The UDC David A. Clarke School of Law (UDC Law) mourns the loss of Dr. Edgar S. Cahn, who – along with his late wife Jean Camper Cahn – co-founded the Antioch School of Law, a predecessor school to UDC Law. Cahn died Jan. 23, 2022, at 86 years old. He is survived by his wife Dr. Christine Gray and sons Jonathan and Reuben, stepchildren Toinette and Crispin Vicars, grandchildren Aaron, Danielle and Anna and two great grandsons.
Edgar and his twin sister Mary were born March 23, 1935, in Manhattan, to Edmond, a prominent legal philosopher, and Leonore Cahn, an advocate for the elderly and sick.
In a 1991 piece for The Washington Post Magazine, Steven Waldman wrote, “Edgar had an uncanny ability to be a troublemaker and a very good boy at the same time [as a child].” That seemingly contradictory pair of traits would lead Cahn to a lifetime of fighting for social justice – and a legacy of lasting change.
Cahn earned his bachelor’s from Swarthmore College in English literature and continued at Yale where he received an M.A. and Ph.D. in literature and a J.D. from Yale Law School. He has been an Ashoka Scholar and a Fulbright Scholar (Cambridge University). After his law school graduation in 1963, Cahn was recruited by Attorney General Robert Kennedy as Special Assistant and speechwriter. He wrote Kennedy’s address to the University of Chicago on Law Day 1964, in which the Attorney General said, “We concentrate too much on the traditional stuff of the law – on lawsuits, courts and formal legal learning – too little upon the fundamental changes in our society which may, in the final analysis, do much more to determine the fate of law and of the rule of law as we understand it.” Cahn’s voice was evident throughout the speech, its words reflecting the type of progressive, systems-based change for which he advocated his entire life.
In 1964, Edgar was working as the Executive Assistant to Robert Sargent Shriver, Jr., in the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), and Jean was working as a consultant for the OEO. The two co-authored “The War on Poverty: A Civilian Perspective” in the Yale Law Journal, gaining a large-scale audience for the Cahns’ ambitious social justice philosophy. The next year, Shriver and the Cahns established the OEO’s National Legal Services program based on the model presented in the essay, which Shriver described as the “genesis of legal services.” They garnered support from the American Bar Association (led by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr.), made the first grants and assembled the first National Advisory Committee for the program. After several tumultuous years advocating for the importance of legal services programs, the Nixon administration established the Legal Services Corporation, a direct descendant of the program initiated in the OEO by the Cahns and Shriver.
By 1968, Cahn was working for the Field Foundation. Partnering with Native American activists, Cahn shifted his efforts toward advocating for the rights of Indigenous people of America through the creation of the Citizens Advocate Center. Cahn wrote in Our Brother’s Keeper: The Indian in White America in 1969 that the mission of the Center was to “monitor governmental programs and assure equitable treatment of all community organizations in their dealing with the government.” The Center substantiated and contributed to efforts that ended the official policy of termination of American Indian nations, embraced the right of self-determination and led to the American Indian Self Determination Act. By the mid-1970s, the Citizens Advocate Center had expanded its mission to monitoring the impact of federal agencies on low-income people, including housing programs and administrative effectiveness.
He also helped author Hunger, U.S.A.: A Report by the Citizens’ Board of Inquiry into Hunger and Malnutrition in the United States around the same time. The report exposed the pervasiveness of hunger in America and catalyzed the first national campaign to address hunger in the United States. He organized the Citizens’ Board of Inquiry into Hunger and Malnutrition in America, conducted hearings and served as author of the Commission’s Report. He then initiated the earliest litigation challenging the administration of the food stamp and agricultural commodity program. Cahn’s litigation led to reform of the program which had been enacted during the Depression to help landowners, ultimately converting the effort into an anti-hunger program.
Edgar and Jean Camper Cahn were dedicated to improving the legal system by increasing access to justice, a belief that led them to create the Antioch School of Law – part of the Antioch University system – in Washington, D.C., in 1972. Following the closure of Jean Cahn’s Urban Law Institute, she was determined to open a law school that continued its model of public interest and legal education and developed the plan for Antioch. Under their leadership, students filed one thousand cases on behalf of members of the D.C. community who could not afford legal representation, making it – as Waldman described – “the largest public-interest law firm in the country.”
The school’s mission was to provide law students with hands-on training and to improve access to legal services in the D.C. community, giving rise to a clinical education model that can now be found in law schools across the United States. Today, UDC Law’s continued commitment to the Cahns’ vision manifests in its nationally ranked clinical law program.
Edgar and Jean served as co-deans of the school until 1980 when Antioch University began to suffer financial trouble and resolved to close the law school. Students and alumni, however, advocated to keep the school open, and in 1986, the Council of the District of Columbia purchased the school and renamed it the District of Columbia School of Law. D.C. Councilmember Hilda Mason, whose advocacy was instrumental in the school’s reestablishment, asked the Cahns to join the new school and carry their vision forward. In 1988, shortly after Edgar and Jean established the Miami service credits program and successfully sued the state of Florida to update its criteria for receiving aid, they returned to D.C. to help select the D.C. School of Law’s inaugural class.
