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.”
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 Eventually, ILS convinced the District Court the statute was unconstitutional, and the state law was repealed.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.”
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.
“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.”•