By Gary Blankenship
It was a low-key breakfast during the Bar’s recent Annual Convention to mark the 25th anniversary of the Public Interest Law Section, which outgoing Chair Tony Musto said could be summarized by a nonlow-key word: “Passion.”
“We have passion,” Musto said. “We have a passion for fairness; we have a passion for justice; we have a passion to doing the right thing. We have a passion to further the goal that’s set forth in our bylaws to advocate for the legal needs of people who are generally disenfranchised, underrepresented, or lack meaningful access to traditional legal forums.”
The ceremony also included congratulations from Supreme Court Justice Peggy Quince, the awarding of the section’s Jane Shaeffer Award to an advocate for the homeless, and a brief history from Musto, who said the section’s guiding principle has always been, “We do what’s right.”
Quince said section members epitomized the idealism that leads many people to law school.
“Many of us have heard people say and many of us have said, ‘I went to law school to help people,’ but you also do it,” she said. “Many of us sort of get derailed along the way, and we get caught up in making money and other things, and we don’t stick to that principle. I can only commend you for what you do.”
Quince added, “You practice in many different areas. Some of you do civil rights, some of you do consumer protection, environmental protection . . . but all of them essentially break down to one essential principle, and that is that you are doing things for the public good. You are fighting, in essence, for the little people and many of us are the little people, so you are fighting for all of us. I know we need that kind of advocacy, so I want to let you know that we appreciate it.”
The Shaeffer Award went to Orlando attorney Jacqueline Dowd, who works with the iDignity program to help homeless people with the necessary paperwork to get jobs and benefits. She also helped challenge an Orlando ordinance that banned providing meals in city parks for homeless people.
Section member Kirsten Clanton noted most people take for granted having birth certificates, Social Security cards, and driver’s licenses, but that can be an insurmountable obstacle for the homeless. She said it takes a government photo ID to get a Social Security card, but getting that photo ID usually requires a Social Security card or birth certificate.
Clanton remarked that in one case Dowd wrote a dozen letters and made numerous phone calls over an eight-month period to New York to get a homeless man a birth certificate, which in turn allowed him to get a commercial driver’s license and a job as a truck driver to support his wife and three children.
The iDignity program, she added, has so far represented about 13,000 people with such problems.
“The problems are more than people having lost their documents,” Dowd said as she accepted the award. “Sometimes their lives are so jumbled up they don’t even know what they need to do to get their documents.”
One client had a stroke and couldn’t remember his Social Security number, she said. Another had been removed as a child from a dangerous home in another state, and then given a new name by authorities, which made getting a birth certificate nearly impossible.
“A lot of people don’t have birth certificates and the whole thing has to be reconstructed now, 60 years later,” Dowd said.
And then there’s Calvin.
“When he was a little boy, his father shot his mother and buried her in the backyard. There’s no documentation of that, so I don’t know if that’s true, but everything else he has told me was true,” Dowd said. “We can’t get Calvin’s birth certificate until we figure out what his mother’s name is, and there’s no documentation.”
Musto recounted that the section has a history of helping people, especially those who are powerless. He noted that eight people filed a petition with the Bar in early May 1989 to form the section; the Board of Governors approved it later the same month and the section officially began on July 1, 1989.
“The first hotly debated issue that this section dealt with during its first year of existence resulted in a decision to petition Fidel Castro and the Cuban government for the release of three prisoners who had gone on a hunger strike after being imprisoned for 20 years,” Musto said, dryly adding the section had no illusions about the impact of the petition. But it showed, “We’re dreamers; that’s not a bad thing. We’re going to pursue the impossible goal.”
The section has been heavily involved in promoting the rights of children over the last decade plus, and it has pro bono programs to help children aging out of foster care and victims of human trafficking.
The section’s first two committees addressed the legal needs of children and corrections. The next committee focused on the rights of crime victims. The section’s first legislative position opposed any change to the IOTA program that provides legal aid funding for The Florida Bar Foundation and supported adding crimes based on sexual orientation to the state’s hate crimes laws.
Its next legislative position advocated revoking the state’s ban on adoption by gay parents.
However, as Musto recalled, “1991 was a very different world and when we submitted our legislative proposal through the Bar, the Board of Governors said, ‘No, no, no, that is a deeply divisive issue and we prohibit you from advocating that position.’
“We do what’s right,” he added. “That was the right thing to do then, and it’s the right thing to do now.”
“Over the years, the section has earned the title ‘the conscience of the Bar,’” Musto said. “We fight authority, but if you don’t fight the war, you can’t even win a battle. We do what’s right, because if you don’t do what’s right, you’re part of what’s wrong. We tilt at windmills,” Musto said.