On June 1, the Legal Times published its list of Champions, Visionaries and Pioneers. Among them was Barbara McDowell, the first director of Legal Aid’s Appellate Advocacy Project and an extraordinary lawyer and anti-poverty advocate. Barbara was the leading anti-poverty voice in the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.
Barbara died in January of 2009, leaving a legacy of compassion, dedication and accomplishment. While at Legal Aid, Barbara handled a broad range of cases that developed important decisional law for families, individuals and communities living in poverty. The body of work Barbara left behind is extraordinary. Barbara fought to ensure that the Fair Housing Act is meaningful for persons living with mental illness. She worked on several important cases on behalf of women attempting to escape domestic violence. Barbara strongly believed that the legal system should work for everyone, whether they had counsel or not. She was offended when unrepresented litigants were kicked out of court for procedural foot faults. She brought a successful series of cases to ensure that litigants in administrative trials got a fair chance to present their cases on the merits.
Prior to joining Legal Aid, Barbara was an Assistant to the Solicitor General of the United States and argued 18 cases before the Supreme Court and numerous others before federal appellate courts. She had been a partner at Jones Day and a Supreme Court clerk.
Barbara was a colleague and a friend to us at Legal Aid and in the equal justice community. She was a teacher and a mentor to many younger lawyers and the go-to person for more experienced staff struggling with complex legal problems. We still miss her deeply.
Legal Aid is committed to continuing the work that Barbara began. The Project has been renamed in Barbara’s honor and we are pleased that Bonnie I. Robin-Vergeer will become its new director. She will start on June 22, 2009. Bonnie comes to Legal Aid after nine years at Public Citizen Litigation Group, where she made three U.S. Supreme Court arguments and numerous others before appellate courts throughout the country. Prior to her position at Public Citizen, Bonnie worked for then-Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr., was an associate at the law firm of Zuckerman Spaeder LLP and a Teaching Fellow at the Georgetown University Law Center Appellate Litigation Clinic.
Under Bonnie’s leadership, the Project will continue to pursue an affirmative poverty law reform agenda before the District of Columbia Court of Appeals and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The Project participates in cases that have the potential to influence the development of decisional law in a manner favorable to litigants living in poverty. Through close work with Legal Aid’s practice units and careful monitoring of the courts and administrative tribunals, the Project strives to identify significant emerging or unresolved issues. By developing cases that present these issues and by seeking out amicus opportunities through the Court of Appeals, the Project achieves high-impact, positive legal change. As the only legal services organization in the District committed to full-time anti-poverty appellate advocacy work, the Project has become an integral part of the legal services network.