October 25, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Legal work is free, results are priceless

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com

How many lawyers does it take to give lawyers a good name?

Sorry, this isn’t a snarky lawyer joke. And the answer might surprise you.

“We have 142,” said Hanna Sanders, access to justice coordinator for Maine’s judicial system, after adding up the names on Thursday.

She was talking about the Katahdin Counsel Recognition Program’s Class of 2013, made up entirely of Maine lawyers who in the past year have donated at least 50 hours of their valuable time – and in many cases a whole lot more – to people who need legal help but can’t afford it.

According to Sanders, that translates into just under 16,000 hours of legal work. Which, had the clients been billed at an average of $150 per hour, would have totaled $2.4 million.

“It’s a way to publicly recognize the good work these attorneys are doing for their communities,” Sanders said of the program, now in its second year. “The range of services that are provided are really remarkable – from the single mother who’s trying to start her own business to refugees and immigrants who are trying to obtain citizenship or asylum.”

Jack Montgomery, an attorney with Bernstein Shur in Portland, knows a thing or two about the latter.

For the past six years, Montgomery has offered his services pro bono through the Portland-based Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project. And lest you think that’s just a warm-and-fuzzy footnote to the cases that rake in the big bucks for him and his prestigious law firm, think again.

“If I screw up in a civil case, which I hope I don’t, it’s fixable,” Montgomery said over Thursday’s mid-morning din at an Old Port coffee shop. “I screw up on a case like this one and these people go back to hell.”

It started three years ago, when a family recently arrived from Djibouti in northeastern Africa showed up at the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project seeking asylum in the United States.

The father, mother, four daughters and two sons had good reason: They had fled their homeland rather than succumb to a custom that, by any measure, is nothing short of barbaric.

“The girls were 12, 11, 6 and 2 at the time,” Montgomery said. “The leaders of the local clan kept coming by the home and asking ‘When are we going to get the (oldest) girls done?’ ”

“Done,” in the tribal country of Djibouti, meant female genital mutilation – an age-old atrocity that is outlawed by Djibouti’s government and was unanimously condemned last year by the United Nations General Assembly as “irreparable, irreversible abuse of the human rights of women and girls, and ... a serious threat to their health.”

Yet, according to the World Health Organization, 93 percent of Djibouti’s young females still endure the ritualistic maiming, considered a rite of passage (not to mention male dominance) by those who practice it.

“The parents (of the four girls) adamantly opposed it – they kept delaying and delaying and delaying,” said Montgomery. “Then one day, a bunch of the cousins showed up and beat the father senseless. The genital mutilation wasn’t done, but they realized it was going to happen if they didn’t get out of there.”

So the family escaped and found their way to Maine. They now live in the Lewiston-Auburn area and will go unnamed here because Montgomery doesn’t want to jinx a complex case still pending before the Department of Justice’s Boston Immigration Court.

(Nor does he want to re-traumatize the girls by having their names in the newspaper.)

The Boston Immigration Court is, in Montgomery’s 36 years of legal practice, the “most challenging court I’ve ever been in.”

(Continued on page 2)

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