Name: Deborah Perluss
What’s on her mind these days: “The future of our country and the lack of empathy or political will to ensure that the country lives up to its ideals as a just society for all without regard to race, sex, national origin, age, religion, but especially without regard to wealth.”
The current economic downturn has created a huge demand for legal aid and other public benefits, “because unemployment is so great,” says Deborah Perluss, director of advocacy and general counsel to the Northwest Justice Project.
Perluss has worked at NJP since 1996, representing the level of her commitment to providing civil legal assistance to low-income citizens of our state.
“People living in poverty in Washington are lucky to have Debi championing their cause,” wrote Andrea Axel, grants manager at the Legal Foundation of Washington and a legal aid colleague, in an email.
“Debi’s powerful intellect unwinds the thorniest legal problems. She is fierce when overcoming obstacles and passionate about ensuring justice for vulnerable people. She is nothing short of a marvel,” she added.
Among other things, NJP helps clients obtain disability and Medicaid benefits and represents those facing eviction or foreclosure, which prevents homelessness. NJP serves about 20,000 individuals a year at 17 offices funded primarily with federal and state dollars.
“And [we handle] a lot of domestic violence,” Perluss says. “Our family law cases are the worst of the worst.”
Disadvantaged criminal defendants are entitled to free legal defense, as any student of television courtroom drama knows. Those with pressing civil matters, such as consumer fraud, are not entitled to free legal help.
“You have to be very low income to qualify for our services,” Perluss says of the program that began as part of the 1960s’ War on Poverty.
Perluss began to think about a career in advocacy as a high school student in that era. “From the time that I was young I wanted to do something…socially relevant, that would impact people in a beneficial way,” she says.
She admits to some youthful idealism, but early in her college career, “I decided to go to law school [as] a way to have the greatest influence.”
It was “a changing world” when she entered the University of California in San Diego in 1971 and UC Hastings College of Law in San Francisco in 1975. Hastings provided “a lot of public interest law opportunities,” she says, and a place where “the gender barrier…had [already] been broken.”
With prior experience at California’s Employment Law Center and Rural Legal Assistance, “my very first job out of law school was with Spokane Legal Services,” bringing her to Washington.
“I never practiced in California, although I’m a member of that bar,” she notes.
She returned to school in1982, to get an LLM (masters) at the London School of Economics in international law and human rights. She hasn’t worked directly in that field, but “it certainly informs my approach.”
Other countries, particularly in Europe, do provide a right to civil counsel. In this country, she says, “there’s a right to counsel…in the criminal context, but you don’t have a right [to counsel] if you’re going to become homeless…or if you’re a kid and going to be kicked out of school…or if you’re disabled,” she says.
Growing up in Southern California, Perluss’s family belonged to a Reform synagogue and she and her husband and son are now members of Temple B’nai Torah in Bellevue.
“The Jewish tradition,” she notes, “helped form and inspired some of my desire to work in…social justice.”
She found high school alienating, she says, and “when I was in 10th grade I decided that when I graduated I was going to be on a kibbutz.”
She completed high school early with community college classes and “the day after I earned enough credits…I was on a plane to Israel,” she says.
After a three-month intensive Hebrew language course on Kibbutz Ramat Yochanon outside Haifa, she left to travel through Europe, returning home shortly after her 18th birthday to start college.
Perluss’s day-to-day job functions include working with all the lawyers in the field, ensuring “the accountability and integrity of the program,” and functioning as an “ethics guru,” she says. NJP and similar organizations, she adds, make sure that low-income people have “access to the justice system and a way to redress their legal rights and to adhere to their legal obligations” in a way that both respects the judicial system and their own dignity.
NJP is partly supported by funds raised by the non-profit Alliance for Equal Justice, an association of organizations that support civil legal aid across our state. More information is at their website, www.nwjustice.org.