The Loren Miller Legal Services Award, named after the late Loren Miller, an African American lawyer and judge who was a leader in the civil rights movement, was established in 1977 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the State Bar of California. It is considered a lifetime achievement award and is given annually to a lawyer admitted to practice in California who has demonstrated long-term commitment to legal services and who has personally done significant work in extending legal services to the poor. Previous award recipients include the staff of legal services organizations such as directors of litigation, executive directors and private bar attorneys.
Nominee must be a member of the State Bar of California. General criteria to be used in the selection of the award recipient include one or more of the following:
Members of the State Bar Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services (SCDLS) are ineligible to receive the award during their service on the committee, and for one year following their departure from the committee.
Catherine Blakemore has been a champion of increasing access to justice for all Californians and the rights of people with disabilities throughout her 39 year legal career. After graduating from Loyola Law School in 1977, Ms. Blakemore immediately began her life-long dedication to public interest law. Her first job was as an attorney with the Disability Rights Legal Center. In 1978, Ms. Blakemore became a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. In 1980, after just three years of practice, she became a Managing Attorney of the Southern California office of Disability Rights California (DRC). In 1987 she was elevated to Legal Services Director and, in 1993, she was appointed as the Executive Director, the position she currently holds.
DRC is the statewide agency established under federal law to protect and advocate for individuals with disabilities, almost all of whom are indigent. DRC has become the largest disability rights advocacy organization in the country, changing the lives of thousands of Californians each year by providing direct representation and helping tens of thousands more through its systemic litigation and amicus work.
Since she became executive director, Ms. Blakemore has practiced what she preaches — she has sought to increase services to people from underserved communities and to ensure that DRC's staff reflects the diversity of California. In 2015, 65% of DRC's clients were from language and ethnic distinct communities, 57% of its staff members were from language and ethnic distinct communities, and 30% of its staff were people with disabilities.
Ms. Blakemore has continually practiced in California, but her influence and impact have been much more widespread. She has been involved at the national level to enhance the rights of individuals with disabilities and the effectiveness of advocacy systems. Moreover, she is a nationally recognized expert in the legal field of special education, particularly focusing on underserved indigent youth. She has shared her expertise with attorneys around the country and has served as a member of, and the President of, the Board of Directors of the National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems.
Ms. Blakemore’s passion for ensuring that students with disabilities have equal access to education began in 1978 when she represented a child who was denied access to a public school classroom because his ventilator made too much noise. Her success in that case and the hundreds that followed did much to ensure that the newly enacted federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was fully implemented in California. In 1989, Blakemore and her co-counsel successfully litigated Butterfield v. Honig, which resulted in the timely assessment and provision of mental health services to thousands of special education students. For more than twenty years, she has served as counsel in Smith v. Los Angeles Unified School District, litigation that has resulted in an ongoing consent decree governing special education services in California's largest school district. Ms. Blakemore has worked with co-counsel to monitor the implementation, including efforts to increase the accessibility of school sites and charter schools; translation of Individual Education Plans; efforts to reduce the use of suspension and expulsion of students with disabilities; and increased opportunities for students with significant disabilities to receive their education on regular education campuses.
In 2013, Ms. Blakemore led DRC's successful effort to enact California Senate Bill 555 which helped ensure that consumers and families using regional center services are provided with information and services in their native language, and Senate Bill 468 which created a statewide self-determination program for people with developmental disabilities. The law ensures that regional center consumers will be provided with an individual budget and increased flexibility to purchase services they find most useful to live and work in the community.
Ms. Blakemore’s systemic litigation and advocacy also has advanced the right of Californians with disabilities to move from institutions to the community. In Coffelt v. Department of Developmental Services, she and her DRC co-counsel negotiated a consent decree which ensured that 2,000 individuals with developmental disabilities on waiting lists could move from state institutions to the community with appropriate services. Ms. Blakemore also worked with other DRC staff to ensure access to vital community based services through settlements of class litigation which stopped cuts to the In-Home Supportive Services program and preserved the Adult Day Health Care program for seniors and persons with disabilities.
While Ms. Blakemore has focused her energies on vindicating the rights of disabled Californians, her impact has gone beyond disability rights and advocacy. She has also been a leader in the broader legal services community, advocating for increased funding for legal services organizations across the state. Ms. Blakemore currently serves as the vice-chair of the California Commission on Access to Justice. She also has served as Co-Chair of the Campaign for Justice and has been active in the Bench-Bar Coalition, which seeks increased funding for court services. She also recently worked with other legal services directors to secure additional funding for the Equal Access program.
Catherine Blakemore has demonstrated commitment to legal services and has personally done significant work in extending legal services to the indigent and persons with disabilities. In her letter of recommendation for Ms. Blakemore, Paula Pearlman, Assistant Chief Counsel for the California Department of Fair Employment & Housing, and former Executive Director of Disability Rights Legal Center said, “There are few members of the bar who have spent their entire career serving the public interest and low income, and persons with disabilities in California. Catherine Blakemore is such a person. Her leadership has allowed people to remain living in their homes, remediated discriminatory conditions in facilities and schools, and mentored the next generation of public interest advocates. She is most deserving of this recognition.”