Curt D. Campbell Jr. is a staff attorney in the Public Benefits Law Unit at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. He represents clients in a wide range of public-benefits matters including federal disability benefits such as Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and unemployment insurance. Before joining Legal Aid in September 2015, he was a staff attorney in the Foreclosure Legal Assistance Project at Maryland Legal Aid, where he worked with distressed homeowners on foreclosure and related consumer issues. He graduated with a B.A. from Tufts University and received his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, where he was selected for the Clifford Chance Public Interest International Fellowship, served as a Georgetown Institute of International Economic Law Fellow, and held leadership positions with several student organizations. During law school, he interned with Maryland Legal Aid, Environmental Integrity Project, and Paintsil, Paintsil & Co., a human rights and criminal defense firm based in Accra, Ghana.
What do you like best about your job?
My favorite part about working at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia is having the opportunity to meet my neighbors and, I hope, to make a positive difference in their lives. I get to do that through my public-benefits work but also through our intake interviews. In all of my client-services work, I’ve found that people really appreciate being heard. Of course, they want help with their problems, but a lot of folks don’t get to tell their story to someone who can appreciate what they are going through, and I get to serve that role.
Our Clearinghouse article this month looks at due process and the notices that agencies send when public benefits are denied, reduced, or terminated. What due process problems do you see in your public-benefits work?
One of the biggest problems I’m seeing is notices that are way too confusing for the average person to understand. You shouldn’t need a law degree to understand your rights. Part of the problem is that agency staff members are stuck plugging in data or “reason codes” into outdated computer systems, and what comes out is not always human language.
I’ve also encountered notices that seem clear on their face but are murkier in practice. I recently had a client who needed to update her mailing address with a local agency. The agency’s standard notice says that you can do that by visiting the agency or calling a specific number. Because she is deaf, my client elected to call to ensure access to American Sign Language interpretation through her “video relay” service. Despite several calls and messages, she was never able to reach anyone. Shortly thereafter, her benefits were terminated when notice of her recertification meeting was sent to the wrong address and she missed the meeting. We were eventually able to sort everything out, but I worry that many people face the same problems every day and, without any legal advice or assistance, lose their benefits.
If you could give a high five to one of your legal heroes (living or dead), who would get it and why?
With less than a year left in his term, and in the heat of the battle to elect our next president, I’d have to go with Barack Obama. When you look at all that he’s accomplished, not just as the first black president, but as a U.S. president, period, there’s no one else to whom I’d rather give my high five right now. I might even throw in a “you got this, Barry,” but I’d have to gauge the moment.
I’d like older generations to know that the newest generation of public interest lawyers is just as passionate about the issues that face our clients as they are, and we’re willing to work just as hard to solve those issues.
The biggest impact he’s had on my current client population is the Affordable Care Act. In the face of overwhelming political opposition and numerous legal challenges, President Obama pushed forward, and now the number of Americans with health insurance has never been higher.
As a young black man I am honored that I got to cast my first presidential vote (the first such election where I was old enough to vote) for President Obama. His 2008 speech on race in Philadelphia was awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, it’s a conversation that he’s had to have far too often throughout his presidency as it relates to gun violence and our criminal justice system.
What do you wish older generations of public interest lawyers knew about the newest generation of public interest lawyers?
I think millennials generally get a bad rap as being “lazy” or “entitled.” But I’d like older generations to know that the newest generation of public interest lawyers is just as passionate about the issues that face our clients as they are, and we’re willing to work just as hard to solve those issues. I’ve been fortunate to have mentors, from supervisors to coworkers to other public interest lawyers outside my organizations, who have taken the time to keep me on a path to success. I hope I get the opportunity to pay it forward to the next generation.
What’s one of your guilty pleasures?
I love listening to podcasts. Not just the journalistic juggernauts like Radio Lab or This American Life. I’m talking about something that you can just throw on and tune out for an hour or so. My favorite podcast right now is The Jalen and Jacoby Show, a sports and pop culture podcast that started on Grantland.