Monday, June 11, 2001

Kentucky legal aid agency turns 30

The Associated Press

        PRESTONSBURG, Ky. — A picnic and reunion marked the 30th anniversary of the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund, which was formed to protect Eastern Kentucky's poor from coal companies, courthouse bosses and loan sharks.

        Dozens of former employees enjoyed the nice weather Saturday and talked about the roots of the agency, which now takes about 6,000 cases a year.

        John Rosenberg and a small band of idealistic lawyers, funded by the federal government, weren't welcomed to eastern Kentucky when they launched the agency. In Floyd County, the local bar association passed a resolution forbidding the young lawyers from practicing at the courthouse without its permission.

        “There was so much hostility,” said Mort Stamm, 61, one of the first lawyers hired. “It was the typical "You outsiders, you commies, how dare you?' The special interests were very entrenched, and they didn't want anyone coming in here to change things.”

        Thirty years later, they've won the respect of their neighbors.

        Clifford Latta, a veteran Prestonsburg lawyer who has worked for coal companies, said he doesn't always agree with the group, nicknamed Appalred, “but they've provided some useful services for the community. They've represented a lot of people who couldn't afford a lawyer any other way.”

        Mr. Rosenberg, 69, was the center of attention at Saturday's picnic. Before starting up the agency, Mr. Rosenberg fled Nazi Germany with his parents in 1938 and worked during the 1960s as a lawyer at the U.S. Justice Department's civil-rights division.

        In 1970, Mr. Rosenberg visited a friend in West Virginia and decided to settle in Appalachia. His timing was good. During the 1960s, the federal government began to fund legal services for the poor involved in lawsuits as a supplement to public defenders, who represent poor people charged with crimes. Lawyers with Mr. Rosenberg's record of public service were in demand.

        Mr. Rosenberg launched Appalred in Prestonsburg, then spent the next few years hiring lawyers and opening offices in other mountain counties. Most of Appalred's work was basic: helping people to get a divorce, win custody of a child, file for bankruptcy, fight eviction, or appeal for public benefits.

        Appalred lawyers also sued corporations for what they saw as exploitation of the poor, such as defective mobile homes sold to the unwary, and high-interest loans that pushed borrowers into financial ruin.

        Appalred joined other groups to challenge the “broad form deed,” which allowed coal companies with vague, century-old deed agreements to raze families' land in search of coal. Kentucky voters finally abolished the deeds' authority in a 1988 referendum.

        As years passed, some local people who had viewed Appalred with suspicion changed their minds. Mr. Rosenberg even joined the once-hostile Floyd County Bar Association and served as an officer.

        It helped their popularity that so many Appalred employees put down roots in Appalachia. Unlike some legal-services agencies in rural areas, where young lawyers stay only a short time before they get bored, 25 of Appalred's 69 employees have been in their jobs at least 15 years.

        However, money remains a major obstacle.

        The federally funded Legal Services Corp., which supports agencies like Appalred, has been a popular target for Republicans who think it encourages liberal, anti-business meddling.

        “Most of us have about half as many lawyers now as we did in 1980,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “We had 48 lawyers in 1980, and now we have about 30.”


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