Remarks at the American Bar Association's Annual Presidential Showcase Program

New York City | August 9, 1993

In the preamble to the United States Constitution, before that document refers to domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity -- before all of that -- The Constitution says, "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice...”

Mr. E.G. Marshall, our Toastmaster
Senator Warren Rudman, a stalwart in the New England tradition of George Aiken, Leverett Saltonstall, David L. Walsh, Lowell Weicker, Ed Muskie, George Mitchell
The Honorable Judith Kaye, Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals
Justice Lewis Powell.... in absentia
Vice President and Ambassador Walter Mondale in absentia
Sandy D'Alemberte, and his distinguished and even famous law partner, -- Chesterfield Smith

Ladies and Gentlemen:-

Today, on this remarkable occasion, let us, first of all, give credit to Edgar Cahn of Washington, D.C., and to his wife, Jean Camper Cahn, now deceased, who, in 1964 wrote a feature article published in the Yale Law School Journal under the title, "The War Against Poverty - A Civilian Perspective". Without that article and without the Cahns there would never have been a Legal Services Program for the Poor. "Never" is a huge word, but the fact is that the USA had already been in existence 200 years without any such service; Great Britain had been in existence for at least 900 years; Roman law had been in existence for 2,200 years; but nowhere was there a systematic, publicly financed effort to bring justice to the poor. Nowhere! Not ever!

Small wonder that I was stunned in my head and aroused in my heart when I read Edgar Cahn's article with its lucid and passionate analysis. I read it in the middle of the night lying in bed in the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, which was then Headquarters for the new "War Against Poverty." My friend, Adam Yarmolinsky, recommended I read the article, and he even bought me a copy of the Yale Law Journal, a grand gesture in itself, for Yarmolinsky had been editor of the Harvard Law Review. After finishing the article, about midnight, I sent a telegram to Edgar Cahn at his office in the Department of Justice inviting him to breakfast. At 8:00 a.m. there he was, somewhat small in stature, modest in demeanor, calm and reflective in speech. He impressed me immediately. He spoke with great clarity. His ideas and supportive facts and recommendations were new to me and original. He was dedicated to the achievement of justice for the poor. I think I asked him on the spot to leave his well-paid, GS-15 job in the Justice Department and join us in creating a new, national effort to establish justice for those in America who never had had justice at all. He accepted the challenge without hesitation. We never discussed salary or titles. Only the vision enthralled us both. And, maybe, there was never a totally new vision, a new idea, which caught on so quickly and achieved results almost overnight.

Nine hundred and eighty lawyers volunteered to serve, - almost immediately. They went to work instantaneously. I authorized money, which Congress had appropriated for Community Action, to finance Legal Services for the Poor. No one authorized me to do so. No one except the President could have stopped me because I was operating out of the White House as a Special Assistant to the President with my own budget given to me by Congress with few or no strings attached. Legal Services for the Poor began without waiting for Congressional approval. So did Head Start. So did Health Services for the Poor. So did "Foster Grandparents".

Within weeks, smart, young, dedicated lawyers were attacking old bureaucracies and old ways of doing business, - successfully. One of the cases that made a special impression on me was Shapiro vs. Thompson. Started by Legal Service lawyers to obtain welfare payments from New York State, that case hit the U.S. Supreme Court in 8 months. The state argued that its own residency requirements prevented welfare payments to unemployed new arrivals. The Supreme Court voted unanimously for the Legal Services lawyer and Governor Nelson Rockefeller was required to pay several hundred million dollars per annum to the new but poor immigrants into his state.

Young Legal Service lawyers initiated a half-dozen cases that went straight to the Supreme Court, and they never lost. Just for the record, Shapiro vs. Thompson was the first ever argued before the Supreme Court by any Legal Aid or Legal Services lawyers in U.S. History. Thank God we won!

If I were to go on and name all those men and women who have made huge contributions to this great cause of justice for the poor - people like Clint Bamberger and Earl Johnson - we would be here all day and all night, too. I'm not going to do that. I'm going to conclude by saying only this: -

Back in the earliest days of OEO, I had an opportunity to visit a Legal Services Center that had just opened at the University of Detroit Law School, run by faculty and students. I met a couple there. They were returning from an appearance in a small claims court. The husband was 71 years old, his wife 67. They were accompanied by a law student who had helped them in court. They had just won a verdict for $68. I asked them how they felt, and the old man looked at me and said: "Mr. Shriver, this is the first time we have ever won anything, the first time we've ever had anyone on our side." Then tears began to fill his eyes. And he took my hand and kissed it!

Of course, I didn't deserve or earn that kiss. In truth, that old man wasn't kissing my hand; he was kissing the hand of justice. Justice that had touched him for the very first time in his life...Justice...one of the most basic necessities for a good society. For without justice, there can be no good society.

In the preamble to the United States Constitution, before that document refers to domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity -- before all of that -- The Constitution says, "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice...”

We are a dead society if we do not make every effort, both public and private, to lift people up from the bottom. That is what the War on Poverty was all about. The goals we set for ourselves twenty-five years ago are no less relevant today. It's a risky business, to be sure. The people we are helping to start up society's ladder may be troublesome; they may not fit neatly into some bureaucratic scheme; their problems may be controversial.

But are not those the problems we should be about as a people? Isn't that what it means to be a caring nation, to reach deeper into ourselves to find ways to help every American achieve equality and justice and dignity? That's what America was all about when we began this monumental journey. And that is what you are all about today.

You are the true survivors. You have weathered every storm with your vitality and your idealism intact. Battered perhaps, but still in one piece. You have become an irreplaceable thread in the basic fabric of our democracy. You now know that, by the rightness of your mission, you can withstand the worst assaults of your enemies. You know that your cause is just.

And so I think again of that old man in Detroit twenty-five years ago who had tasted justice for the first time in his life. Remember him! For me, that was a rare and wonderful moment that I will remember all my life. For you, all of you, that kind of moment happens all the time, for that is the way you have chosen to live your lives: helping to lift up from the bottom of society those who need only for someone to be on their side. What a joyful way to practice law! What a joyful way to live!

I commend each and every one for your devotion to the cause of justice. I know you will continue, through your practice and through your lives, to show the way to a just and better America.