Cushman Anthony was a young law student in the 1960s in Michigan when he first got a taste for extending legal access to the poor.

Anthony helped start and oversee the Michigan Law School’s legal aid clinic in a poor minority community outside Ann Arbor.

That helped launched a 40-year career that focused on ensuring the rights of people who might not have the resources to hire their own attorneys or take on established power structures.

“I went into law because I viewed that as a way to make the world a better place,” Anthony said recently. “I knew I was going to be trying to improve the world.”

Anthony succeeded, according to the Maine Civil Liberties Union Foundation, which on Thursday night presented him the 2011 Justice Louis Scolnik Award at a ceremony at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport.

“Cush Anthony has been a pioneer in social justice and civil rights in Maine for a lifetime,” said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the MCLU. “He has truly demonstrated ground-breaking work by setting up the legal aid clinic, by being a pioneer in alternative dispute resolution in Maine and making the world a better place for families.”

The clinic that Anthony volunteered to run as a law student helped people with the kinds of problems that many poor people have: evictions, creditors bearing down on them, welfare rights issues and misdemeanor crimes, he said.

That experience would be invaluable as he helped the University of Maine School of Law create the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic, where law students could help people with their legal issues.

Clients get the benefit of young lawyers putting heart and soul into their first cases, and law students learn how to interview and put together real cases, he said.

Some of his first students in the clinic were Thomas Delahanty, now U.S. attorney for Maine, Peter Goranites, a Maine District Court judge, and Peter DeTroy, a partner in Norman Hanson and DeTroy.

In private practice, Anthony focused on family law, helping people who often couldn’t afford a court battle to resolve their differences, and was recognized by the Maine judiciary for his work in alternative dispute resolution.

In the 1980s, he took a break from legal practice to become director of advocacy for Portland’s Community Counseling Center.

“Social workers are supposed to be helping people adjust to the societies in which they live, but if you see the same problem over and over again, maybe we ought to be adjusting society to needs of individuals,” he said.

Anthony worked to make available better mental health services for the elderly and infants, and address issues like teen pregnancy.

In the midst of that service, Anthony was lobbying the Legislature to create a family court. A legislator took him aside and said he could do more as a lawmaker. He ran for the state Senate and lost, but later was elected to three terms in the House of representatives.

Anthony was president of the MCLU board in the 1970s when it appointed its first executive director, a step the group says enabled it to be a more forceful voice for civil rights.

“It has evolved wonderfully. I could only dream it would be as effective as it is today,” he said. “It has top-notch staff doing very good things to protect our privacy, protect students’ rights, all the stuff I care about.”

Before becoming a lawyer, Anthony was a navy officer during the Vietnam War, an experience that led him to become a Quaker and an outspoken advocate for nonviolence. Years later in Maine, he worked extensively with Peace Action Maine.

Anthony closed his office in 2005. He continued doing mediation until about a year ago, when he was diagnosed with melanoma. It was cured, he said, but the diagnosis startled him into a more firm and leisurely retirement.

That said, the only way he knew to break ties with his profession and the word-of-mouth referrals that kept coming was to leave the state. So he joined the Friends Committee on National Legislation and spent five months lobbying in Washington, D.C., on issues affecting Native Americans.

He now lives in North Yarmouth and busies himself volunteering with his church’s social action committee.

“I’ve always identified with the little guy,” he said.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]