Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on July 27, 1975 · Page 54
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Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 54

Charleston, West Virginia
Issue Date:
Sunday, July 27, 1975
Page 54
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This Couple Took the Lawyers to Court and Won Lewis and Ruth Goldfarb Stand in Front of Reston, Va., Home True Grit Plus Luck, Cash Can Beat System For every citizen who manages to take his case to the Supreme Court and win, there are many who fail because they lack money, or courage, or luck. His Challenge of Social Security Paid Widower Stephen Wiesenfeld Cycles With Son Jason By Margaret Gentry Sunday Gazette-Mail WASHINGTON (AP) - Many people buck the system and fail. But a few, like Virgil and Mae Ruth Justice, take their cases to the Supreme Court and change things for everyone. It cost the Justices thousands of dollars, and years of work and worry, to right what they felt was a terrible injustice to their teenage daughter, Peggy. But the Justices, who live in Mena, Ark., believed that the Constitution guaranteed all Americans the right to petition in court for redress of grievances. So they petitioned, and in the end the Supreme Court agreed that the Justices could seek damages because Peggy had been denied a hearing when Mena's school board suspended her in 1972. That court ruling, and a similar one involving an Ohio case, now assure all the nation's school children that they cannot be suspended from school in violation of their right to a hearing. And school board members who knowingly deny that right are liable for damages. The Justices are not alone. Lewis and Ruth Goldfarb, Steven Wiesenfeld and others fought long and lonely battles and were vindicated by the Supreme Court in decisions rendered during the term that ended June 30. Wiesenfeld contested a ruling of the Social Security Administration. The Goldfarbs were incensed at fees imposed by state and local lawyer associations. The victories won by these individuals now protect everyone's rights. *· LAWYERS INVOLVED in such cases say it's becoming ever more difficult and more expensive for a private citizen to change the system without support from public-interest law firms, Ralph Nader- type consumer advocates, or civil liberties organizations. But Virgil and Mae Ruth Justice did it almost by themselves. Mrs. Justice pondered a moment and explained why. "I don't think it was anger so much as it was the idea that a child was being mistreated." In February, 1972, their daughter was a high school sophomore. She and two other girls were suspended by the school board for the rest of the semester because they had spiked the punch for a home economics class party. "We asked for a hearing and they refused. That was Saturday and we tried through the next week until Thursday to get a hearing," Mrs. Justice recalled in an interview. "So we hired an attorney." Mena is a town of about 5,000, and hiring a lawyer is not an everyday occurrence there. "We had never had occasion to use an attorney. We asked around the community about where we could find a good, honest lawyer/" Ben Core of nearby Fort Smith, who once practiced in Mena, was recommended. Mrs. Justice now praises him as "a fine. Christian man." +· AFTER NEGOTIATIONS with the school board failed, the Justices told Core to go ahead with a suit that claimed the rirls' constitutional rights had been ffolated and soughtflnoney damages from board members. "A long time ago, there was a schoolmaster and he was it and children had no rights. But things have changed. Children are American citizens and they do have rights," Mrs. Justice said. The trial came, and Mrs. Justice had to take the witness stand before a black- robed federal judge in the cold formality of a courtroom. "I never had been in one in my lifetime until this experience. I guess you might say it was frightening.'' The Justices finally won when the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 on Feb. 25 that school board members may, indeed, be forced to pay damages for knowingly violating the constitutional rights of students. Following its normal procedure, the Supreme Court ordered the lower courts to . determine whether the Justices are entitled to damages. Meantime, Peggy completed some classwork through correspondence courses and returned to school in the fall of 1972 for her junior year. She graduated last spring. "When she went back," her mother said, "she was just miserable. She didn't even want to go back. She came home from school a lot of times crying. Some of the girls were pretty snotty to her." c ttrreiit ffairs Charleston, West^irginia IE -July 27,1975 The battle has cost the Justices more than $10,000 and they're still paying for it. Justice is an independent truck driver and has worked overtime on wearying long- haul trips to pay the legal bills. "We can thank God my husband's health held up," Mrs. Justice sighed. Was the fight worth it? "Definitely," she replied. "Peggy was very proud that her Daddy did have enough guts to stand up for her rights. She still is proud of him, and I am, too," she said. "If everybody sat back and took their decisions and never said any- thing, how could you accomplish anything?" »·· LEWIS AND RUTH Goldfarb share Mrs. Justice's grit, but they began their fight against the system with the advantages of Goldfarb's legal training and they soon picked up encouragement and a free lawyer from a public-interest organization. However, even organizations working for the average citizen choose their cases carefully. "Your cause has to fit their own objectives," said Lew Goldfarb, the young Reston, Va., homebuyer who challenged the legal profession's tradition of establishing minimum tee schedules for such services as real estate title searches, writing wills, and handling divorce proceedings. The suit filed by Goldfarb and his wife, Ruth, resulted in a Supreme Court decision June 16 ending the legal profession's tradition of fixed fees. The court said fee schedules violate federal antitrust law when they affect interstate commerce and when they are enforced with the threat of discipline against lawyers who charge less than the suggested minimum. The Goldfarbs changed the system, because they knew its weapons and knew how to.use them. Both in their early 30s, they went to college in the radical ferment of the 1960s, Lew at Rutgers University, Ruth at the State University of New York in Buffalo. He went on to New York University for a law degree, she to Columbia University for a masters degree is speech pathology. He came to Washington to work for the Federal Trade Commission in 1969 and by the time they filed the suit in February 1972,. they had learned something about the change the rules. ad a friend who