Addressing needs as rights: Maryland Legal Aid looks through a human rights lens
Legal services to the poor grew out of the civil rights and anti-poverty movements of the mid-20th century, which had antecedents in the anti-slavery and women’s rights campaigns of the previous century.
And it’s all part of the human rights movement, which has ancient roots.
Recognizing those links, Maryland Legal Aid recently adopted a human rights framework to guide its mission of finding legal remedies for the problems that afflict the poor—and to advance the recognition and protection of basic human rights.
“Clients tell us they have needs for basic human rights and for us to make lasting changes for them we need to keep human right norms in mind as we look at legal remedies—poor housing, poor remuneration, unaffordable medical treatment,” said Seri Wilpone, chief attorney of Legal Aid’s Southern Maryland office in Hughesville.
While it may sound, at best, highly abstract—and, at worst, jumping off the deep end—there’s good law to back up a human rights framework.
“Basic human rights are found in the Declaration of Independence—‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’—as natural rights that the founders of our nation embraced,” said Wilpone, who headed a recent strategic planning process that recommended the human rights framework. “They’re also embodied in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as rights not given by the government, but as rights as human beings.”
Furthermore, the international community has examined what those rights mean and developed norms that nations should strive to achieve.
Closer to home, the U.S. Supreme Court and the Maryland Court of Appeals have looked to human rights law in examining issues such as capital punishment, medical experimentation on children and the right of transgendered people to be identified to their selected gender.
And it could apply in Maryland courtrooms. Prince George’s Co. Circuit Court Judge Cathy H. Serrette said she would welcome lawyers raising human rights issues and citing human rights authority.
“The U.S. Constitution provides that treaties made under the authority of the U.S. are the supreme law of the land, binding judges in every state,” Serrette said. “In addition to treaties, the courts have also historically considered customary international law. Ratified human rights treaties and customary international law which is consistent with the Constitution can thus be considered where appropriate.”
Recently Serrette attended the North American Judicial Colloquium at Brandeis University entitled, “What Can International and Domestic Judges Learn from One Another?” Judges from around the world discussed questions such as “How does international human rights law appropriately enter into the analysis of domestic issues?” “How can judges in domestic courts ascertain and interpret international human rights law?” and “Should federal courts and state courts approach these issues differently?”
“In an age of globalization, there is a burgeoning human rights law movement,” Serrette said. “A number of law professors and legal service organizations serving the poor have been looking at the use of human rights law as a basis for their advocacy. Reliance upon the rule of law and thoughtful legal advocacy to eliminate poverty and promote human dignity should be encouraged.”
One area ripe for legal remedies and viewable through a human rights lens is the right of ex-offenders to earn a living.
“The longstanding notion that felons deserve not only punishment, but a loss of certain citizenship privileges like voting, is starting to give way,” said Peter Sabonis, Legal Aid's former assistant director of advocacy for income security . “If minorities are being convicted at a disproportionately higher rate than whites, then you are systematically disenfranchising people racially.
“And yet it happens daily in the marketplace,” Sabonis noted. “Ex-offenders regularly are denied the right to work—a right that the Court of Appeals recognized over 100 years ago. Show me where in the state constitution that right exists. Yet the court called it ‘sacred and fully protected by the law.’
“Call it what you want—natural law, higher law, or human rights—but these rights flow from the very fact that we are human.”
One human rights expert said Legal Aid’s new human rights framework could launch a process that brings legal services back to its historical role on the forefront of social change.
“In terms of a revisioning process, it’s really creative,” said Cathy Albisa, executive director of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative in New York City. “I haven’t heard of any other legal services organization doing it.”
Albisa said a human rights framework offers several advantages, starting with putting lawyers in alignment with the people they serve.
“Clients see this as basic and fundamental, and have an instinctual and strong understanding of human rights,” she said. “When you talk to them about housing, education or healthcare, you get a strong response about basic human rights. It impacts the way a service provider connects with a client.”
It’s also critical that legal services lawyers advance the notion of human rights because they’re on the front lines of poverty work. “It’s important that they advance the notion that, say, housing is a human rights issue,” she said.
Finally, Legal Aid’s framing of the legal issues facing the poor in a human rights context will serve as an internal motivator for lawyers to think creatively.
“Forty years ago, legal services were an essential source of law reform,” Albisa said. “It was one of the most important allies of the poor. Now, with President Obama recommending the lifting of some restrictions on legal services organizations, there’s a new opportunity to rebuild it—and legal services organizations such as Legal Aid can reclaim this historic stage.”
For more information:
Universal Declaration on Human Rights
The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights