Who Is Enforcing Civil Rights in Arkansas: Is There a Need for a State Civil Rights Agency?

Chapter 4

Where to Turn for Legal Assistance

During the course of the Advisory Committee’s study of the need for a state civil rights agency in Arkansas, issues surfaced regarding citizens’ lack of information on where to turn for legal services and repeated reports that there were only a few attorneys in the state willing to accept civil rights cases. In the absence of appropriate state civil rights laws, citizens are either left to pursue a federal investigation or seek an attorney to file a civil rights case in the courts, assuming the plaintiff can afford an attorney.[1]

According to Phillip Kaplan, attorneys are very selective in accepting such cases because they are time consuming, expensive, and hard to win.[2] He stated:

[T]he fact is that you’re not going to get that many lawyers to handle [civil rights cases]. It just isn’t going to happen . . . I’ve watched the development of a number of lawyers who handle these cases with dexterity and ability, and there just aren’t that many. . . . Moreover, it is too difficult to make a living. . . . Most lawyers going to law school are not interested in handling this kind of litigation because it takes significant start-up money. . . . Those [attorneys] who handle them are exceedingly selective about the cases they handle because they are so hard to win. . . .[3]

Judge Wendell L. Griffen said good civil rights attorneys have courage and integrity:

Civil rights law is not for the faint-hearted or the ignorant. While a lawyer may be very able and informed in the area of municipal finance or tax law, civil rights litigation is very much a specialty unto itself. You’re going to have to have somebody who can walk the walk. Anybody who has a law degree but doesn’t particularly believe in the notion of civil rights should not consider such a profession.[4]

Carolyn Wagner, a parent who needed a civil rights attorney to represent her son in a sexual harassment case based on his sexual orientation, also complained that it is almost impossible to get an attorney to represent complainants.[5] Mrs. Wagner said, after many attempts, she finally found an attorney to represent her son, but he soon retired from practicing law before the complaint was resolved. Since that time, all her legal representation has come from out of state.

Jim Moore, an attorney who represents employers, on the other hand, believes there is a sufficient number of attorneys in Arkansas who are willing to accept civil rights cases.[6] According to Mr. Moore, there is a sizable group of skilled and aggressive lawyers who practice civil rights law in Arkansas. Mr. Moore also provided the Advisory Committee a list of 48 attorneys in Arkansas who litigate civil rights cases (see appendix C). He stated:

There is a Civil Rights Bar in Arkansas and there are many fine plaintiff civil rights attorneys in the Little Rock area [where most practice] . . . and there are others now throughout the state.[7]

[1] Arkansas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, fact-finding meeting, Little Rock, AR, Sept. 23–24, 1998, transcript (hereafter cited as Transcript); Phillip Kaplan, Transcript, vol. 1, pp. 58–59; Carolyn Wagner, Transcript, vol. 1, p. 246; Bill Lewellen, Transcript, vol. 2, pp. 332–34, 340–41; Dale Charles, Transcript vol. 2, pp. 360–61; Candance Odom, interview, Aug. 27, 1998.

[2] Phillip Kaplan, Transcript, vol. 1, pp. 58–59.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Wendell L. Griffen, Transcript, vol. 2, p. 348.

[5] Carolyn Wagner, Transcript, vol. 1, p. 246.

[6] Jim Moore, Transcript, vol. 1, pp. 179, 183–84.

[7] Ibid., pp. 183–84.