Edgar S. Cahn, a lawyer who sought to harness the power of the law to promote social justice, helping establish the largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans and training like-minded future lawyers as a founder of the old Antioch School of Law in Washington, died Jan. 23 at a hospital in Bethesda, Md. He was 86.
The cause was congestive heart failure, his son Jonathan Cahn said.
For Dr. Cahn — a humanist and humanitarian who held, in addition to his law degree, a doctorate in English from Yale University — the law was a tool most nobly used on behalf of the poor.
Sometimes justice is delivered through sweeping rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court. But it is also achieved, as Dr. Cahn demonstrated throughout his career, through the unglamorous but important work of taking on clients — regardless of their ability to pay — and guiding them through byzantine processes of the law and bureaucracy to fight such challenges as an eviction notice, the repossession of a car or the denial of government benefits.
Dr. Cahn worked alongside his wife, Jean Camper Cahn, in founding what is now the Legal Services Corp. and later the Antioch School of Law, a predecessor of the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia.
He was White and Jewish, the son of a prominent legal philosopher. She was Black and Baptist (later converting to Judaism), the daughter of a revered Baltimore physician. From their marriage in 1957, when interracial unions were widely regarded as taboo, until Jean Camper Cahn’s death in 1991, they were known as a formidable force — Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. dubbed them “the double legal eagles” — in any project they took on.
They devoted themselves primarily to the matter of legal services for the poor, a concept far from reaching maturity across the bench and bar. Only in 1963, with its decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, did the Supreme Court rule that states must appoint lawyers for criminal defendants who could not afford to hire them on their own.
In 1964, the Cahns published an article in the Yale Law Journal, “The War on Poverty: A Civilian Perspective,” laying out a proposal for expansive legal services for the poor. Legal aid societies were not new, but the concept of a broader, formalized national program took hold as President Lyndon B. Johnson embarked on the War on Poverty.
The Cahns’ “seminal article in the 1964 Yale Law Journal revolutionized once-sleepy legal aid societies,” the New York Times editorial board wrote after Jean Camper Cahn’s death, “and foretold the development of vital, enterprising legal services offices.”
Dr. Cahn, who had worked as a speechwriter for Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, joined the Office of Economic Opportunity as executive assistant to director Sargent Shriver. Jean Camper Cahn, too, worked for the OEO as a legal adviser.
“I was deeply impressed” by their law review article, “almost overjoyed,” The Washington Post once quoted Shriver as saying. “That’s the genesis of legal services — it’s really pretty simple.”
In 1965, the OEO launched the Legal Services Program, a predecessor to the Legal Services Corp., a nonprofit organization established by law in 1974 that now funds 132 legal aid programs with more than 800 offices across the United States. Among advocates, the Cahns became known, along with Shriver, as the “parents of the federal legal services program.”
“Edgar was an idealist, a visionary, and a dreamer. He was also an entrepreneur, a builder, and a pragmatist. He was able to turn grand ideas into realities,” James J. Sandman, a former president of the Legal Services Corp., said in a statement, adding that Dr. Cahn’s life “was proof of the difference one person can make.”
The Cahns were both in their 30s when they founded the Antioch School of Law and served as co-deans from 1971 to 1980. The school received funding from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, with which it was affiliated, as well as from the Legal Services Corp.
Rather than lectures in classrooms, the school offered what was described as a “clinical” education, with law students living for periods with the indigent clients they served.
“We believed that a legal education, which was morally neutral on social issues, was unacceptable,” Dr. Cahn said. “We wanted a place that trained activists.”
Working with faculty, students challenged alleged sex discrimination in a local government commission, filed suit for better care for residents of an institution for the intellectually disabled and represented thousands of Washingtonians in smaller claims.
The operation of the law school, however, was hampered by conflicts between the Cahns and the faculty, disorganization and financial woes that prompted the couple, at one point, to mortgage their house to sustain its operation. After a years-long dispute with the parent school in Ohio, the Cahns were fired as co-deans.
The Antioch School of Law closed in 1988 and was succeeded by the D.C. School of Law and then the UDC David A. Clarke School of Law. Before it shuttered, according to The Post, Antioch law school handled more than 10,000 public-interest cases and trained 1,500 public-interest lawyers and roughly 450 paralegals.
Edgar Stuart Cahn was born in New York City on March 23, 1935. His father, the jurist Edmond Cahn, was a close friend of numerous Supreme Court justices, introducing his son from a young age to the highest echelons of the law. Dr. Cahn’s mother, Lenore Cahn Zola, became an advocate for victims of elder abuse.
The elder Cahn, Dr. Cahn once told The Post, “said he didn’t know what justice was but he had an innate capacity to recognize injustice.” Yet when Dr. Cahn met his future wife at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, his parents, as well as his future in-laws, at first opposed their interracial marriage. The Post reported that Dr. Cahn’s father withheld support from the young couple in their early years and that they lived for a period in low-income housing in New Haven, Conn., where both attended Yale University.
Dr. Cahn, a 1956 English literature graduate of Swarthmore, received a master’s degree in 1957 and a PhD in 1960, both from Yale’s English department, and graduated from Yale Law School in 1963.
Dr. Cahn advocated over the years on behalf of Black sharecroppers in the South and Native Americans fighting the termination of Indian tribes. At one point, The Post reported, he was shot at by a sheriff while he met with Indian leaders in Oklahoma.
In 2000, Dr. Cahn married Christine Gray. Besides his wife, of Washington, survivors include two sons from his first marriage, Jonathan Cahn, of Bethesda, and Reuben Camper Cahn, of Capistrano Beach, Calif.; two stepchildren, Crispin Vicars and Antoinette Vicars, both of London; his twin sister; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Around the time he was forced to leave the Antioch School of Law, Dr. Cahn suffered a severe heart attack. As he lay in a hospital bed convalescing, he reflected on the agony of feeling useless.
“That was 1980,” he told NPR years later, “and we were declaring all kinds of people useless — the old, the young, those who were laid off in Detroit, those in Appalachia, those who were disabled.”
He continued, “I thought, ‘I bet they don’t like being useless, either.’ And I thought, ‘Well, we have all these social problems backed up. Why can’t we begin to put all these people we’re putting on the scrap heap together with these problems?’ ”
Dr. Cahn helped develop and popularize the concept of “service credits,” also known as “time dollars” used for “time banking,” a barter system in which a community of people trade services, such as accompanying someone to a doctor’s appointment in exchange, at some future date, for tax-preparation help from a retired accountant.
In 1995, Dr. Cahn formed TimeBanks USA, a nonprofit organization based in Washington that supports time banks across the country. His books included the 2004 volume “No More Throw-Away People.” His purpose, he told The Post, was to help people learn to value “what it means to be a human.”