Even as a teen, Loren Miller award winner’s concern for
downtrodden drew attention
By Amy Yarbrough
A visit from the FBI and New York City police officers in
high school must have made it clear that Betty Nordwind was not your average
|Nordwind - Photo by Hugh Hamilton
Angered by a newspaper article she’d read about police
brutality, Nordwind fired off a letter in protest, which prompted the visit
from authorities, who were convinced someone had put her up to it.
“They didn’t think this was just an isolated high school kid
writing a letter protesting police brutality,” said Nordwind, who – uncharacteristic
of most teens – had a photo of the U.S. Supreme Court justices hanging on her
Nordwind also took part in the March on Washington in 1963 and
organized a drive at her school to send school supplies to Central America.
“My mother told me the principal told her, ‘I can’t wait
until she gets out of high school. I’m so tired of shipping these cartons down
to Central America,’ ” Nordwind recalled.
Years later, Nordwind’s interest in fairness and justice shows
no signs of wavering. Executive director of the Harriett Buhai Center for
Family Law in Los Angeles for 27 years, Nordwind will be recognized for her
commitment to legal services with the 2014 Loren Miller Legal Services Award.
Created in 1977 and given each year during the State Bar’s
Annual Meeting, the Loren Miller Legal Services Award recognizes individuals
who have demonstrated a long-term commitment to legal services and done
significant work to extend legal services to the poor.
Nordwind described being chosen to receive the award as an
honor, but also “a little overwhelming,” noting that she only learned of her
nomination after the materials were sent in.
“To some degree, it gives you a newfound respect for
yourself,” she said. The word “vindicated” also comes to mind.
“I went against the grain in many different ways for a long
time,” she said. “I have stayed the course, and public interest does have
tremendous meaning and value.”
Growing up in New York City during the Vietnam War and the civil
rights movement, Nordwind said she was not only “born at the right time,” but
that her parents “while not political in the sense of activists, always had a
good set of values and respect for people.”
After college, Nordwind planned to go into social work, but became
less and less excited upon seeing the jobs available to her. When she learned
that one woman she knew was in law school and another was applying, “a light
bulb went off.” Nordwind took the LSAT on April 4, 1968, the day of Martin
Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
After graduating from the University of Colorado School of
Law in 1971, she began working at Metropolitan Denver Legal Aid handling
welfare, consumer, housing and family law cases. In 1975, she established the
organization’s first mental health law unit, after securing a contract with the
city and county for the legal aid organization to represent people who were
being committed under the mental health statute.
“I cut my teeth with some very good legal services lawyers
who taught me how to be a good lawyer,” Nordwind said of her days in Denver.
Nearly 10 years later, after working as a private consultant
and for other legal assistance organizations in Colorado and Massachusetts, Nordwind
joined LA’s Harriett Buhai Center.
With Nordwind at its helm, the agency expanded from two
staff members, 35 volunteers and a budget of $160,000 in its early days to an
organization with more than $1.6 million in annual funding. Today, there are 19
funded staff positions and 300-plus volunteers. The center now helps more than
900 low-income people a year with family law and domestic violence matters,
including custody, paternity, child support and restraining orders.
Over the years, Nordwind has also taught and set an example
for countless attorneys, according to Ana Storey, who describes her as a “godmother
to many of us in the family law public interest world here in LA.”
Director of client and community services for the Legal Aid
Foundation of Los Angeles, Storey met Nordwind 16 or 17 years ago when Storey
was a law clerk for the center. She said Nordwind remains just as committed as
the day she met her.
“It’s her passion. Betty can get fired up about injustice
and get the rest of us fired up too,” Storey said.
During her early years with the center, Nordwind developed a
clinic-based volunteer system with attorneys overseeing volunteers, who in turn
guided self-represented litigants. Later, she began recruiting lawyers to provide
pro bono representation to low-income clients with more complex cases.
Knowing that it is often difficult for low-income clients to
get to the center, Nordwind partnered with other community organizations, legal
aid offices and churches to provide services at their locations. Each month,
the center also provides legal services to low-income students at community
colleges across the county.
In 2004, she worked with then-Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee
Baca to bring legal education classes to female inmates in the county. The
project, attended by more than 16,000 inmates so far, will resume again later
this year. Recently, she also obtained grant funding to provide legal education
on domestic violence issues to women veterans.
Another of Nordwind’s key areas of focus has been ensuring
that low-income litigants are not prevented from accessing the judicial system
because of court fees. To that end, the center recruited the appellate law firm
Horvitz & Levy to take on precedent-setting cases that challenged Los
Angeles County Superior Court’s fees for mandatory family law mediations and
the court’s denial of applications for waivers of court fees.
Firm partner David Ettinger, who handled those pro bono
cases for the center and serves on its board of directors, called Nordwind “a
major force in extending legal services to the poor.
“Although I have worked on pro bono cases with other fine public
interest organizations, I have met no one as fiercely and tenaciously dedicated
as is Betty to providing equal access to justice for the poor,” he wrote in a
letter in support of her award nomination. “Even after her many years of
service, Betty remains remarkably indefatigable in pursuing equal justice.”
Nordwind attributes her long tenure with the center to the
quality of people she works with and the fact that each day on the job is stimulating.
what we are doing as it impacts poor people, poor children is very important,” she said. “We have a tremendous community of people who care.”