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The Black and White of Justice
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Freedom Interview
Making Legal Services Accessible to Minorities

Gavel on two books  I
n May 1993, Ricardo Torres II founded the Legal Corps of Los Angeles, a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization which provides legal services to wage earners who are not so impoverished as to warrant free legal aid, but not financially robust enough to afford private counsel. Presently, the Legal Corps services South Central Los Angeles, where there are very few attorneys in relation to residents in the area.

The Legal Corps plays an important role in making legal services accessible to minorities who would otherwise be at the mercy of the legal system.

Mr. Ricardo Torres II Torres is a Los Angeles native and a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and Loyola Law School.

He spoke to Aron C. Mason, Editor for Freedom, about the Legal Corps and what it is doing, as well as the state of the courts in Los Angeles.

o o o o o

Freedom: Tell us about the Legal Corps of Los Angeles and what it does.

Torres: The Legal Corps provides legal services to people who make minimum wage, or close to it, and are in need of legal aid. Unlike other services or clinics which show up from time to time, we actually take eligible people on as clients and resolve cases for them. We really care for their problems until they are resolved. We are one of the first organizations in the nation that is dedicated to this sector of people. It is now a growing movement through the American Bar Association Young Lawyers’ Division, and the president-elect of the ABA is encouraging programs like this to enhance access to the courts for American citizens.

Right now we are servicing just South Central L.A., but we intend to spread out into the Valley, San Pedro, East L.A. and possibly Hollywood. We have three lawyers, a paralegal and law students in the office right now.

We have about 40 steady clients with ongoing cases or similar matters, and we talk to about 15 people per week, either for small matters which are resolved easily or longer-term matters.

Freedom: What kinds of legal services do you provide?

Torres: We handle just about everything — civil litigation, family law, housing, employment law, elder law, trusts and wills. Whatever our clients need. If we wind up having to deal with a difficult or specialized issue, we get assistance from the Legal Corps Advisory Board member or members who know that field.

Freedom: Who is on the Advisory Board, and what do they do?

Torres: We have about 50 lawyers total on the board, representing 26 attorney associations and groups throughout the L.A. area. We have members from the Los Angeles County Bar Association, Beverly Hills Bar Association, Mexican-American Bar Association, Japanese-American Bar Association and many others.

The chairman and senior counsel of the Advisory Board is Jack Tenner, retired judge of the Superior Court of Los Angeles. We have some very experienced lawyers in specific fields on the board. For example, board member Kendrick Moxon is the foremost Freedom of Information Act expert in the nation.

These lawyers give us the experience that enables us to handle unusual cases or fields of law which the 10 of us in the Legal Corps offices don’t have. They are volunteers and their work is done entirely pro bono.

I was handling a foreclosure case to help someone keep their house. I contacted an Advisory Board member who knew this area well and in a matter of minutes he was able to direct me to case law, send me information and redacted briefs which were right on point. This saved me 10 hours or more of work and helped me prepare papers and craft arguments. We won and our client kept his house.

Freedom: How is the Legal Corps funded?

Torres: We are privately funded through corporate and individual sponsors. Sponsors provide $30,000 per year for an individual lawyer to work for the Legal Corps and represent all the clients he can handle.

Groups which have supported our efforts include the American Association of Retired People, which takes a keen interest in our work in the field of elder law.

Freedom: What other programs is the Legal Corps involved in?

Torres: We have several. One is the “Community Law Day” which we hold three times a year in parts of South Central L.A. We set up tables and booths and provide free legal advice. If people come up who need more help, they become our clients.

We also have a relationship with the University of Southern California, which has put on a Neighborhood Law Clinic as part of their Neighborhood Resource Center. We help provide free legal services to the people in the area surrounding the university on the third Thursday of each month.

Freedom: Do you see a need for reform in the local courts?

Torres: Yes. I think there is a problem of the courts not really understanding the people they are supposed to represent and protect. There is an unnatural and unnecessary separation between the judges and the people, and really I don’t think either side has enough contact with the other. But I’ve found judges often too entrenched in the business litigation of the well-to-do who come into their courtrooms, and quite unfriendly toward litigants without attorneys, who are often underprivileged or below the middle-class level and are forced to go into court — but without counsel.

The Legal Corps plays an important role in making legal services accessible to minorities who would otherwise be at the mercy of the legal system. Particularly, I think a better elective process is needed. The current process for state court judges is strange, where elections occur every six years countywide and unless there is a challenge, the incumbent is virtually guaranteed another six years. Perhaps something like holding district elections would be a better idea.

I also feel there needs to be a better way to protect judges from influence, and I think that starts with the judges themselves. Better ethical guidelines are needed, as the current ones leave opportunities for breaches and abuses.

There is also so much politics involved in the judiciary at nearly every level, starting with the selection of the judges by the governor’s office. I think that level of involvement excessively politicizes the judiciary.

Freedom: What kind of solutions do you see for this?

Torres: One idea, which is the most realistic one for our current system, is that the governor’s office, State Assembly and State Senate should each be able to provide candidates for appointment as judges. This would help with the problem of having candidates of only one viewpoint being considered for the judiciary.

Despite that, I think we need meaningful elections and the whole system needs to be evaluated.

Freedom: Where do you see positive changes occurring?

Torres: I think the Juvenile Courts have some great things happening in this regard. Many of these judges have started using alternative sentencing for juvenile offenders, community service, drug rehabilitation, or even just going to school under the court’s supervision. In this way, the judges aren’t punishers but common-sense providers of justice. Most parents I’ve spoken to are really happy with this. I’d like to see this kind of spirit in the other courts.

Freedom: What do you hope to achieve in the coming year?

Torres: I’d like to have the Legal Corps become a permanent, replicable program in South Central and then to take that model and expand throughout Los Angeles. We have also helped to establish Legal Corps outside of the city — for example, in San Diego, and I hope to see similar programs around the state in the future.

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