Bar News - September 7, 2007
Disabilities Rights Center Receives $100,000 Gift
By: Richard Cohen
When Robert Viles died in a tragic accident eight years ago, most people in the national legal community knew Franklin Pierce Law Center’s dean and president for his expertise and leadership in bankruptcy and intellectual property law and in innovative legal education. He also had an equal passion for and a commitment to ensuring that poor people, individuals with disabilities, and other disenfranchised citizens had access to zealous, quality advocacy.
Last month, his commitment was honored by a gift of $100,000 to the Disabilities Rights Center. The anonymous donor’s gift could not have come at a more fortuitous time. Due to decreased funding during the past several years, DRC has had to reduce the size of its staff when the need for its service remains as strong, if not stronger, than in the past.
Dean Viles and I came to New Hampshire the same year, 1973. While I did not know him well, I sensed that he always understood and appreciated the work of the DRC. The DRC seeks “to eliminate barriers existing in New Hampshire and ensure that its citizens with disabilities enjoy full and equal enjoyment of civil and other legal rights” and has put into place a broad range of approaches to pursue that mission.
In 1967, Viles, then a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law, wrote about the need for this multi-faceted approach to advocacy and social change. Using (somewhat prophetically) disparate funding allocations between rich and poor school districts as an example, Professor Viles wrote about how lawyer training and skills were particularly well suited to addressing this type of political and economic problem and of necessity across multiple fronts:
With the increasing complexity of government involvement in all areas of life, the selection of forums may be wide and the choice may be crucial. Thus [for] school funds [inequities], there may be local, state, and national forums; courts, administrative agencies, elected offices… The lawyer by a combination of both political and legal awareness knows the ways of exerting national pressure on local scenes, and local pressure on national scenes. He knows which state officials can be responsive…to citizen complaints. He knows how evidence of particular wrongfulness can be effectively used, under threat of law suit and other public disclosure, as lever for general reform and cooperation.
(Robert M. Viles, The War on Poverty: What Can Lawyers (Being Human) Do? 53 Iowa Law Review 121, 133-134 (1967).)
While great strides have been made on the “War on Poverty” and in the Disabilities Rights Movement in the 40 years since Bob Viles wrote his article, setbacks on the political and judicial fronts have both hindered progress on these causes and hampered the work of legal service organizations like DRC, NH Legal Assistance (NHLA), Pro Bono, and the Legal Advice and Referral Center (LARC) in recent years. Viles’ 1967 article and his legacy are particularly apt now as the recently created Access for Justice Commission studies ways to improve access to justice for all citizens.
The DRC Board and staff are very appreciative of this donation honoring Bob Viles’ life and work. Not only does this generous gift head off an immediate crisis, it also honors DRC’s work and commitment, and its efforts on its own to sustain and build capacity to serve its clients in a multifaceted way. We also hope the donation will encourage and catalyze our fellow lawyers and others committed to equal justice for all citizens to support DRC along with NHLA, LARC, and Pro Bono. Disability, which many of us will experience in our lives, is a natural part of human experience and in no way should diminish a person’s access to justice or the right to participate and contribute to society.
Richard Cohen is the Executive Director of the Disabilities Rights Center in Concord. He has been a member of the NH Bar since 1974.