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Q&A: Church joins effort to help the needy get legal aid

Jack Sutro

Recently, the leadership of the Episcopal Diocese of California, which includes 79 congregations in San Francisco Bay Area, agreed to support the Campaign for Justice in raising money for legal services for the poor. Retired Marin County Superior Court Judge Jack Sutro, a member of the Legal Services Trust Fund Commission, spoke to the Bar Journal about the effort. Here’s an edited version of the conversation.

Tell us how this unique partnership came about.

Sutro: Several months ago the idea germinated with some members of the Legal Services Trust Fund Commission that one possible way of raising money for the Justice Gap Fund was to get churches involved, religious institutions, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and so forth. Before I went on the bench I was very involved in the Episcopal Church. I still am. I’m a Eucharistic minister. I’m a member of St. John’s in Ross and have been since 1973. When I heard about this faith-based initiative, I said I’d see what I could do about getting the Episcopal Church involved. I’m very glad to say that the Episcopal Church is solidly behind our effort to raise funds needed to provide legal services to the needy.

It’s a regional effort, right?

Sutro: Yes. This isn’t a high-intensity solicitation effort. As I understand it, we’re trying to get a lot of people to put a few dollars in. And maybe if we’re lucky we’ll get somebody who really believes in this and sees the importance of it to make a donation of a lot more. Hopefully it’s something that can be ongoing with our parish and not just a one-shot deal. The need of indigent or lower-income people for legal services is something that no one really pays much attention to or maybe is that conscious of. But it is a need that can be as significant to the needy as medical care and shelter.

A lot of times the legal issues that needy people get involved in result from eviction cases, where they’re in danger of losing their homes, and also the inability to get medical services and assistance in that regard. So this fits right in with the goal of the church to help people in need. I think we have very solid support here because of the backing of the bishop and also because of my rector, who has direct contact with all the clergy in the diocese.

It sounds like it’s an issue that wasn’t at the forefront in the minds of the church leaders, but once you brought it up, they recognized the importance.

Sutro: That’s exactly right. It is a natural fit, and it was an easy sell. Our parish, for example, has always had a very vigorous outreach program. For many years our church has raised substantial amounts of money for the needy in our community and has been doing this for years and continues to do so. And this fits right in with it. I don’t expect we’re going to raise huge amounts of money, but I do hope we can raise something noticeable. And aside from raising money, it educates people to the need to provide funds for legal services for the needy in California.

I’m sure you know the sad history of the funds available for legal services since the collapse of the financial markets. In 2008, the bottom dropped out on the interest rates, so our IOLTA funds went from $22 million in 2008 to about $5 million now. That’s a huge hit when you have 97 legal aid agencies in California. The need for the services is not diminishing, it’s increasing, and so is the need to fund them. The Justice Gap Fund is a very significant effort to try to bridge this huge gap that has been created by the dropping of interest rates to near zero.

Did the financial crisis make you have to think more creatively about different ways to raise money and lead to this effort to reach out to religious institutions?

Sutro: Yes, I think that’s certainly a fair statement. The faith-based initiative is the result of some creative thinking on the part of the members of the commission to try and raise money for the Justice Gap Fund. One of the important things here too is, as I said, educational – to make people aware of something probably nobody gives much thought to. One of our goals is to organize attorneys who are members of the parish, to get them more involved and to contribute. Hopefully that will work its way out into the firms and we can get better participation of the legal profession. Our legal system depends on people’s respect for it. When people get ground up in it because they’re helpless, they’re helplessly ensnared in legal matters, that doesn’t do anything to enhance people’s respect for the legal system.

If you’re successful in this partnership, do you hope it will be a model for other faiths?

Sutro: Absolutely.

You’ve volunteered on the Legal Services Trust Fund board since 2010. I’m curious what’s motivated you to give so much of your time to this issue.

Sutro: In my last couple of years on the bench I was in the civil division. The civil division judges were swamped with eviction cases and credit card debt cases. Those are the two that come to mind most readily. And I kept seeing these people who were coming into court on their own. There would be some lawyer there for the landlord or the credit card company and these debtors, and tenants didn’t have a clue about the procedure or what was going on.

Of course as a judge there was only a limited amount I could do to try to see that they weren’t just eaten alive, so to speak. I’d refer them to legal aid. We had an office where people could go in and get help preparing forms. It bothered me. If you owe money, you ought to pay it. You shouldn’t get free tenancy, and you shouldn’t get free goods off your credit card. But on the other hand, there are ways of working things out so that people don’t have to go out on the street. They need somebody to represent them. That troubled me. And it was frustrating because I had to be careful as a judge not to become everybody’s advocate.

When I was retiring, I had a friend, Dick Odgers. He and I started practicing together at Pillsbury Madison & Sutro and have been friends for many years. When I was retiring he invited me to lunch at the Buckeye in Sausalito and the subject came up about legal representation for the needy. He said if you really mean what you say about not sitting around on your hind-end when you retire, I have something for you. He sent me an application for a spot on the commission. I became a member in April 2010. It’s been a very interesting experience. I’ve really enjoyed the people I’ve worked with.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Sutro: I just hope that something really good comes out of this, and I have confidence that it will.