Legal aid rights wrongs, NOLS retirees say

By Peter H. Milliken


Two recently retired lawyers who made a career of fighting for the underdog will be honored Friday for their service to Northeast Ohio Legal Services.

A recognition dinner for Attys. James B. Callen and Cherie H. Howard will be at 5:30 p.m. at the Tyler History Center, 325 W. Federal St.

NOLS closed when Callen and Howard retired July 31. Two remaining NOLS employees were hired by Community Legal Aid Services, which also represents low-income people in civil matters.

The Akron-based CLAS maintains offices in Akron, Canton, Youngstown and Warren and uses state and federal funds to serve eight Northeast Ohio counties.

Callen and Howard are passionate about the need to ensure that low-income people can get free legal representation when they need it, not just when they are charged with crimes but also in civil matters.

“You’re dealing with an individual’s right to fairness and justice,” said Callen, who was NOLS executive director from 1998 until his retirement.

“One of our values in this country is equal justice before the law,” Callen said. “In order to achieve that, individuals who appear in court need to be represented, whether it’s a criminal case or a civil case.”

“We have an adversarial legal system, which isn’t equal if only one side is represented,” he explained.

“There are a lot of terrible wrongs, civil wrongs, that are perpetrated on consumers or on tenants in all sorts of ways,” Howard said.

Those responsible for those wrongs are represented by lawyers, who can pursue consumers or tenants civilly for judgments that may result in wage garnishments or other hardships, Howard said. “There needs to be some balance in the system,” she added.

In January 1977, Callen joined the Mahoning County Legal Assistance Association, which, shortly thereafter, became NOLS and expanded to serve Ashtabula, Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana counties.

Just nine months after Callen was hired, on Black Monday, Sept. 19, 1977, the Mahoning Valley was shocked by Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co.’s announcement of the closing of its Campbell Works, and NOLS immersed itself in the unsuccessful efforts of the Ecumenical Coalition to reopen the mill.

When U.S. Steel announced the closing of its Ohio Works in 1980, Callen was instrumental in suing on behalf of unemployed steelworkers to try to block that closing. NOLS obtained a temporary restraining order against that closing, but lost in the trial of that federal lawsuit.

The 1980s also were challenging times for NOLS because the President Ronald Reagan administration tried unsuccessfully to defund NOLS and all similar programs nationally, Callen said.

With Callen assisting her, Howard filed a dozen lawsuits against what Howard called predatory home-improvement lenders in the early 2000s.

“I never had a client who lost a house who wanted to keep it,” she said. “In many instances, we were able to get cash for our clients” in these suits, she said. “We were able to get the mortgage canceled, the note canceled, the foreclosure dismissed,” or to modify the mortgage, she said. “We never lost one of those cases,” she added.

In another field of law, Howard helped oversee a consent decree, which settled a racial and sex discrimination class-action lawsuit by NOLS against Operating Engineers Local 66 in Boardman.

“As a child of the ’60s, I was greatly influenced by Martin Luther King, and the whole notion that a successful life is a committed life,” Howard said, adding that her law degree empowered her to help people achieve social justice.

Callen said his retirement plans weren’t well-developed, and his activities now include reading, photography and helping one of his daughters with home improvements.

Howard said she wants to spend more time with her family, travel and read more, improve her golf game and enter her Rottweiler puppy in dog shows.

Outside of NOLS, Callen was well-known locally as a founder and former president of the Citizens League of Greater Youngstown, a now-dormant good-government and anti-corruption advocacy group.

“I think there’s been some improvement, but I don’t think we have, by any means, resolved the problem” of corruption in government, Callen said.

Ending the culture of corruption is a slow process made more difficult by the lack of influx of new population into the Mahoning Valley, he concluded.