By Royal Brevvaxling Special to Published Mar 14, 2012 at 5:34 AM

Legal Action-Wisconsin is a non-profit law firm working a range of poverty law issues, from evictions to divorce, elder abuse, public benefits, foreclosure, driver license, criminal records and legal help for re-entering inmates. The firm focuses on addressing systemic issues, such as people who are kicked off public assistance without due process, so they can help the most people possible on shrinking budgets.

"We want to help everyone who comes to us, but we have so many more people asking for help that we already can't help. The most frustrating aspect of my job is telling people 'no,' people that I otherwise could help if we had the funding. It breaks my heart," says Nicole Zimmer, who's been with Legal Action since 2005.

Legal Action began in Milwaukee in 1968 and has grown to serve people in 39 counties in Wisconsin, dividing the state with another organization, Wisconsin Judicare, along a line from Door County in the northeast to Buffalo County in the western arrowhead. Legal Action covers most of Wisconsin's cities, except Eau Claire and Wausau.

The firm uses the motto "equal justice under law," and an image of the U.S. Supreme Court building on which it's engraved, as its logo.

"Justice is the bedrock of our nation, political system and society. This is a very conservative time when there's a lot being done to hurt poor people and we gotta be careful not to let justice shrink to the point of nonexistence," says John Ebbott, executive director of Legal Action since 1990.

Justice operates on different levels; there's economic justice, social justice and the more narrowed sense of legal justice which is attained through law and the courts.

"There are a lot more middle class people dropping down into poverty status and a lot of them will be looking for legal justice to address these economic injustices," says Ebbott.

Legal Action grew out of the poverty community in Milwaukee County when the organizations working to effect change for low-income people started pushing for more legal remedies. Two Milwaukee-based firms came together to form Legal Action-Wisconsin, which then expanded to cover low-income advocacy issues in 11 counties.

Ebbott was the staff attorney for Freedom through Equality at the time and engaged in prison reform and migrant work. After the merger with Milwaukee Legal Services that formed Legal Action, Ebbott became the managing attorney of its South Side office.

"At one time, Legal Action had numerous neighborhood offices, which really helped us get into the communities," says Ebbott.

The first round of federal and state funding cuts in the '80s led to the closure of these neighborhood offices. More funding cuts followed, down to $500,000 a year and then to zero state funding during the '90s.

"We worked hard to increase our funding to one million, then 2.5 million for a biennium budget and now we're down to zero again," says Ebbott.

Legal Action's largest funding source remains the Legal Services Corporation, which is a conduit for Congressional funding.

Legal Action recently went from 90 FTEs (full-time equivalent positions) consisting of 54 attorneys, 15 paralegals, 15 secretaries and other support staff down to 66 FTEs.

"This is all part of a war on the poor which has been waged for the past 30 years. Our current budget loss is over $2.8 million. Under Walker, the state switched these budget items over to police radios and assistant district attorney salaries," says Ebbott.

"There's only a certain amount of 'inefficiencies' that can be squeezed out of the budget and that's it," he says.

A recent litigation example that highlights some of Legal Action's work helping low-income people is Jamerson v. Dept. of Children and Families, which involved revocation of a group childcare license without a hearing.

"These small daycare centers, which became prevalent after Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC program) was repealed only so women could work and find places to care for their kids as they did, should be models of small business," says Ebbott. "But the state has taken to revoking a lot of these licenses, I believe, only because the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel focuses on the very few childcare providers who actually were ripping people and the state off."

Legal Action's Road to Opportunity project (RTO) helps clear up document problems and does work such as getting adjustments to child support payments for people who want to pay for their kids but aren't left with enough money to live.

The Civil Gideon project, a part of Ebbott's more personal advocacy work, seeks to make legal counsel accessible to low-income people in civil cases.

In a recent letter to Ebbott, circuit court judge Andrew Sharp wrote, "Being one of the newly appointed judges in our state, I doubt I would have known I had the power to do that (appoint an attorney for an unrepresented poor person)."

The Civil Gideon project links to Legal Action's work in its effect on the systems of power that prevent access to justice for poor people.

"We're representing people who otherwise don't have a voice, people who would be run over by the legal system if we didn't assist them," says Zimmer.

Zimmer, who attended law school at the University of Washington-Seattle, always had an interest in sociology and social problems, but didn't want to be a social worker. Zimmer wanted something a little more challenging, which pushed her into law school.

"Sometimes clients' problems can be solved by the law alone, but often, to address the client as a whole person, we have to branch out to other areas. To help make their lives better, you need to be willing to go that extra mile," says Zimmer.

Ebbott likes being a poverty lawyer because he can use his law degree to actually help people and, in some cases, help change entire systems.

"For a growing segment of the population, legal services is the last place for people to get justice," says Ebbott.

Here's a link to video from the Chicago NBC affiliate reporting on the work of Legal Action's Road to Opportunity project with Dennis Teague, a Milwaukee man unable to get a job because of false information the state of Wisconsin provides to his prospective employers.

Royal Brevvaxling Special to
Royal Brevväxling is a writer, educator and visual artist. As a photo essayist, he also likes to tell stories with pictures. In his writing, Royal focuses on the people who make Milwaukee an inviting, interesting and inspiring place to live.

Royal has taught courses in critical pedagogy, writing, rhetoric and cultural studies at several schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He is currently Adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

Royal lives in Walker’s Point with his family and uses the light of the Polish Moon to illuminate his way home.