Three years later, Jean Camper Cahn died after a two-year battle with breast cancer.
The D.C. School of Law was awarded provisional American Bar Association accreditation in 1991; it was incorporated into the University of the District of Columbia five years later. In 1998, the school was renamed the David A. Clarke School of Law and became a fully accredited law school in 2005.
In 1980, while fighting to keep Antioch School of Law’s doors open, Professor Cahn suffered a massive heart attack, and doctors told him his heart was so damaged he would likely not live more than two years and might have only two good hours a day. He told The Washington Post in 2019 – nearly 40 years later, “I thought: What do I do with two good hours a day? I have to teach people to value themselves.” His heart attack gave rise to yet another social innovation – what is now referred to as timebanking, a system whereby a service credit worth an hour of assistance could be traded like currency. Cahn believed timebanking could empower the poor and others who had been marginalized, and he became a lifelong advocate for reshaping the legal features of the monetary system to achieve these social justice objectives.
Professor Cahn, with Jean’s support, launched timebanking programs in many communities throughout the United States. In 1992, he co-authored Time Dollars: The New Currency That Enables Americans to Turn Their Hidden Resource-Time-Into Personal Security & Community Renewal with Jonathan Rowe.
As a member of the UDC Law faculty, Professor Cahn taught Law & Justice and a course on systems change. His research explored innovative legal strategies to further address the problems of underserved and economically disadvantaged communities. To that end, he published several articles, including “Beyond the New Property: The Right to Become and to Remain Productive,” in the District of Columbia Law Review and “An Offer They Can’t Refuse: Racial Disparity in Juvenile Justice and Deliberate Indifference Meet Alternatives that Work,” with Cynthia Robbins in the University of the District of Columbia Law Review. The latter argues for more effective methods of engaging youth involved with the justice system.
Professor Cahn used the innovative timebanking concept to organize the Time Dollar Youth Court in D.C., which was originally hosted at UDC Law. The Youth Court utilized teen juries to judge cases in which teens were arrested for non-violent offenses. Hearing nearly 800 cases per year with the help of more than 400 youth at one point, the Youth Court was one of the District’s most effective juvenile diversion programs. Cahn later became the official advisor for the National Blue Ribbon Commission on Restructuring Juvenile Justice in the District of Columbia and served as Vice Chair of the Mayor’s Juvenile Advocacy Group. Youth Courts are now recognized as effective youth diversion programs and widely used.
In 2000, Cahn married Christine Gray. They collaborated on Cahn’s work in timebanking, not only fleshing out the implications of timebanking and co-production but also traveling extensively around the United States and internationally to promote the ideas laid out in Time Dollars and No More Throw-Away People. Gray made contributions to the idea of the “core principles” that Cahn presents in No More Throw-Away People as important features of co-production. With economist Neva Goodwin, Cahn also theorized the idea of the “core economy” in which the caring, yet often unseen or under-recognized labor taking place in the home, family, neighborhood and community is foundational to the market economy and that the core economy could be mobilized using a time-based currency.
Social justice was at the root of all Professor Cahn’s initiatives. He believed that lawyers – acting as social architects – could become agents of change. In the article Where Next?: The Future of Clinical Legal Education, co-authored with Gray, they revisit the concept that the voices of people being served should be present in the leadership of organizations that provide them services – as partners, allies and colleagues in shared efforts to fight systemic injustice.
This year marks 50 years since Edgar and Jean Camper Cahn pioneered an ambitious and innovative approach to legal education. Professor Cahn continued to teach and innovate until the very end, cementing his place as central to the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) history. The Cahns were the catalysts of not only the U.S. access to justice movement but the international access to justice movement, now reflected in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 16. Timebanking has expanded to hundreds of government-sponsored and independent timebanking projects engaging tens of thousands of people in more than 40 countries and across the United States.
Cahn has been recognized for his contributions to social justice and law numerous times, often in tandem with Jean Camper Cahn. The pair were honored at the 2019 UDC Law Gala with the Charles J. Ogletree, Jr. Champions of Justice Award. The Cahns received the Dorsey Award from the National Legal Aid and Defender Association in 2009 for their dedication to equal justice. And in 1997, they received the William Pincus Clinical Award from the Association of American Law Schools for Outstanding Contributions to Legal Education. The Pennsylvania Bar Association and Swarthmore College have awarded the Edgar and Jean Camper Cahn Law and Social Justice Award since 2011.
Other awards and honors include the ABA Making a Difference through Community Service Award in 2009; Daily Point of Light in 1998; the 2004 Servant of Justice Award from Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia and the District of Columbia Commission on Human Rights Cornelius R. “Neil” Alexander Humanitarian Award in 2013.
In 2016 at his 81st birthday celebration at UDC Law, Cahn said, “I’ve lived my life saying that you can get anything done as long as you don’t care who gets the credit.” Edgar Cahn may not have sought credit, but he was certainly instrumental in “getting things done,” forever changing the face of legal education and leaving a lasting impact on the legal system. He taught us all.