Aug 28, 2018

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Jon Asher, Esq.: A Champion of Economic Justice

by | Aug 28, 2018

Colorado Center on Law and Policy will host its annual Pathways from Poverty Breakfast on Sept.28. One of the two recipients for our Champions of Economic Justice Award is Jon Asher, Esq., Director of the statewide legal aid program, Colorado Legal Services and a longtime member of CCLP’s Board of Directors.

For some people, navigating the complexities of a court case simply means hiring a lawyer to do the job for them. Unfortunately, someone working a job in the service economy  can hardly afford a $92 court filing fee (the cost of an eviction response) let alone a lawyer.

That’s where organizations like Colorado Legal Services (CLS) come in. This nonprofit works tirelessly to provide individuals with experienced lawyers for free or at a heavily discounted rate to more than 10,000 low-income Coloradans annually. CLS describes its mission as “providing meaningful access to high quality, civil legal services in the pursuit of justice for as many low-income persons and members of vulnerable populations throughout Colorado as possible.”

Starting as a small program with history dating as far back as 90 years, CLS now staffs 13 offices across the state, including rural areas such as Salida, Alamosa, Durango, and La Junta, employing 56 lawyers. One of those lawyers is Jon Asher, Esq., CLS’s long-time Executive Director.

Asher served as the Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society of Metro Denver starting in 1980, until the program consolidated with two other federally funded legal aid programs (Colorado Rural Services and Pikes Peak Arkansas River) in 1999, forming CLS.

His introduction to social justice issues came during his childhood in inner-city Chicago and college years in Cambridge, Mass. “It was the time of the Vietnam War, and there was a lot of discussion about civil rights and racial inequality,” he says. Asher spent two years in a legal aid office in East Cambridge while attending Harvard University Law School. He moved to Colorado in 1971.

“I didn’t know how long I would spend in the field of legal aid,” he reminisces. “Some people spend only a few years and then continue on into other legal sectors.” After spending a few years with Colorado Rural Legal Services in Greeley, Asher ended up staying in the field for nearly five decades.

Edwin Kahn, Esq., co-founder of the Colorado Lawyers Committee and a former board member and co-founder of CCLP, testifies to Asher’s dedication to service.

“I’ve known Jon for over 50 years,” Kahn said. “Since he graduated from law school, he has been dedicated to providing legal services for low-income people. He’s been on the frontlines as a practicing lawyer in Denver and other parts of the state since starting with Colorado Rural Services. He has always been an inspiration to other lawyers and staff with whom he’s worked and has campaigned for private lawyers to contribute to legal services and support legal service programs.”

Creating a mechanism for those without the means to understand and utilize the legal system is Asher’s top priority. “Confronting the legal aspects of income inequality and jobs is more important than ever. We must level the playing field,” Asher said.

What does the current playing field look like? In Asher’s view, economic justice is always impeded when those caught up in a dire situation (for example, victims of domestic violence, wage theft or eviction) do not have the resources they need to navigate the legal system. Leveling the field means equal access to legal representation, regardless of your economic status.

“Economic justice cannot exist when clients are homeless, on the verge of losing their jobs, and are then expected to pay exorbitant amounts to afford a lawyer, or numerous fines and court fees,” Asher explains. “The voices of low-income Coloradans need to be heard. They must have a seat at the (policy) table in order for them to be protected.”

CLS lawyers are a mix of rookie lawyers and seasoned veterans like Asher. “We appreciate both new and veteran lawyers,” he says, stating that the former group brings fresh ideas while the latter has invaluable experience to offer. He says that working for CLS may be challenging, but provides excellent training. “Our lawyers have gone on to become district attorneys, judges, and magistrates,” he says.

As both a Board member of CCLP and a director of a nonprofit legal aid program, Asher has a unique and highly respected role as a pioneer for economic justice across the state.

“Jon was the driving force for the creation of CCLP when Congress banned legal service programs from receiving monies if they were lobbying at the legislature or handling cases unpopular with Congress,” Kahn said. “He was a driving force in picking the original Board of Directors and getting CCLP off the ground. He has been a very thoughtful member of the Board ever since.”

In his speech at the 20th anniversary gathering of CCLP friends and alumni, Asher closed with this sentiment about the organization’s beginnings:

“It was our hope that we could create and sustain the capacity to engage in high-quality research, advocacy and litigation on behalf of low-income and marginalized Coloradans, to protect and advance the health, economic security and wellbeing of low-income Coloradans, to make access to justice more full and more real for those in need. That vision and hope has been made a reality.”

During his busy career with CLS, Asher managed to find the time to serve as acting special counsel to the president of the Legal Services Corp. in Washington, D.C. for the better part of a year. He has also served on the Colorado Access to Justice Commission and chaired the American Bar Association Commission on Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts. The legal community has honored Asher with the Colorado Bar Association (CBA) and the Denver Bar Association’s Awards of Merit as well as the Jacob V. Schaetzel Memorial Awards for outstanding dedication in making legal services available to Coloradans.

In honoring Asher along with Diana Poole (the longtime executive of the Legal Aid Foundation of Colorado and the Colorado Lawyer Trust Account Foundation), then CBA president Dick Gast, Esq. said Asher and Poole exemplify “courage, bravery, ingenuity, strength and an unwavering commitment to sacrificing their own personal concerns for the greater good.”

“You can’t think of Colorado Legal Services without thinking of Jon,” said Elisabeth Arenales, Executive Director of CCLP’s Health Care program. “He has spent decades building, nurturing and tending the program to ensure that low-income Coloradans have access to justice through civil legal services. CLS is what it is today because of Jon.”

CCLP looks forward to recognizing Jon Asher for his extraordinary accomplishments on Sept. 28. We hope you can join us by registering for our Pathways event.

-By Duranya Freeman

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