge and justice, she never lost sight of the fact that many people who need legal services don’t have the money to pay for them. It wasn’t enough for her to simply lament their lack of access; she took it upon herself to be their champion.

For her work opening the courts to people who might never have had representation or known how to make their way through the justice system, Zelon, 57, is the recipient of the 2010 Benjamin Aranda Access to Justice Award. The award, named for the founding chair of the Judicial Council’s Access and Fairness Advisory Committee, honors a trial judge or an appellate justice whose activities demonstrate a long-term commitment to improving access to justice. Sponsored jointly by the State Bar, California Commission on Access to Justice, Judicial Council and California Judges Association, the award will be presented at the Judicial Council's December meeting.

“I’m blown away by it,” Zelon said of receiving the award. “It’s an enormous honor and the honor is even more so because it comes from the groups who are both my peers professionally and who have been working incredibly hard in this area of providing access. To be recognized by people who walk the walk every day makes it so much more of a meaningful award.”

The justice, whose legal career has included stints at Beardsley, Hufstedler & Kemble, Hufstedler, Kaus & Ettinger and Morrison & Foerster, has served on many committees and commissions devoted to making the justice system more accessible. The group for which she has done some of her most longstanding work is the Commission on Access to Justice, a collaborative effort of the State Bar, Judicial Council and other California agencies and professionals, which she helped form and on which she served as the first chair.

“We’ve made some really significant progress,” she said of the commission, which was created in 1997. She pointed to increased funds for legal services programs, a higher number of programs to help low-income people find counsel and the more friendly courts, which include centers to help people represent themselves.

“Most people self-representing aren’t self-representing out of choice,” Zelon says. “They’re usually people who earn too much to qualify for legal aid but not enough to hire a lawyer. Or, their cases make it difficult to find counsel . . . We can debate whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s there,” she says of the move towards self-representation. “It’s really important to be able to understand people’s needs and sort out who can do it without a lawyer’s help. People have different levels of needs. We need to understand that.”

The “Shriver Project,” a bill signed into law in California last year, recognizes a civil right to counsel and establishes funding for a three-year pilot project that will provide poor individuals a lawyer in such cases as domestic violence claims, child custody and housing. Zelon calls the measure “another leg” on the access to justice chair. Monitoring how the law is used will provide valuable information, she adds.

Zelon was appointed to the Los Angeles Superior Court in 2000 and elevated to the Court of Appeal in 2003. She has chaired and served on a host of committees and commissions, including the Delivery and Pro Bono Projects Committee and Delivery of Legal Services Committee of the ABA’s Young Lawyers Division, the ABA’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, the Consortium on Legal Services and the Public, the State Bar’s Access to Justice Working Group, the Judicial Council’s Advisory Committee on Access and Fairness, the council’s Racial and Ethnic Fairness, Sexual Orientation and Economic Access subcommittees and she chaired the Elkins Family Law Task Force. She has testified before Congress on behalf of the ABA in support of the Legal Services Corporation. She is a past president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association.

Other awards she has received include the William Reece Smith Jr. Special Services to Pro Bono Award, the Charles Dorsey Award from the National Legal Aid & Defender Association and the Loren Miller Legal Services Award from the State Bar. She was the first recipient of the Laurie D. Zelon Pro Bono Award, given by the Pro Bono Institute of Washington, D.C.

“As someone who received the Aranda Award a few years ago,” says retired Court of Appeal Justice Earl Johnson Jr., “I can truthfully say no judge ever has done as much to merit this honor as Justice Laurie Zelon.”

Zelon’s colleague, Justice Maria Rivera of the First District Court of Appeal, concurs. “Justice Zelon personifies the Benjamin Aranda Award,” says Rivera. “She has labored continually, arduously and passionately to make ‘justice for all’ a meaningful phrase. She has done this at the national, state and local levels. And she has been very effective in those efforts because she is dedicated, smart, tenacious and politically adept.”