THE BLOG
07/22/2014 07:08 pm ET Updated Sep 21, 2014

Blazing a Trail: Hillary Clinton, Advocate for Children and the Indigent

If we are going to have a discussion about Hillary Clinton's legal career, then let's be sure the whole story is told - one that explains both her commitment and her pioneering advocacy for abused children and the indigent in need of counsel.

To tell this story, you need to return to the mid-1970s, when the nation had no common legal standard for abused and neglected children, the poor had little access to legal counsel, rape was concealed rather than prosecuted, and the nation, especially the South, offered few services to those survived the horror of rape.

Hillary Rodham started law school in the fall of 1969. Child abuse was seen as family matter and was swept under the rug; and children had few protections under the law. A few bold lawyers tackled this and Hillary, the law student, stood with them.

Soon Hillary was at the forefront of legal campaigns to protect children and represent those too poor to pay a lawyer. She helped shape legal aid clinics, researched child abuse and neglect, and represented those who had been assaulted or abused. As she wrote in Living History, her work on behalf of abuse victims "went hand-in-hand with my assignments at the New Haven Legal Services office," as both stemmed from her realization "that what I wanted to do with the law was to give a voice to [those] who were not being heard."

The legal aid system was haphazard and undefined. Even though the 6th Amendment granted criminal defendants in federal cases the right "to have the assistance of counsel," it took until the 1930s for indigent defendants in federal cases to secure counsel, and another 30 years for the Supreme Court to apply that right to indigents charged in state felony cases. Even then the Court left many key questions about legal aid unanswered. The demand for legal aid lawyers swamped existing legal pools.

Hillary spent her years after law school tackling both these challenges. In 1973, she went to work at the newly formed Children's Defense Fund, the country's leading child advocacy organization. After moving to Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 1974, she taught criminal procedure at the law school and ran its legal aid clinic.

In early 1975, Hillary was appointed by a judge to represent an indigent man charged with rape. Hillary wrestled with the assignment, especially since a young child was involved. She asked to be removed from the case, but the court denied her request.

I can only speculate on the gut-wrenching torment this must have given Hillary.

She found herself torn between the two legal values she cherished. But in the end, she could not discount that her values and professional ethics mandated that all indigent defendants, not just those accused of nonviolent crimes, receive adequate counsel.

But the record is clear how Hillary responded as soon as the trial ended. She helped launch the first rape crisis hotline in Arkansas and strove to give women the medical, legal, and social support they needed. This was a bold act. Rape Crisis Centers and hotlines were rare. Indeed, crisis centers in Washington, D.C. and Boston had only opened their doors in 1972 and 1973. In the South, only Memphis and Athens, Georgia followed suit.

It wasn't long after that I first learned about Hillary. In 1975, I helped start the first rape crisis center in Atlanta. I was trying to navigate the legal issues related to child assault victims, but the law was so new, I was lost, so I asked for help. Everywhere I called, the experts would say, "Do you know Hillary Rodham? She's who you need to talk to."

Less than four years after graduation, Hillary had already established herself as one of the country's leading advocates for abused and neglected children. Her groundbreaking articles in the Harvard Educational Review and Yale Law Review spurred urgently-needed legal reforms. While at home, her leadership of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families gave voice to abused and neglected children.

The same can be said for Hillary's cutting edge work to expand legal aid. As manager of the Fayetteville legal aid clinic, she saw how the legal standard used to determine whether a defendant qualified for aid was "an impossible standard to meet" and she "wanted to change the law."

And indeed she did. In 1977, President Carter appointed Hillary to the Legal Services Corporation, a federal program charged with expanding access to legal aid. Hillary was the first woman to chair the corporation, and under her leadership, funding more than tripled from $90 million to $300 million.

Hillary's early leadership in these two fundamental civic values is often overshadowed by her other political and diplomatic successes. It should not be. It shows us who she is, why she took the actions she did, and how she will continue to lead.