Kevin Walsh was not yet born when the first Mount Laurel suit was filed in 1971. He was only 2 years old when it culminated with a 1975 landmark New Jersey Supreme Court decision that established a constitutional obligation to provide affordable housing.

At the time he first heard of Mount Laurel — in property class at Rutgers Law School-Camden during the 1990s — Walsh did not imagine that it would become his mission to fulfill its mandate: to eradicate exclusionary housing patterns that tend to maroon the poor, especially minorities, in crowded, decaying and often polluted inner-city ghettos.

Twelve years into his legal career, Walsh has built a record of success advocating fair-housing cases at the trial, appellate and agency levels, including three wins in the five cases he argued before the state Supreme Court.

Last March he won an appeals court ruling that blocked Gov. Chris Christie from abolishing the Council on Affordable Housing, the agency charged with implementing Mount Laurel.

Walsh went back to the Appellate Division to enforce that decision and on Aug. 10 secured a ruling that blocked the state from demanding that towns turn over unused funds intended for affordable housing.

Then on Nov. 14, Walsh made his fifth Supreme Court argument, urging it to strike down the latest version of affordable housing rules from COAH.

For his successes as a fair-housing advocate, including his efforts to craft legislation that would further the Mount Laurel vision or to oppose measures that would undermine it, Kevin Walsh is the 2012 Lawyer of the Year.

In the 10 years that the Law Journal has bestowed the honor, Walsh is the first purely public-interest attorney to receive it. The others all worked in private firms except for 2007 honoree, Ronald Chen, then the state’s public advocate, Chris Christie, as U.S. attorney in 2006, and Peter Harvey, as state attorney general in 2003.

Walsh was also instrumental in New Jersey’s abolition of capital punishment in 2007. And, in the course of his work on affordable housing and the death penalty, he has furthered access to public records through landmark Supreme Court rulings that the New Jersey League of Municipalities is a public agency subject to the Open Public Records Act and that lawyers who prevail in OPRA cases can recover enhanced legal fees.

Staking a Claim

The case at the heart of Walsh’s work is Southern Burlington County NAACP v. Township of Mount Laurel, 67 N.J. 151 (1975), which held that local governments cannot use zoning and other land-use regulations to exclude people of low and moderate means but must take steps to provide a fair share of the housing they need.

Peter O’Connor, one of the lawyers in the case, founded the Fair Share Housing Center in Cherry Hill later that year to monitor, enforce and expand its mandate. When O’Connor hired Walsh in 2000, straight from a clerkship with Justice Gary Stein, he was the first full-time employee.

O’Connor now spends most of his time developing affordable housing while Walsh, the associate director, supervises two staff attorneys, Adam Gordon and Laura Smith Denker.

Walsh did not enter law school with the intention to go into public interest law, a career path that took shape during the course of his studies.

He did not even plan to be a lawyer but took the LSAT only because his college roommate had an extra form for it. “It’s not that I always felt called to be a lawyer,” but “I didn’t know what else to do,” says Walsh, echoing many who wind up in the legal profession.

The seeds of his dedication to representing the poor, which is rooted in his Catholic faith, began to sprout during his days as an undergraduate at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. A week-long program during his sophomore year sent him to Marks, Miss., to help fix up houses.

In that delta town, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. launched his Poor People’s Campaign for economic justice in 1968, Walsh observed a stark racial and economic divide that reminded him of the contrast between the impoverished and overwhelmingly African-American city of Camden and neighboring Pennsauken, the whiter, more affluent suburb where he grew up.

A year spent at a legal clinic in Richmond, Va., after his first year of law school, as part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, had an even bigger impact.

He had recently read Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol, a book that explored the disparities between schools in affluent communities and underfunded, understaffed, under-equipped, overcrowded and crumbling institutions that serve the urban poor and minorities.

Walsh was living what he terms a “comfortable suburban existence” while reading about a very different one and decided “to go out and connect with the real world” before he finished law school.

He headed to Virginia in August 1996 for a year, after interning for U.S. District Judge Joseph Rodriguez. He first heard of Peter O’Connor from Rodriguez, who was involved in later Mount Laurel litigation as the state public advocate from 1983 to 1985, and started doing legal research for the center while in law school.

Eye-Opening Experience

At the Richmond clinic, where he tried to obtain housing and benefits for homeless clients, Walsh lived in a house alongside people volunteering in soup kitchens and doing other good works.

He says he returned to law school with a better understanding of societal problems and a desire to “save the world.”

The Jesuit Volunteer Corps motto “ruined for life” certainly was true for him in that his experience working for the poor steered him toward public interest.

“I love the work I do” and “I’m going to keep doing this work as long as I can,” he says.

During his 1999 to 2000 clerkship with Stein, the Supreme Court heard no Mount Laurel cases but Walsh already knew he wanted to work for the center.

Despite the failure of attempts to secure grant money so the center could pay him a salary, he started the job in 2000, and somehow the funds were cobbled together, he recalls.

