Florence Roisman, now a professor of law at Indiana University, is a legal services pioneer. At the Neighborhood Legal Services Program in Washington, D.C., which she joined in 1967, and later at the National Housing Law Project, Florence represented low-income clients in many a landmark case to promote housing rights, end homelessness, and oppose racial discrimination and segregation. She has mentored generations of legal aid lawyers and law students and is a prolific author both for Clearinghouse Review and for other legal journals. As a law professor, Florence continues to be an honored and integral part of the legal services community.
What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as giving you particular personal satisfaction? Why?
I’d have to name two. In 1990 I was part of a team led by Anne Holton of the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society. We represented the plaintiffs in Richmond Tenants Organization v. HUD and prevented HUD and the Department of Justice [sic] from using civil forfeiture laws to eject tenants from public housing without any prior notice, let alone any opportunity for hearing. An earlier case brought by Bob Gillett, a Michigan legal services lawyer, had exposed the horrible tactics used in these forfeitures. When Anne secured an injunction from a district judge in Richmond, I felt as if we’d saved the Republic.
The other case, Pealo v. Farmers Home Administration, stems from the 1970s; I cocounseled with rural housing expert Lee Reno. The court held that the Nixon administration violated the Housing Act of 1949 when it impounded funding for rural subsidized housing funding.
What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as causing you particular anxiety? Why?
In the early 1980s homelessness exploded in Washington, D.C., and the Community for Creative Non-Violence was at the forefront of battling homelessness by, among other actions, taking over an abandoned federal building for use as a shelter. Despite originally agreeing to rehabilitate the building and operate it as a model shelter, the feds failed to do so. Along with others, including Ilene Jacobs, who’s now at California Rural Legal Assistance, I had represented CCNV and a couple of its leading members, Mitch Snyder and Mary Ellen Hombs, in several lawsuits. We filed Robbins v. Reagan to enforce the rehabilitation promise and then to keep the shelter open when the government moved to close it. We lost the case in the D.C. Circuit. Fortunately, Mitch, Mary Ellen, and CCNV were able to use their media and political skills to prevent that closure (the shelter’s still open!), but the loss in court was a real blow.
If you were in charge, what’s one way (other than having more funding!) that public interest legal work would be different?
We’d have much more affirmative, aggressive advocacy and would use social and other media more effectively.
What’s one of your guilty pleasures?
Reading novels, especially by Elliot (Middlemarch is my favorite!), Austen, Wharton, Dickens, Tolstoy….
After many years in legal services you switched to academia. Was the transition from advocate to law professor smooth? Have you found the roles similar? Any surprises?
I had taught during my years in legal services, but I shifted to academic work exclusively in 1993. My focus is the same, though: civil rights, low-income housing, homelessness, and other social justice issues. One big difference is that I have more time to think and provide background about particular issues, so I hope I’m aiding advocates by offering a deeper, broader canvas. I also hope I’m preparing young lawyers to know what’s preceded them so that they stand on our shoulders and push further and higher.
Florence Roisman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.