Meet Ed Kahn: Champion of Economic Justice

Meet Ed Kahn: Champion of Economic Justice

Despite his contributions to protecting civil rights and advancing the interests of the state’s less-fortunate residents, it’s safe to say that Ed Kahn, Esq., is not a household name in Colorado.

Regardless, Ed is well-known and respected within Colorado’s legal community for being the attorney involved in some of the state’s most significant court cases over the last 50 years and for his role in founding several of the state’s most influential legal-advocacy organizations.

One of the founders of Colorado Center on Law and Policy, Mr. Kahn will be honored for his work in helping low-income Coloradans with a Champion of Economic Justice Award during our Fourth Annual Pathways from Poverty Breakfast, Oct. 6 at Embassy Suites Denver Downtown Convention Center Hotel.

A private attorney since 1965, Ed’s pro-bono work includes representing plaintiffs in the Denver school desegregation case from the late 1960s-early 1970s as well as a number of cases that ultimately directed hundreds of millions of dollars to serve the health needs of underserved Coloradans.

When reviewing Ed’s impressive body of work, one wonders how he mustered the time, energy and passion to balance his professional work as an attorney with his non-paying economic justice pursuits while raising a family with his wife, Cynthia, who has her own record of exemplary dedication to public service. With characteristic humility, Kahn says his good work is a product of time, circumstances and necessity.

“Going to law school during the Civil Rights era, I realized early on that low-income people aren’t going to be recognized in the legislature or the courts unless they have advocates,” he said when questioned about his commitment to community service. “These people are not going to be fully credited by the powers-that-be unless they have allies from the establishment. I’m sorry to say that, but I think that it’s true.”

As someone whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1936, Kahn was essentially born to empathize with oppressed minorities in 1938. Drawn to political science, journalism and international affairs, Kahn started college in 1954 – one year after the Korean War ended. While attending college in Boulder, he worked as the editor of the Colorado Daily student newspaper. While serving in the Air Force for three and a half years, he was encouraged by lawyers to explore a career in law. He attended Harvard Law School from 1962 to 1965, graduating with honors. After attending a national ACLU convention in the mid-60s, he became an active member of the ACLU of Colorado’s legal panel, where he served for more than 50 years. He spent his early years in law practice working for the venerable firm Holland & Hart. He joined Kelly/Haglund/Garnsey & Kahn in 1978, and its successor’s firm, Lass Moses and Ramp, in 2010.

From a historical perspective, Ed’s professional resume is astounding and significant. From 1969 until 1974, he worked on the Denver school desegregation case, Keyes vs. Denver School District, which ultimately was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974. The justices ruled that the district was had committed acts of de jure segregation in violation of the Equal Protection Clause and mandated the desegregation of the school district.

“I wasn’t involved in the trial, but helped with the briefs and writing the appeal to the Supreme Court,” he said of Keyes vs. Denver School District. “I got the firm to take the case. We had some opposition within the firm to taking the case, because people were concerned it would lose business for the firm. But after they took the case, to their credit, I never heard an adverse word about our involvement.”

Indeed, the respect that Kahn enjoys from other lawyers is reciprocated by him.

“Helping people helps the profession, but it serves to help the profession too,” he said. “I have always had the aid of colleagues to help me do what I wanted to do. But I never felt the need to go full-time into public service. I always thought it was redemptive to work with private individuals and help them with litigation-type problems.” Along with numerous other lawyerly pursuits, Kahn co-founded the Colorado Lawyers Committee to better coordinate pro-bono efforts among Colorado’s major law firms.

In 1969, he served on the founding board of Colorado Rural Legal Services, which provided civil legal assistance to people who lack the financial resources to hire an attorney. CRLS was later merged into Colorado Legal Services.

Soon after joining Kelly/Haglund he obtained over $700,000 in legal fees – pro-bono — for the ACLU for its lawyers and Holland & Hart’s work on Ramos vs. Lamm.,  That case addressed triple-bunking prisoners in Colorado prisons, which was deemed unconstitutional and characterized as cruel and unusual punishment by the U.S. District Court for Colorado, and affirmed by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the late 90s, after having a hand in drafting legislation that established laws regarding the appropriate transfer of public assets from nonprofits health insurers and hospitals to privately owned entities, Mr. Kahn was involved in a case involving the conversion and sale of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Colorado,  a nonprofit health insurer, to the for-profit Anthem Inc. The conversion resulted in the creation of the Caring for Colorado Foundation in 1999. The foundation reported $185 million in assets and made $7.7 million in grants in 2016, similar to the level of grants made annually soon after it was formed. That work, combined with restrictions from Congress on legal aid, prompted Kahn to join other like-minded attorneys in forming Colorado Center on Law and Policy almost 20 years ago. Though he served on CCLP’s board, Ed concluded that his time would be better spent as a staff volunteer. He worked closely with CCLP’s Elisabeth Arenales, who considers Kahn a mentor.

In the early 2000s, Kahn and CCLP’s Arenales convinced leadership at the Colorado Health Foundation to dramatically increase their funding to benefit community organizations, after writing a letter to Colorado’s Attorney General saying the foundation was in violation of federal and state tax law. The foundation has awarded up to $97.7 million a year since then.

Though his work is neither glamourous nor exciting, Kahn marvels at the difference some of his efforts have made for the people of Colorado over the years.

“The financial impact is astounding, but I didn’t create the wealth of HealthONE,” he said, referencing the conversion that created The Colorado Health Foundation. “Seeing how much good is done by it and other conversion health foundations is very satisfying.”

In 2004, Kahn ramped up semi-retirement and took on a number of successful CCLP cases, including an action CCLP brought against the state when the then new Colorado Benefits Management System left thousands of Coloradans without access to health care, medications and food stamps. With Kahn taking on the role as the No. 2 litigator in the case, CCLP secured a settlement agreement requiring the state to intensify efforts and to meet benchmarks for timely and accurate processing of applications. The case helped thousands of applicants and provided millions of dollars of Medicaid and Food Stamp benefits.

More recently, Kahn and CCLP staff successfully made the case in front of Colorado’s Attorney General for preserving the full fair-market value of InnovAge, a nonprofit that converted to for-profit status. InnovAge provides community-based comprehensive care for people in need of long-term services and supports. In addition to securing $16 million additional dollars from InnovAge’s buyer, Kahn and CCLP maintained that assets from the conversion should benefit of Colorado’s frail elderly and disabled communities rather than being disbursed more widely. In her decision approving the conversion, Attorney General Cynthia Coffman concurred with CCLP and required InnovAge to fund an ombudsman to oversee the interests of InnovAge clients, and ordered that 80 percent of the company’s value remain in Colorado for the benefit of frail elderly and disabled Coloradans.

Ed remains “on call” to CCLP to consult on health care conversion cases. But, he says, “I don’t have the mindset that I’m indispensable for anything,” Kahn said.

While it seems that no one is truly “indispensable,” we are grateful for Kahn’s work for Colorado’s low-income families and for CCLP as well as other legal advocacy organizations that help people who otherwise couldn’t help themselves. That’s why we’ll be among those standing as he accepts his long-overdue Champion of Economic Justice Award on Oct. 6.

– By Bob Mook

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