Only two years later, he notched his first Supreme Court victory, in Fair Share Housing Center v. Cherry Hill, 173 N.J. 393.

Stein wrote for a unanimous court in holding that a municipality without an affordable-housing plan certified by COAH could not exclude vacant land from being used for low- and moderate-cost housing by imposing development fees.

COAH chiefly operates by projecting the need for affordable housing, allocating that need among municipalities and then approving local government plans for meeting their obligations.

It sets the numbers through rounds of regulations, the first of which expired in 1993 and the second in 1999.

Walsh’s legal career to date has largely focused on trying to get COAH to come up with an acceptable third round of rules, and he calls the delay in achieving that goal his biggest disappointment.

The courts have repeatedly sided with him, striking down two versions of third-round rules adopted by COAH.

COAH’s first stab in 2004 projected a need for 52,726 new affordable-housing units through 2014 and relied on growth-share methodology, which imposes obligations on towns only as they add houses or jobs. Walsh contends that approach allows them to minimize their affordable-housing obligations by not growing.

In 2007, an appeals court agreed and told COAH to try again.

The next attempt, in 2008, again using growth-share methodology, was rejected by an appeals court in 2010. The case argued on Nov. 14 before the Supreme Court was an appeal of that ruling.

While the battle over third-round rules played out, Walsh helped defeat Christie’s attempts to seize unspent affordable-housing funds held by municipalities and to eliminate COAH and transfer its functions to the Department of Community Affairs.

An appeals court agreed on March 12 that Christie overstepped his authority in abolishing COAH. The Supreme Court has agreed to review the decision and refused to stay it.

The irony of helping to save an agency he has battled for years is not lost on Walsh, who remarks “the only thing that would be worse than the job that COAH has done would be a Christie cabinet member who possesses all that power.”

He cites COAH statistics showing more than 60,000 new affordable-housing units built as a sign of what can be achieved if the agency does its job right.

Another high point for Walsh was working on a bill that in 2008 got rid of regional contribution agreements, which allowed wealthier municipalities to pay others to shoulder part of their obligation.

Death Penalty Abolition

Walsh’s work against the death penalty as counsel for New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty was in addition to his day job at the center but sprang from the same religious conviction and commitment to justice, says Walsh.

The death penalty cases that came before him during his clerkship “gave me nightmares” and around 2001, at the invitation of a priest, he got involved in the group, which met in a church basement.

Walsh not only helped draft the bill that ended capital punishment in New Jersey five years ago but prevented a resumption of executions in 2004 when he convinced an appeals court that there were problems with the regulations on how lethal injections were to be conducted.

In challenging the lethal-injection process, Walsh had to first figure out how it worked, so he used OPRA to obtain documents from the Department of Corrections. He then sought legal fees, as allowed for prevailing OPRA plaintiffs.

In 2005, the Supreme Court held in New Jerseyans for a Death Penalty Moratorium v. Department of Corrections, 185 N.J. 137, that pro bono lawyers like Walsh who achieve a high degree of success in OPRA cases can recover enhanced fees.

Walsh says he had time to do the death penalty advocacy, which also involved lobbying and letter writing, because it was “before kids and my evenings were free.”

He now has three sons. The youngest, Liam, is 18 months old. The eldest, born in January 2008, is named Daniel Patrick after one of the Berrigan brothers, a pair of Catholic priests known for protesting against the Vietnam War. The middle son, Declan Martin, got his middle name in part from Dr. King.

Walsh’s wife, Rosemary Bates Walsh, spent a year prior to law school as a Jesuit Volunteer. After graduating from Rutgers-Camden in 2005, she clerked for Chief Justice Deborah Poritz. Walsh says they did not meet while he had a case before the court but were introduced by a friend. She is currently not practicing.

Stein, who retired from the court in 2002 and is now with Pashman Stein in Hackensack, calls the recognition of Walsh “well-deserved,” saying he “has had the courage to take on very tough challenges” and to persevere.

He credits Walsh with playing a key role in preserving the Mount Laurel doctrine and achieving “remarkable results” with a small budget and staff against the resources of the Attorney General’s Office.

Stephen Eisdorfer of Hill Wallack in Princeton, who represents the New Jersey Builders Association and is Walsh’s frequent ally in trying to push towns to allow development that includes affordable housing, describes him as “very smart, very articulate and very committed.”

He adds that when Walsh speaks, “judges listen” even if they do not always give him what he wants.

Eisdorfer spoke while working on a brief to respond to an objection lodged by Walsh to a settlement in an exclusionary zoning case because it did not provide for affordable housing.

Edward Buzak of The Buzak Law Group in Montville, lawyer for the municipality in that same case and counsel for the League of Municipalities which usually puts him on the other side from Walsh, calls him a “worthy adversary,” adding “I enjoy challenging him and I hope he enjoys challenging me.” •