Ralph Nader: Edgar Cahn, Making The Law Serve And Empower The People – OpEd


To say that in any self-respecting society law professor Edgar S. Cahn (1935-2022) should have been a Supreme Court Justice and a nationally known public intellectual, who organized communities for justice, is simply to recognize his historic career in concrete American jurisprudence.

He and his wife Jean Camper Cahn put forces in motion that continue today to help millions of poor people have a chance at justice. The seminal article they co-authored for the 1964 issue of the Yale Law Journal titled, “The War on Poverty: A Civilian Perspective” outlined the need for legal services for the poor. After getting a PhD and a law degree from Yale University, Edgar and Jean (who also graduated from Yale Law School), went to Washington, DC and drove through Congress the creation of the Legal Services Corporation. This law provided the funds to retain over 4000 lawyers representing the poor – tenants, patients, consumers, debtors and victims of domestic violence. Many precedent-setting court decisions emanated from the work of these idealistic attorneys.

In 1972, the Cahn’s started the Antioch School of Law (the precursor of the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia) to train young lawyers-to-be, through courses and clinical experience with real clients, how to “use the law as a weapon against injustice.” Edgar also authored the book, “Our Brother’s Keeper: The Indian in White America” (1975), which documented many of the legal and economic problems facing Native Americans and he played a key role in passing the American Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (1975), federal legislation that led to greater self-determination for tribal communities.

After his wife Jean passed away in 1991, a heartbroken Edgar Cahn redoubled his creative efforts as the leading hands-on jurisprudential thinker, writer, advocate and organizer. His deep knowledge of poverty relief programs led to his revolutionary thinking about making these programs work much better. In his seminal book – “No More Throw-Away People: The Co-Production Imperative” (2000), he showed that helping the poor with public support had to be connected to empowering the poor to improving these programs, policies and delivery, as well as moving on the pathways to self-sustaining livelihoods.

One of his initiatives was based on questioning the monopoly position of the dollar or similar foreign currency. Why not, he asked, establish in communities around the world “Time Dollar Programs” where the currency is in hours volunteered between people helping each other?

A simple example follows: an elderly couple tutors a high school student in physics in return for an equal number of hours by the student mowing their lawns and weeding their garden. No money changes hands, only hours of time.

Edgar Cahn developed a computer program that allowed for a huge variety of such exchanges – a Time Bank – administered by a local charity, community college or place of worship. For instance, A can help B who helps C who helps D who helps A and so forth.

Everyone has just 24 hours a day. An hour of a lawyer’s time in exchange for a plumber’s or nurse’s time fosters equality. An hour is an hour for and by everyone.

To test his granular system, he went to minority communities in Miami, Phoenix and other cities and organized enough people to create Time Dollar programs. Later he took the Time Dollar concept to countries abroad, always writing and refining the concept as the feedback from the field continued.

His writings on access to justice are prodigious, always giving co-author credit to his colleagues. He educated thousands of law students and quite a few professors about the matrices of injustice inflicted on low-income people, minorities and the young in a steady baritone voice laced now and then with an ironic sense of mordant humor.

Edgar Cahn could have been a ‘hater’ of injustice; instead, he became a raging problem-solver. If only more people had listened to him. If only more media had covered his remarkable activities, instead of focusing on trifle exhibitionists and paper-thin celebrities.

Edgar and Jean were very good ancestors of their sons Jonathan and Reuben, both lawyers for the public interest. Together with the Cahn’s colleagues at the UDC School of Law, Jonathan and Reuben will be establishing The Cahn Center for Law and Justice Innovation.

A gentle soul, always upbeat, though knowing full well the ravages of the few over the many in this tormented world, Edgar Cahn still enjoyed life exercising iron discipline of thought and action. He embodied the wisdom in a 15th century (Ming Dynasty) Chinese philosopher’s epigram: “To know and not to do is not yet to know.”

In my last telephone conversation with Edgar, I conventionally asked “How are you, Edgar,” he replied, “I’m doing okay.” With consternation in her voice, his wife of twenty-two years, Christine interjected “No he is not doing well,” describing generally his painful afflictions in those final weeks. Without raising his voice in anguish, Edgar softly responded to his wife, “Christine, I have to retain my purpose in life.”

His “purpose in life” will live on with the immense legacy of his writings, legal actions, models of justice, legions of students and teachers, motivated communities and his family’s determination to further Edgar and Jean’s work.

Above all, his steady civic personality against powerful odds throughout his life provides the central intangible for all in the next generation who wish to emulate his life-long battle for justice and expand a fairer distribution of power for and by the people.

Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader is a politician, activist and the author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, a novel. In his career as consumer advocate he founded many organizations including the Center for Study of Responsive Law, the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), the Center for Auto Safety, Public Citizen, Clean Water Action Project, the Disability Rights Center, the Pension Rights Center, the Project for Corporate Responsibility and The Multinational Monitor (a monthly magazine).

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