worked for Ralph and through him, Alan Morrison learned about our suit and contacted me," Goldfarb recalled as he and his wife talked over coffee at their home one night. Morrison is a lawyer with the Public Citizen Litigation Group, located in Washington and founded by Nader. The Goldfarb's cause was the Nader group's cause, and Morrison became their attorney, without charge. "Before Morrison got involved," Goldfarb said, "it was a very nerve-wracking couple of months. I got a little bit nervous about whether I could handle it myself because I had a full-time job." Goldfarb's own legal education was a major factor in the couple's original decision to go to court after 20 different Fairfax County attorneys quoted the same fee, $522.50, for the title search required before they could buy their $54,000 house in a wooded cul-de-sac in Reston, a 45-minute drive from Washington. was being ripped off/but I didn't know it was a possible law violation. I might have written a nasty letter to the bar association." But Goldfarb, with his lessons in antitrust law still fresh in his mind, had "the ability to recognize that it could be a law violation." Mrs. Goldfarb lamented the lack of basic legal and consumer education provided by the nation's schools. Asked what she would tell others who feel wronged by the system but lack training in the law, she said: "Write letters. Go public with whatever you have to say. Write to consumer groups, to senators, to congressmen, to anybody who might listen.. .1 guess I was born a letter-writer. I've written letters even to complain about sticky M M's melting in my hand. I could list you a hundred small redresses we have been able to get from writing letters." THE GOLI)FARBS PAID but as Mrs. Goldfarb put it, "I was outraged. I felt I STEPHEN WIESENFELD of New Brunswick, N. Y., felt the same way when he sat down three years ago and wrote a letter to the editor of his local newspaper complaining of unjust treatment by the Social Security Administration. It was one more blow at a time when it seemed Wiesenfeld had troubles enough. His wife had died giving birth to their only child, a son named Jason. Wiesenfeld. now 32, decided then that he must rear his son well even it it meant sacrificing some years from his career as a financial consultant. The decision presented financial difficulties but, Wiesenfeld said, "the real tragedy would have been if I hadn't been able to spend the first three years of Jason's life with him." Wiesenfeld's wife had been a teacher, so he petitioned for the Social Security benefits normally paid to widows upon the deaths of their wage earning husbands. He said he was told the benefits "weren't available to a man." That smacked of illegal discimination on the basis of sex, and he said so in his letter to the newspaper. Phyllis Boring, a teacher at Rutgers University and a leader in the Women's Equal Action League in New Brunswick, saw the letter, contacted Wiesenfeld and put him in touch with Ruth Bader Ginsberg, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer specializing in equal rights cases. "She wanted to go ahead with the suit right from the beginning," Wiesenfeld said, adding that he probably would not have taken the case to court without outside help. "It wouldn't have paid me to hire an attorney. With the ACLU, I didn't have to pay any fees," he said. Wiesenfeld won when the Supreme Court ruled on March 19 that the government must pay Social Security benefits to widowers, as well as widows, left with children to rear. He now receives S290 a month and Jason receives an equal amount in Social Security benefits. As long as he earns less than $210 a month. Wiesenfeld remains eligible for the payments until Jason is 18. I He said he'll probably return to work when Jason starts school. L.T.Anderson Artifacts Offer Lesson Possibilities As far as I can determine. I am the only West Virginian concerned with what artifacts will be exhibited in the Science and Cultural Center under construction, at the expense of a lot of handsome trees, near the Capitol. The only responses I have received as a result 01 suggestions in this matter have been indifference and hostility. State officials, some of whom may be in flight to avoid prosecution, had no comment on my proposal to display a hair curler from the Kanawha County textbook protest. The book protesters who called me seemed to be angry. »· ALTHOUGH I have devoted myself for many years to public service, I was so disheartened that I resolved to stand silent on the Science and Cultural Center, even if the dressed fleas and fake Ulster County Gazette were transferred to it from the state museum. My eve was caught, however, by a headline reading "$100,000 Worth of Luxury Items Left in Wake of DMC's Collapse/' In a matter of moments, my blood stirred again with desire to be of service to my fellow men. The luxury items, consisting mostly of painted and sculpted art works, elegant carpets, and expensive furniture, were purchased by Diversified Mountaineer Corp. for the office quarters of Theodore Renard Price. The former president of bankrupt DMC. Price pleaded guilty to fraud, but not until after he had a hell of a good time. »· MY SUGGESTION today is that the art works be purchased by the state for display in the Science and Cultural Center where they could serve a double purpose. The work may be in questionable taste but it is expensive, and visitors could see the handiwork of high priced artists while absorbing a lesson in household economics. The lesson could oe taugnt viewers oy means ui a M\K i c- cording activated by voice signal. The word "interesting." 1 suggest, would keep a recording going at any art disp'ay. The taped voice, in cautionary language, should explain how riches accrue to everybody except investors when the promise of quick and hefty profits is in the air. THERE WERE OTHERS who laid their grievances before the Supreme Court this term, many with free and expert advice from lawyers who have learned the system inside out in hopes of changing it. But for every Wiesenfeld and Goldfarb and Justice, there are many who tried to change the system and failed, or stopped short. "Justice is so expensive, maybe you can't afford it." Mrs. Justice mused. That's one reason, and there are others. Many citizen suits are settled in trial courts'with rulings that satisfy those individuals but produce no nationwide rule of law. In addition, the nine justices of the Supreme Court turn aside many more cases than they hear, perhaps because they spoke on the same issue a year or two ago and see no need to address it again so soon, perhaps because of procedural errors in the lower courts, or perhaps be%use one citizen's complaint dtfcn't quite ise the issue thev want to retfew.

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