Friday's hard-won marriage equality victory at the U.S. Supreme Court represents not just the culmination but also the value of decades of advocacy. Underneath the victory, however, is the fact that such a campaign is costly: in human and financial capital. So many fought hard to achieve the campaign's ultimate success, and countless others contributed substantial funds to the effort that made the campaign possible. Such victories are sweet, but they also don't come cheap. What's more, there is still much more work to be done. The Onion's satirical headline isn't too far from the mark: "Report: Only 47,000 Social Justice Milestones to Go before U.S. Achieves Full Equality."
While courts are not the only way to achieve justice, since the landmark case that signaled the beginning of the end of Jim Crow, Brown v. Board of Education, many have turned to the legal system to pursue civil and human rights. For those who can pay for their lawyers, they know such pursuits are expensive. For those who cannot, they must rely on free legal assistance from not-for-profit legal organizations or volunteer efforts from private lawyers. Far more individuals who need lawyers cannot afford them, and funding from government and private sources are woefully inadequate. Indeed, eighty percent of low-income individuals and half of those of moderate income face their legal problems without a lawyer. How many important claims are not pursued because of a lack of legal representation?
Even if funding were available to pay for a lawyer for everyone who needs one, pursuing justice through the courts also has other expenses: like the cost of depositions, expert witnesses, and filing fees. For a big case, like one that goes to the Supreme Court, these costs, per case, can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars; some can skyrocket into the millions, not even counting the cost of the legal representation.
For lawyers working at non-profits and even private attorneys who are handling cases on a volunteer basis, these costs can be prohibitive, and can stifle creative pursuit of important claims. While in many civil rights cases the victorious party can obtain reimbursement from the losing side for these expenses, that doesn't happen until the end of the case, and the costs of litigation pile up as they arise regardless of the prospects of ultimate victory.
Lawyers pre-occupied with winning their case don't always have time, or the means, to seek the funds necessary to pay the ongoing expenses associated with litigating it. Without the funds necessary to sustain a legal campaign, cases can stall, or, even worse, might never be brought in the first place.
A new internet-based service, CrowdDefend, is hoping to fill this need, to match prospective donors to cases, so they can put their money where their heart is and provide financial support to keep these cases going. It operates on a "Donors Choose" model, like groups like Heifer International and Kiva, offering individuals the opportunity to select just the case or cases they want to support, and the funds they want to contribute. So far, CrowdDefend has raised over $16,000 for cases like Nan-Hui's, an immigrant survivor of domestic violence who is seeking to reunite with her child, or one that supports a campaign to defend wolves in Washington State.
While there are only a handful of cases available from which donors can choose to support at this time, the hope is that this platform can serve as a clearinghouse for legal campaigns and help match donors to those campaigns.
Justice doesn't come cheap. Lawyers, even those working at non-profits, are expensive, as is the cost of litigation. Donors looking to support legal campaigns, like the one that brought about marriage equality, can offer donations to their local legal aid provider. They can also check out CrowdDefend and scroll through existing opportunities to see if something there strikes a chord, or write the operators of the site and let them know of other campaigns it can feature on its exchange.