Legal clinic helps bring justice to E. Palo Alto

ON one side of the freeway, there is affluence and success; on the other, poverty and despair. Until recently, there were few attempts to bridge the gap. Posh West Palo Alto houses the white and wealthy. Among them, savvy businessmen and well-heeled scholars. Its world-renowned research facilities are neatly nestled among expensive garden-graced private homes. Fashionable boutiques crown a bustling business district. Assured professionals swarm the avenues. And on the hill prestigious Stanford Universi ty annually churns out a cadre of future national leaders. Just five miles away, here in East Palo Alto, the contrast is sharp. Poverty, joblessness, and lack of education and opportunities are characteristics that aptly describe this modest, often stark, community of 18,000. Eighty-five percent of the residents come from minority backgrounds; one-third of the community are Hispanic. A majority are on welfare or eligible for old-age assistance. Homes are old, sometimes ramshackle. Renters far outnumber owners. The high school drop-out rate tops 50 percent. Crim e and delinquency are all too apparent. Legal and medical assistance are at a premium. Justice is sometimes unevenly dispensed.

But East Palo Alto is not a town without hope. Of late, community development programs have helped it address some of its economic and political problems. And now a symbol of justice stands by a renovated old house on the edge of town -- a sign advertising a community-based legal clinic that provides, at low or no cost, counseling and courtroom services to those grappling with domestic disputes to criminal matters to immigration conflicts.

Largely staffed by law school volunteers from Stanford -- who back up a handful of bona fide poverty law experts -- the fledgling East Palo Alto Community Law Project (EPACLP) has served over 800 clients in its first year of operation.

At the outset, student interns canvassed the community -- knocking on 2,000 doors to assess case priorities, inform citizens of EPACLP's availability and services, and establish that they were really there to help.

``There was some suspicion at first,'' admits Omowali Satterwaite, an 18-year resident who heads East Palo Alto's Community Development Institute. But Mr. Satterwaite explains that EPACLP filled an important void. ``We had a potpourri of problems in the community -- teen-age [delinquency], parenting, school advocacy, domestic violence -- which needed a base of legal services,'' he says. ``The important thing is that they [EPACLP] created a trust . . . and they didn't raise false expectations.''

East Palo Alto Mayor Barbara Mouton -- a San Francisco Bay Area native who has spent 30 years in the community -- is particularly enthusiastic about the project. She says it provides legal assistance which was not previously available. Until recently, East Palo Alto boasted only two private attorneys -- and their fees were out of the range of most residents.

Mayor Mouton stresses that high legal costs affect how justice serves the poor. Young minority males who get into trouble with the law ``often plead guilty because they don't know any better,'' she explains. The municipal official also points out that widows, female heads of households, and senior citizens in a community like East Palo Alto also tend to have special legal needs.

The executive director of the East Palo Alto Community Law Project, Susan Balliet -- a longtime civil rights champion -- says that sharp cutbacks in federal antipoverty programs by the Reagan administration make the community law project's role even more vital.

She explains that the East Palo Alto clinic has had to pick up the slack to provide advocacy in many areas, such as landlord-tenant disputes and clashes with the government over public benefits.

Recently, Miss Balliet successfully represented three elderly widows whose bank accounts were taken into custody by the government after the women had received social-security overpayments due to an administrative mistake. In a case which has had national ramifications, a federal judge ordered the Reagan administration to desist from making such deductions without first giving notice or a hearing.

Until recently, EPACLP employed but four full-time lawyers; now it has added immigration specialist William Hing to its staff. Mr. Hing says that federal authorities tend to ``zero in on Hispanics'' in deportation proceedings -- and that East Palo Alto residents clearly need legal assistance in this area. ``There are many who are undocumented who can easily become documented,'' he says. ``They have relatives or friends who can help. But they don't know what to do.''

The East Palo Alto law project was initially underwritten by some $350,000 in donations from foundations and philanthropists. Although technically independent from Stanford, EPACLP makes use of law-school volunteers as well as faculty expertise. Professors at Stanford stress the importance of this type of on-the-job practical experience for future lawyers.

Paul Brest, who conducts a poverty law seminar with colleague William Simons, concedes that most of his students won't end up in public-interest law. ``Few jobs are available. And the pay is low,'' he explains. But Brest wants his students to volunteer at EPACLP in order to ``get a sense of poor people's experiences.''

``My hope is that they [the students] will become better citizens,'' the Stanford professor adds.

Jennifer Wright, a third-year law student who serves as a clinic volunteer, says her work with the poor has given her an entirely new outlook on the law. ``Perhaps this is the only worthwhile learning I've done in law school,'' she flatly states.

San Jose Municipal Court Judge LaDoris Cordell says such a project helps students ``put theory into practice.'' Judge Cordell, who formerly practiced law in East Palo Alto, stresses the vital need for professional legal services in this community. She says more representation should be available for those with ``marriage, child support, and custody'' problems.

``And this type of work tends to sensitize students,'' she adds. ``It will make them better lawyers -- and better human beings.''

Curtis J. Sitomer writes the Monitor's weekly ``Justice'' column.

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