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Norman Metzger praised for longtime leadership at ILS

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Like many young adults in the 1960s, Norman Metzger was inspired by the belief that it is possible to change the world.

After a lifetime in public service, the 75-year-old attorney has never lost his passion to make things better for those who have little means and often no voice.

Metzger has led Indiana Legal Services Inc. for 44 years as it upended the status quo by demanding equal justice for the poor. He recently decided he had stayed long enough and announced his decision to retire. The idealism that first drove him to legal aid is still burning.

“We really did and still do make a difference,” Metzger said. “You can bring out rulings by the court that reform the law to such a point that it changes everything.”

metzger-15col.jpg Indiana Legal Services Inc. Executive Director Norman Metzger (center), conferring with staff member Ida Hayes (left), and staff attorney Tracy Pappas (right), will retire in March after 44 years at the agency.(IL Photo/Eric Learned)

Reform

When Metzger took over the helm of ILS in 1970, he added cases that sought to reform the law.

The organization brought class actions against the then-Indiana Welfare Department, challenging the state’s residency requirements and man-in-the-house rule. It also brought lawsuits on behalf of inmates in Indiana state prisons, including one that argued the cold indoor temperature at the Michigan City facility in the winter constituted cruel and inhuman punishment.

On his second day as an attorney at the organization in the early 1970s, Ron Elberger flew to Chicago to file an interlocutory appeal with the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. The ILS had filed a complaint and motion for temporary restraining order against the state’s ejectment bond statute. Three District Court judges in the Southern District of Indiana had refused to take up the case, one insisting he did not want to hear a matter about social legislation.

Elberger and the late John Manning secured an injunction and an order from the 7th Circuit that the lower court must hear the case. Eventually, ILS convinced the District Court the statute was unconstitutional, and the state law was repealed.

“It was a time when reform took on real meaning,” Elberger, now a partner at Bose McKinney & Evans LLP, said. “When you could file a suit on behalf of an indigent client and get results.”

Metzger’s sense of social responsibility was nurtured as an undergraduate at Manchester University and as a law student at the University of Michigan. Receiving his J.D. degree about six months after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the Larwill native joined the Peace Corps and spent the next three years in Ethiopia. Coming back to Indiana, he thought he would settle into practice in Fort Wayne. Instead, he accepted the position of director of Fort Wayne Legal Aid in 1968. Two years later, he moved to Indianapolis to become the executive director of ILS’ precursor, Legal Services Organization of Indianapolis.

Metzger said he felt like he was part of a movement to bring equal justice to America. President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty, President Richard Nixon signed the law that created the national Legal Services Corp. and President Jimmy Carter pushed for legal aid programs to be established in every county of the United States.

“There was so much you could do with the Civil Rights Act, the Constitution and federal law and the 14th Amendment,” Metzger explained. “There was just a lot of things happening with legal aid all across the country and it was just amazing and reassuring to see the courts, when they were given the opportunity of deciding cases like we were bringing, they would rule in favor of our poor people clients.”

elberger-ron-mug Elberger

Resistance

Despite the initiatives from the White House, legal aid was given a rude welcome at the local level.

Louis Rosenberg, now a Marion Circuit Court judge, joined ILS in 1970. He described the office as ground zero in a war. All quarters of the community, including the bar and some judges, opposed the organization.

In fact, one editorial in the local newspaper specifically invited Rosenberg to leave the city, labeling him a federally paid provocateur.

ILS was unpopular because it was going against the status quo, Rosenberg said. Most of the cases the organization brought were significant and very controversial, regularly winning constitutional challenges against state agencies.

Ivan Bodensteiner, the first attorney Metzger ever hired, also noted the backlash but said Metzger ran interference by courting attorneys to serve on the organization’s board. Metzger did not shy away from hot-button cases, and he did not want his attorneys ignoring their clients’ claims.

“It was exciting because you were dealing in an area of the law that had been ignored for many, many years,” Bodensteiner, now a professor and former dean of Valparaiso University Law School, said.

rosenberg-louis-mug Rosenberg

“He was able to see beyond the controversy to see what it takes to establish legal services as a viable part of the community,” Rosenberg said of Metzger. “He supported the attorneys who were acting in good faith and within the law.”

The 1980s and subsequent years brought a different kind of resistance.

First, federal money for legal aid was cut, forcing Metzger to close six ILS offices. When Legal Services Corp. decided to give funding to only one legal aid agency in each state, Metzger had to merge ILS with Legal Services of Northwest Indiana Inc. in Gary and Legal Services Program of Northern Indiana Inc. in South Bend and Lafayette.

During the 1990s, Congress barred legal aid offices from lobbying and, particularly hurtful for ILS, filing class-action lawsuits.

“We went through a long period of adjustment where we had to figure out how to remain significant and how case-to-case litigation, as opposed to class action, could be just as effective in helping poor people,” Metzger said.

The organization designed a new strategy that has been successful in setting precedent with the rulings won in single cases. Specifically, he pointed to an individual lawsuit that mandated parents and children in Children In Need of Services cases must be represented by attorneys and the lawsuit which established that individuals who are being involuntarily committed to a mental institution have a right to legal representation.

Former ILS litigation director Ken Falk was frustrated when Congress truncated what legal services could do. To him, legal aid provided a means for the indigent to access justice and that access should encompass all remedies, including administrative judgments, class actions, individual lawsuits, legislative lobbying and community outreach.

As a fresh graduate of Columbia Law School, Falk was persuaded by Metzger to move from Manhattan to Indiana to work at ILS in the 1970s. In the mid-1990s, he left to join the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana where he is now legal director.

Falk remains a “big fan” of Metzger. He credits his former boss with always supporting the attorneys and never letting them feel like they were second-rate because they represented low-income clients and did not make as much money as private practitioners.

Right time to retire

Metzger’s vision for running a legal services agency, he said, was to “hire the best people you can, do a national search, bring them in here, and then get out of their way because you’d be surprised what bright, young, vigorous, energetic people will do on their own.”

After four decades of getting out of the way, Metzger said this is the right time to retire.

The ILS is looking for more office space to make room for the new attorneys who are coming onboard. And with an influx of new federal dollars, ILS has started contracting with private attorneys to provide legal services in rural areas and has created a fellowship program to help the agency develop new services.

“Unless I’m missing something, the time is just about exactly right for me to retire,” Metzger said.

His last day at ILS will be March 31, 2015.

Reflecting on his tenure, Metzger praised the attorneys who joined ILS, applauded the work the agency has done, and showed his optimism remains strong.

“Watching the justice system work has always been amazing to me,” Metzger said, “because if you give it the chance to work, God bless it, it often works.”•

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  1. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  2. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  3. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

  4. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  5. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

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