Ralph Nader Fights `Power Structure' From the Inside

HE'S gray at the temples now, and his face shows the effects of three decades of relentless legal and legislative battles. But as lawyer and consumer activist Ralph Nader approaches senior-citizen status, he still radiates coiled energy, and his eyes still smolder when he talks about social injustice.

Mr. Nader started his public career as a Lone Ranger who rode out of nowhere to fight General Motors and other corporate interests on behalf of consumers. But besides being an advocate, Nader has been an institution-builder. His crusade has been amplified by nearly a dozen consumer-rights organizations he has founded and by numerous other groups copying his model.

Nader is mustering yet another battalion of social-justice commandos. This time, instead of just recruiting more young, liberal (some critics would say radical) lawyers to take on what he calls the ``power structure,'' Nader is trying to enlist power-structure members themselves. And some are answering the bugle call.

Nader is starting with his classmates in the Harvard Law School class of 1958. Now in their 60s, many of these men and women are senior attorneys in law firms and corporations, judges, even captains of industry. Last year, to mark their 35th reunion, about 15 members of the class, at Nader's prompting, formed the Appleseed Foundation in Washington. The foundation's mission is ``to plant the seeds for a new model of lawyering for the public interest.''

The foundation will help set up ``centers for law and justice'' around the country. It will recruit Harvard Law School alums to be ``Johnny Appleseeds,'' as Nader puts it, who will establish the state centers, though Nader hopes that the Harvard lawyers will soon be joined by graduates of other law schools, law students, and nonlawyer community activists.

The centers will not just augment legal-aid societies or public-interest law firms that represent individual poor clients. Instead, Nader stresses, the largely autonomous centers will focus on ``systemic approaches for systemic problems.'' Class-action lawsuits will be one weapon, but the centers also will work through the legislative process, community organizing, negotiations, and public education.

As examples of the kinds of systemic problems the Appleseed centers will tackle, Nader ticks off defects in the juvenile-justice system (``now it's a totally punitive approach''), in probate courts (``small estates are getting ripped off''), and in banking (``excessive bank charges are a scandal'').

So far three Appleseed centers have opened their doors - in New Jersey, in the District of Columbia, and, about a month ago, in Boston. The executive director at the Massachusetts center, Ed DeAngelo (Harvard Law '83), left a job in the state attorney general's office because, he says, he was ``very excited by this new way to use law to bring about social justice.''

Nader says that approval for the project hasn't just come from lefties. ``There are some pretty conservative people'' in the foundation's organizing group, he says. ``Whether you're conservative or liberal, you've got to realize that a lot of things are deteriorating in our country.''

Nader believes that Appleseed has the potential ``to transform the legal profession.'' Referring to many members of the profession, he says: ``In their practices, they're attorneys, but in Appleseed, they can be lawyers. Attorneys represent clients for pay; lawyers look at the bigger picture and work for justice.''

Nader senses that there are a lot of ``suppressed crusaders'' among his contemporaries. The point of Appleseed, he says, is not just to confront the power structure, but to lead by example. ``Our class of '58 is part of the power structure,'' he notes.

Asked how it feels to be ``part of the power structure,'' the goad of corporate America's social consciousness lets out a hearty laugh.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.