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Q&A: From U.S. judge to nonprofit CEO: Margaret Morrow plans ‘to pursue justice in a broader sense’

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U.S. District Judge Margaret Morrow is stepping down from the bench to run Public Counsel, a legal aid nonprofit.

(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

For nearly 18 years, Margaret Morrow stayed above the fray, meting out justice as a federal judge in U.S. District Court. On Thursday, however, she’ll trade in her robe and the neutrality of the bench for a decidedly different role as chief executive and president of Public Counsel, a Los Angeles organization that provides free and low-cost legal services to tens of thousands of people each year.

It’s not every day that a federal judge steps down from the bench to run a nonprofit that toils in the legal trenches. Why not just ride off into the sunset as a respected judge?

When I turned 65 in October and took on senior status [a form of semiretirement for federal judges], I didn’t have any intention of leaving the bench. I have been in charge of the effort to get a new federal courthouse built in Los Angeles for as long as I’ve been a judge and it’s finally coming to fruition. So, my plan, if I had a plan, was to stay through completion of the building and then assess what I wanted to do with my life.

Why the move, then?

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Honestly, one of the things I had thought about was working for a nonprofit that works on poverty issues and education issues. But I didn’t really have a plan for how I was going to go about making that connection. And, then, out of the blue the Public Counsel opportunity came along, and it seemed perfect, in the sense that it would allow me to use my legal skills and, at the same time, I would be working on issues that I cared about.

It’s quite a change.

I have really loved being a judge because it has given me an amazing opportunity to try to help people resolve differences and enforce rights and right wrongs.... .

But there are constraints on what a judge can do. A judge has an obligation to treat both parties in a lawsuit fairly and evenhandedly — she can’t let sympathy influence the outcome of a proceeding. She has an obligation to apply the law neutrally, whether she agrees with that law or not.

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Often that results in what I would call “true justice.” But there are a lot of cases where the legally correct result isn’t what many people would think of as justice in a colloquial sense. So, I think, being able to operate outside those constraints at this point in my career will free me to pursue justice in a broader sense.

The new job is a return of sorts.

When I was a lawyer in private practice, I devoted much of my time to working to improve access to the justice system for people living in poverty and underrepresented people. One of the things I did early on was serve on Public Counsel’s board. I also started a domestic violence pro bono program.

It’s something like 40 years later, but I remember as if it were yesterday: sitting across the desk from a woman who had come to the program seeking help. She felt like she had no options, she felt trapped, her life was horrible. I was able to encourage her to believe there were options available and help her fill out the paperwork that she could take down to court to get a restraining order and take the first steps toward improving her life.

That’s what the lawyers at Public Counsel do each and every day. It’s incredibly important work. They help people who can’t afford a lawyer to negotiate the intricacies of the legal system, which can be overwhelming.

Did your time on the bench drive home for you the need for organizations like Public Counsel?

Absolutely.... When you sit in a trial court day in and day out, you see the kinds of legal problems that people find themselves in, often through no fault of their own. You realize how important it is to ensure that people have access to legal assistance. People who don’t have lawyers, even if they have good claims or good legal positions, often can’t prevail because they don’t know how to maneuver through the system.

What will you miss about being a judge?

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It’s really hard to describe the breadth of legal issues that come before a federal court — all these somewhat obscure federal statutes that give rise to litigation like the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act. If you sell somebody tomatoes and he doesn’t pay for them, you can slap a trust on all his assets until he pays. It has been an amazing learning experience and has really kept me engaged and energized. So, I’ll miss that — I’ll miss learning. Even now, almost 18 years later, I’m still learning.

You mentioned earlier the idea of delivering “true justice.” That sounds like a heavy burden.

It is a huge responsibility. It certainly is an honor to serve as a federal judge, but the responsibility can very definitely weigh on you. I don’t think I think about that consciously, but there is no doubt it is a reality.

What won’t you miss?

The federal courts are underresourced. We don’t have enough judicial personnel for the type of caseloads we carry, and that creates stresses, for sure. The workload is pretty heavy.

And I won’t miss the deadlines. When you’re a judge, you need to be on the bench at 8 a.m., you need to have the orders ready every Monday morning at 10 a.m. These are fixed deadlines, and I imagine a job like the one I’m taking on now has more flexibility in the daily routine. But I am going to have a steep learning curve at Public Counsel. I don’t imagine knocking off at noon — or even at 5!

Parting thoughts?

When you’re a judge, your work comes to you; in that way it’s somewhat reactive. You’re presented with something to decide, and you decide it and then you’re presented with something else and you decide it.

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In this new position at Public Counsel, I think there’s an opportunity to be more proactive in how someone goes about trying to achieve a just society. That’s something I’m really excited to be involved in.

joel.rubin@latimes.com


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