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Center for Justice negotiates solutions to change society

While many attorneys litigate for monetary settlements, Center for Justice attorneys in Spokane litigate, negotiate, mediate and educate to make win-win, often out-of-court changes for the common good.

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Breean Beggs

Breean Beggs’ practice of law as director of the center emphasizes non-adversarial, collaborative solutions that match his reason for studying law:  He wanted to have impact on more than one person at a time.

After high school in Olympia and earning a bachelor’s degree at Whitworth in international studies and peacemaking in 1985, the son, grandson and nephew of United Methodist ministers did social work for three years with Career Path Services in Spokane.

While he helped people complete their education and find jobs, he decided he could have a greater impact by studying law.

After graduating from the University of Washington Law School in 1991, Breean worked with a private firm in Bellingham doing “David-and-Goliath” litigation representing individuals who were injured in accidents and were suing large insurance companies.

Work in employment law, dealing with employers who discriminated, stirred his interest in civil rights and public interest law, which he practiced pro bono on the side.

Breean won a case for four high school students who wanted to meet and pray in school.

In 13 years as a private lawyer, he won cases and money, but wanted to do more.

Learning that the Center for Justice in Spokane was looking for an executive director, Breean realized that in that role he could do public service every day with people.

In 2004, he became director of the Center for Justice, which Jim Sheehan—a public defender for more than 20 years—founded in 2000 to do poverty law and family law, to serve individuals and to change the system.

Previously, the Center for Justice served about 500 people a year from brief advice to full litigation. 

Since 2005, about 500 more have been helped each year in the Community Advocacy program and about 400 more in the Street Law program. 

Community Advocacy uses Whitworth and Gonzaga university students as advocates and problem solvers for low-income clients, so they do not have to go to court in family and poverty cases.

Every semester and summer, six students receive a caseload to mediate and advocate without use of lawyers.  The center is not faith-based, but many of the students are.

Street Law recruits volunteer lawyers and coordinates groups of three-to-five to be available summer Saturday afternoons at Riverfront Park to answer questions of people who stop at their table.  They also write documents, such as letters to landlords or employers, and help people fill out family-law forms.  The service is free.

Street Law volunteers may see someone for 20 to 30 minutes.  Community Advocacy usually provides 10 to 15 hours of help.  The Center for Justice generally does 20 intakes a week at 30 to 45 minutes.

Of those, only a fraction become full legal cases.

“We provide hundreds of dollars of services and thousands of hours of help,” Breean said.  “Over a year, we have 100 to 150 full cases open.”

Six attorneys, three para-legals, six law student work-study interns, six undergraduates, six high school students and community volunteers share the workload.

Half of the center’s support is provided by Jim and half is from grants, legal fees and private donations, Breean said.

“We collect legal fees only if the other side has to pay,” he said.

“We seek to treat people humanely,” he added, noting that each is more than a “case.”

Community Advocacy requests a $25 administrative fee to encourage the client to buy in, but it’s waived if the person cannot pay.

“If the defendants have to pay, such as in cases involving discrimination or government misconduct, it encourages more private attorneys to enforce laws,” Breean said.  “Private attorneys often do what government attorneys should be doing.  If the government is the defendant, the government has to pay.

 “The impact of litigation is to change systems, not just have injured people compensated for damages,” he said.

For example, the Center for Justice works on cases related to Spokane River water quality, river flow, sewage treatment, PCB cleanup and storm runoff, because the Department of Ecology and Environmental Protection Agency are not doing the litigation they should, Breean explained.

The center also has taken cases calling for accountability related to police practices that violate the law, such as treatment of people who are arrested, the amount of force used and the rising use of tasers.

“We have represented families who have lost loved ones to tasers and excessive force,” he said.  “Most of those tasered suffer mental illness.”

There have been 12 such cases since January 2006.  Not all are the fault of law enforcement he said, pointing out that the goal is systemic change, such as establishing an office of independent police oversight.

“We also challenge jail conditions, such as access to and quality of medical care, and freedom of religion,” Breean said.

Other cases concern discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation.

For example, the center participated in a case before the Washington State Supreme Court on same-sex marriage, filing a brief on behalf of children of same-sex partners who wanted their parents to be married.  The center lost that case.

“We also do public education in seminars, through media and within the legal system,” Breean said.

Another outside-the-box, win-win, non-adversarial solution resulted when the city began towing cars of people without drivers’ licenses and required them to pay to reclaim their car.  They realized both sides would be helped if the city helped the drivers work to have their licenses restored.

“The faith piece for me is to help people who would have no help but for us,” said Breean.  “I now can work for social changes to society, to restructure society one case at a time.”

As it is designed, he said, the legal system “helps the wealthy stay wealthy—a substitute for the wealthy having a system of private armies to help them hang on to property.”

When he and his wife, Laurie Powers, who grew up Catholic, came to Spokane with their three children in June 2000, they attended several churches before choosing Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ.

“I went from living in the world but not of the world to living with everyday people and advocating for them regardless of their faith or how they live,” he said.

Breean attended church regularly until the middle of law school.  He had taught Sunday school and preached on social justice and evangelism.

“I became disillusioned by the public stands of some churches,” said Breean.

Now he’s active again, serving on local and regional UCC committees, preaching and teaching Sunday school.  He became involved in the United Church of Christ while in Bellingham and attended First Congregational United Church of Christ there.

“College years were a shift for me spiritually from being judgmental about having theologically correct faith and lifestyles.  Then I understood Jesus standing with people without judgment, not wearing holiness on the sleeve and alienating people,” Breean said.

His motivation is the Sermon on the Mount and the biblical concept of jubilee—turning the tables so society works for everyone.

“The changes may not happen in my lifetime, but when the system is set up justly, it works more efficiently, effectively and harmoniously,” he said.

Although the Center for Justice is not a faith-based entity, Breean said that his ability to carry the values of the Sermon on the Mount into the legal system through cases is consistent with his faith.

For information, call 835-5211 or email breean@cforjustice.org.

Copyright © 2008 - The Fig Tree - By Mary Stamp