The early days, 1970-81: The National Center for Youth Law was founded in 1970 in San Francisco as the Youth Law Center. The goal of the Center, an offshoot of the San Francisco Legal Aid Society, was to use the law as a tool of social change, emulating the litigation successes of the civil rights lawyers of the 1950s-60s. Its relatively small staff, about six attorneys, handled primarily juvenile justice and foster care cases, viewing itself as a litigation unit that worked on cases that would have a broad impact. One of NCYL’s most important cases during that first decade included Morales v. Turman, which for the first time set standards for safe and humane treatment of juveniles detained in institutions. In Breed v. Jones, NCYL won a US Supreme Court decision stopping the practice of trying a juvenile twice for the same crime – a practice already illegal for adults. NCYL’s participation in the US Supreme Court case Lau v. Nichols recognized, for the first time, the rights of non- English speaking students in public schools.
The Center had also begun building a community of advocates to work for the benefit of poor children at the local and national level. It was instrumental in the founding of Legal Services for Children in San Francisco, which is still a thriving organization with an excellent reputation. In 1978, the Youth Law Center merged with the National Juvenile Law Center in St. Louis, MO, maintaining the office there, and changed its name to the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) to better reflect the combined organizations. Three years later, NCYL closed the St. Louis office and consolidated its operation to San Francisco.
Surviving the Reagan years and beyond, 1981-95: Starting in 1981, NCYL began to focus more on its role as a national support center for neighborhood legal services offices. The goal was to help those organizations be more efficient and effective in their work. The Center’s attorneys recognized the importance of good child advocacy at the local level. They also wanted to maintain support from the Reagan-controlled LSC, which looked favorably on support center work, but not on the aggressive impact litigation that had always defined NCYL. The Center also built close ties to neighborhood legal services programs, wanting more direct knowledge of the problems faced by low-income children and families.
In 1982, however, the Legal Services Corporation began a highly politicized attack on national support centers, particularly NCYL. The Reagan-appointed LSC Board disliked legal services in general and national support centers doing class action litigation in particular.
In response, the 17 federally funded national support centers banded together, selecting NCYL Director John O’Toole to represent their interests before LSC. They succeeded in preventing LSC from eliminating the support centers despite its repeated attempts to do so between 1982 and 1992. At one point, support centers sued LSC to overturn restrictions on their activities, successfully defending their right to engage in advocacy intended to have a broad impact.
In 1987, NCYL co-counseled with the ACLU and Morrison & Foerster to challenge the constitutionality of a state law requiring girls under 18 to have a court order or their parents’ permission to get an abortion. In litigating the case, American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) v. Lungren, NCYL used funds provided by the California Legal Services Trust Fund Program (IOLTA). Nevertheless, the Legal Services Corporation ordered NCYL to withdraw from the case because it involved abortion. NCYL refused, arguing that it was not using LSC funds and that federal law (at that time) protected its right to use IOLTA funds for this purpose.
LSC persisted and finally NCYL requested a ruling from the Legal Services Trust Fund Program as to whether the Center’s use of IOLTA funds in AAP was consistent IOLTA’s purpose in providing the funds. The Trust Fund Commission ruled unanimously that NCYL’s expenditures in AAP were permissible.
Despite this ruling, the Legal Services Corporation cut NCYL’s grant by 9.95 percent as punishment for participating in an abortion case. LSC chose the 9.95 percent cut because cuts of 10 percent or more entitled programs to a hearing, and LSC acknowledged it did not want to give NCYL a hearing. NCYL responded by suing the LSC in federal court, which overturned LSC’s funding cut. The Court upheld the important principle that LSC could not interfere with state funding of legal assistance (National Center for Youth Law v. Legal Services Corporation).
The end of LSC funding, 1996: A right-wing campaign, led by then-Speaker of the US House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, to eliminate funding for legal services had gained momentum. While unable to wipe out legal services for the poor altogether, the “New Right” continued to give it less and less money, and cut national and state support centers from the budget completely, including NCYL. New restrictions were put on organizations that accepted a dime of LSC money, including a ban on class action litigation, legislative advocacy, and representation of prisoners and undocumented people. With the elimination of national support funding, NCYL lost more than $800,000, or 60 percent of its operating budget. These events gave NCYL an opportunity to redefine its goals and its methods for accomplishing them. The Center intensified its fundraising efforts, and essentially reinvented itself. While still acting as a support center, NCYL cut by half the amount of time spent on that function and devoted most of its resources to impact litigation and legislative work that LSC organizations were no longer allowed to do. The Center focused its support center work on strategic partnerships with a broader range of advocates, tying the work more directly to its aggressive advocacy efforts. Throughout its four decades of change and growth, there is one important trait that has remained constant; NCYL has always put a premium on organizational flexibility, a hallmark of its 40-year history, seizing opportunities as they arise in order to achieve the maximum return for its clients.