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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 Eventually, ILS convinced the District Court the statute was unconstitutional, and the state law was repealed.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. It really doesn't matter what the law IS, if law enforcement refuses to take reports (or take them seriously), if courts refuse to allow unrepresented parties to speak (especially in Small Claims, which is supposedly "informal"). It doesn't matter what the law IS, if constituents are unable to make effective contact or receive any meaningful response from their representatives. Two of our pets were unnecessarily killed; court records reflect that I "abandoned" them. Not so; when I was denied one of them (and my possessions, which by court order I was supposed to be able to remove), I went directly to the court. And earlier, when I tried to have the DV PO extended (it expired while the subject was on probation for violating it), the court denied any extension. The result? Same problems, less than eight hours after expiration. Ironic that the county sheriff was charged (and later pleaded to) with intimidation, but none of his officers seemed interested or capable of taking such a report from a private citizen. When I learned from one officer what I needed to do, I forwarded audio and transcript of one occurrence and my call to law enforcement (before the statute of limitations expired) to the prosecutor's office. I didn't even receive an acknowledgement. Earlier, I'd gone in to the prosecutor's office and been told that the officer's (written) report didn't match what I said occurred. Since I had the audio, I can only say that I have very little faith in Indiana government or law enforcement.

  2. One can only wonder whether Mr. Kimmel was paid for his work by Mr. Burgh ... or whether that bill fell to the citizens of Indiana, many of whom cannot afford attorneys for important matters. It really doesn't take a judge(s) to know that "pavement" can be considered a deadly weapon. It only takes a brain and some education or thought. I'm glad to see the conviction was upheld although sorry to see that the asphalt could even be considered "an issue".

  3. In response to bryanjbrown: thank you for your comment. I am familiar with Paul Ogden (and applaud his assistance to Shirley Justice) and have read of Gary Welsh's (strange) death (and have visited his blog on many occasions). I am not familiar with you (yet). I lived in Kosciusko county, where the sheriff was just removed after pleading in what seems a very "sweetheart" deal. Unfortunately, something NEEDS to change since the attorneys won't (en masse) stand up for ethics (rather making a show to please the "rules" and apparently the judges). I read that many attorneys are underemployed. Seems wisdom would be to cull the herd and get rid of the rotting apples in practice and on the bench, for everyone's sake as well as justice. I'd like to file an attorney complaint, but I have little faith in anything (other than the most flagrant and obvious) resulting in action. My own belief is that if this was medicine, there'd be maimed and injured all over and the carnage caused by "the profession" would be difficult to hide. One can dream ... meanwhile, back to figuring out to file a pro se "motion to dismiss" as well as another court required paper that Indiana is so fond of providing NO resources for (unlike many other states, who don't automatically assume that citizens involved in the court process are scumbags) so that maybe I can get the family law attorney - whose work left me with no settlement, no possessions and resulted in the death of two pets (etc ad nauseum) - to stop abusing the proceedings supplemental and small claims rules and using it as a vehicle for harassment and apparently, amusement.

  4. Been on social security sense sept 2011 2massive strokes open heart surgery and serious ovarian cancer and a blood clot in my lung all in 14 months. Got a letter in may saying that i didn't qualify and it was in form like i just applied ,called social security she said it don't make sense and you are still geting a check in june and i did ,now i get a check from my part D asking for payment for july because there will be no money for my membership, call my prescription coverage part D and confirmed no check will be there.went to social security they didn't want to answer whats going on just said i should of never been on it .no one knows where this letter came from was California im in virginia and been here sense my strokes and vcu filed for my disability i was in the hospital when they did it .It's like it was a error . My ,mothers social security was being handled in that office in California my sister was dealing with it and it had my social security number because she died last year and this letter came out of the same office and it came at the same time i got the letter for my mother benefits for death and they had the same date of being typed just one was on the mail Saturday and one on Monday. . I think it's a mistake and it should been fixed instead there just getting rid of me .i never got a formal letter saying when i was being tsken off.

  5. Employers should not have racially discriminating mind set. It has huge impact on the society what the big players do or don't do in the industry. Background check is conducted just to verify whether information provided by the prospective employee is correct or not. It doesn't have any direct combination with the rejection of the employees. If there is rejection, there should be something effective and full-proof things on the table that may keep the company or the people associated with it in jeopardy.

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