Lawyer who helped establish legal services for the poor dies at 86

  • Print

2013 Edgar Cahn

Edgar Cahn in 2013. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Edgar Cahn, a lawyer who helped establish the program that would become known as the Legal Services Corp., has died at age 86.

Cahn died from congestive heart failure Jan. 23, report the New York Times and the Washington Post. The D.C. Bar posted a tribute.

Cahn and his late wife, Jean Camper Cahn, were graduates of Yale Law School. Their 1964 Yale Law Journal article advocating legal assistance for the poor became a blueprint for the federal program created by the Johnson administration’s Office of Economic Opportunity.

Cahn’s wife was the director of federal legal services for the program, while Cahn became an executive assistant to Sargent Shriver, the office’s director.

“The Legal Services Program, which later became the Legal Services Corp., was groundbreaking,” the New York Times reported. “It not only helped thousands of poor Americans receive justice; it also catalyzed the emergence of public interest law, creating new areas of litigation and scholarship, including tenants rights, consumer rights and government-benefits rights.”

Later, the Cahns founded and were co-deans of the Antioch School of Law in Washington, D.C. The school emphasized clinical training in public interest law.

“We believed that a legal education, which was morally neutral on social issues, was unacceptable,” Cahn once said. “We wanted a place that trained activists.”

The New York Times reported that the Cahns “proved polarizing” as law deans, coming off as “energizing to some professors and students, arrogant and aloof to others. Nor did they get along with the leadership at Antioch University. When it faced financial challenges in the late 1970s and tried to siphon off money from the law school, the Cahns resisted. The school sued, and won—and the next day fired them both.”

Cahn had a severe heart attack after his firing.

The school later became part of the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia.

Shelley Broderick, dean of the University of the District of Columbia law school from 1998 to 2018, said Cahn taught law and justice at the school “for decades until just this past year,” according to the D.C. Bar. “Students left his course bonded as soldiers in a righteous cause. He was kind and unfailingly generous with his time, talent and treasure. He was fully engaged and passionate about moving the needle on fairness and equality for all,” Broderick said.

Jean Camper Cahn died in 1991. In 2000, Cahn remarried his second wife, Christine Gray Cahn, who survives him.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.