supporter profile: leah spero
“Our justice system requires zealous representation,” says Leah Spero, who recently stepped up with her husband Ben to generously invest in the work of the NCCRC. “I believe in our adversarial judicial system, but for it to be effective, it is assumed that both sides will be capably represented.” Leah contends that when people with no legal training are forced to defend their rights against an opponent who has counsel, the justice system can fail them.
Leah met John Pollock, the NCCRC Coordinator, after she accepted a pro bono case in the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals called Sidiakina v. Bertoli. The appellant had represented herself in state court divorce proceedings, in which her financial stability was at stake. Her opponent had counsel. During the proceedings, she asked the court for appointed counsel as an accommodation for her severe cognitive disabilities. The court denied the request under a policy that refused appointment of counsel as an accommodation for a disability. The appellant filed in federal court challenging the blanket policy. The appellant argued that, under the ADA, the state cannot refuse to consider the appointment of counsel as an accommodation where it already provides appointed counsel in certain types of civil proceedings.
“This was one of those cases that really opens your eyes to the importance of having counsel,” Leah said.
With years of experience volunteering for an organization that helped people experiencing homelessness and living in poverty apply for government benefits, Leah was no stranger to understanding how advocates make a difference. In the court system, she says, it is especially evident, and the need for counsel is exacerbated when a person has a disability. “Counsel is imperative for a litigant with a cognitive disability attempting to navigate the complicated court system.”
Leah’s work on the Ninth Circuit case benefitted from the expertise she could access through the NCCRC. There is a lot of important right-to-counsel work happening in the states, on a variety of fronts, and the NCCRC helps to coordinate the work and share information between advocates. “If we are going to eventually succeed in bringing about large-scale change and extending the right to counsel in civil cases,” Leah says, “It helps each of us in this effort to know about the successes in other states.”
While the Ninth Circuit ultimately declined to address the merits of the case for procedural reasons, the case stimulated the advocacy community to work with the NCCRC to locate another case. And after working closely with John on the case, Leah, with her husband Ben, decided to make a significant investment in the NCCRC. They surprised us with a $20,000 gift in 2017 and a $10,000 gift in 2018. “This is a long-term effort,” Leah told us, “We aren’t going to extend the right to counsel overnight, so we wanted to help sustain NCCRC’s ongoing work on this issue.”