Legal Rights Center: Beyond CeCe McDonald

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Cover of a 1994 City Pages issue, which included a feature story on the Legal Rights Center.
This past week's feature, "The Edge of Doubt," brought readers inside the walls of the Legal Rights Center, where attorneys for CeCe McDonald prepared her defense against charges of second-degree murder.

A nonprofit that predates Hennepin County's modern public defense system, the Legal Rights Center is a story in itself.

Longtime City Pages readers may recall former writer Jennifer Vogel's profile on the law office from June 1994, "The Best Lawyers Money Can't Buy."

For those who don't, we dug it up. Back then, a young Keith Ellison ran the place. An excerpt from Vogel's story:

Expending a lot of time and emotion on a client who doesn't have the funds to pay for it has become a rarity in the legal system. Public defenders' offices around Minnesota and across the country have seen their caseloads far outstrip funding over the past decade, in a lot of jurisdictions -- that means attorneys stretched so thin they can spend an average of two hours on each case, including both prep time and court time. PDs in Hennepin County complained during one evaluation that they are forced to cut so many corners that they feel "less like lawyers and more like plea pushers."

"Every individual has the right to a lawyer," says Ellison, "and you can change attorneys as many times as you want -- if you can afford it. But if you're poor, you get whoever they give you. The Legal Rights Center represents the only alternative to the PD's office in Hennepin County."

Hennepin County's public defenders have only been spread even thinner since then, and many are taking on twice the recommended case loads (which some experts suggest contributes to the issue of mentally ill inmates languishing in jail waiting to be identified, as we reported earlier this year).

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U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison worked at the Legal Rights Center as an up-and-comer.
But the mission of the Legal Rights Center hasn't changed. As executive director Michael Friedman puts it, the goal of the law office is still "to provide quality representation and restorative justice services to low-income people."

Unlike public defenders, the Legal Rights Center has complete discretion over what clients to take. Anyone eligible for a public defender is also eligible for a Legal Rights Center attorney, says Friedman (though the office doesn't take child protection cases).

But the Legal Rights Center tends to prefer certain types of clients.

The office looks for cases regarding justice concerns for people of color, or where racial bias may be a factor, says Friedman.

The attorneys also prefer juvenile clients, or adults who can still be pushed onto the right path. In addition to legal representation, the law office tries to find help for its clients who have committed crimes.

"If someone comes to us with a long [criminal] history, we're not likely to take the case, because we don't feel like our involvement -- which is more intensive than just attorney representation -- is going to make a difference," says Friedman.

CeCe McDonald's case found its way to the Legal Rights Center shortly after she was arrested. Leah Entenmann, a volunteer advocate and former staff member at the law office, heard about McDonald while doing work for the Trans Youth Support Network and pitched it to the attorneys.

"CeCe is exactly the kind of client we hope to serve," says Entenmann. "The people who are most oppressed, with the fewest resources at hand."

Read more about the Legal Rights Center on its website.

Previous Coverage:

  • COVER: The Edge of Doubt
  • Michael Freeman talks prosecution of CeCe McDonald [VIDEO]
  • Katie Burgess talks CeCe McDonald case, judicial system [VIDEO]



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