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Renee Steinhagen has the academic credentials and courtroom experience to be a well-paid litigator for any of the largest New Jersey firms. Instead, a half dozen of them work for her. Steinhagen, 46, is executive director of the New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center, which is emerging as one of the state’s leading liberal legal advocates alongside the American Civil Liberties Union, the law school litigation clinics and the Education Law Center. Her litigation has a unifying goal: Making sure governments and corporations comply with regulations imposed on them for the good of the public. Put colloquially, the defendants are the feet, the rules are the fire and she’s trying to hold them to it for the public benefit. Her center has won publicized cases recently and she’s done it partly with work donated by allies who are partners at the state’s big firms like Newark’s McCarter & English; Florham Park’s Bressler, Amery & Ross; and Woodbridge’s Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer. Small firms are in the loop, too. In July, for example, Steinhagen and lawyers at the Roseland, N.J. firm of Charles Rosen arranged a settlement from a West Milford homeowners’ community accused of filing malicious and groundless defamation suits against dissident residents. Steinhagen has battled with hospitals and state regulators to make sure charitable institutions obey requirements that they maintain services for communities. McCarter & English was in some of those cases. And she has worked on winning rights for alternate political parties and tenants of subsidized housing. It’s been a busy summer. At the end of July, she and Cecilia Lindenfelser of Rosen’s office obtained $180,000 for six clients in a settlement of their claim against West Milford’s Upper Greenwood Lake Property Owners Association. The association allegedly had filed defamation SLAPP actions — strategic lawsuits against public participation — to stifle the members’ complaints about the association’s governance. Defense lawyer Karyn Kennedy of Montville won’t comment except to say the association maintains it wasn’t liable. In June, she and other lawyers on the plaintiffs’ team won a $4 million settlement for black state troopers who claimed their free speech rights were violated. For that, Steinhagen will receive a yet-to-be-determined portion of up to $1 million in fees authorized by the settlement. This month, the center is continuing an effort to force hospitals taken over by Catholic institutions to maintain their previous level of support for birth control, abortion and fertility services. In the latest case, In the Matter of the Application of Allegheny Hospitals, New Jersey, Bur-L-3541-98, the center and the ACLU want the Burlington County Superior Court to ensure reproductive rights aren’t disturbed by Our Lady of Lourdes Healthcare Services’ purchase of Rancocas Hospital in Willingboro. The center has argued successfully in other cases that the law requires non-profit hospitals that change their missions to keep the fair value of their assets in the non-profit sector and to continue dedicating funds for the hospitals’ original purpose. Using this principle last year, the center reached a settlement requiring the continuance of $2 million worth of reproductive rights care after the purchase of Wayne General Hospital by a Catholic institution and a similar settlement was reached in 1999 when Elizabeth General Medical Center merged with St. Elizabeth Hospital. NADER’S BRAINCHILD There was a time when Steinhagen trekked dutifully off to the establishment. A graduate of the University of Chicago Law School and the masters program at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, she took jobs with the Securities and Exchange Commission and New York’s 300-lawyer Schulte Roth & Zabel. But she ultimately chose public interest law, and her stock comment about that choice would make a nice plaque — perhaps under a picture of Ralph Nader — on any liberal public interest lawyer’s wall. “I wasn’t interested in just facilitating the transfer of wealth among moneyed interests,” she says. “I’ve sought to represent the interests of those people who otherwise are not heard and to improve public policy on their behalf.” Last week, Steinhagen was in the middle of a move from space at Seton Hall Law School into an office at Newark’s 744 Broad Street, the one-time headquarters of northern New Jersey’s legal establishment. When she is settled, a picture of Nader on the wall might be appropriate. The center is a chapter of the Appleseed Foundation, a brainchild of Nader and some of his fellow graduates of the Harvard Law School Class of 1958. They decided at their 35th reunion in 1993 to put capital, prestige and pro bono time into a public interest law foundation that would promote government effectiveness, corporate accountability and community involvement in public policy. The foundation now has centers in 15 states, some merging with existing institutions like Steinhagen’s, which started in space at Rutgers University Law School-Newark in the early 1990s. Unlike the ACLU, which has had an elaborate fund-raising operation for years, Appleseed is just starting a development program, says national spokesman Ted Stiffel. As a result, the foundation’s support for local chapters has mostly been in the realm of information sharing, not capital, though Steinhagen’s center will get $17,000 from a grant Appleseed received for a four-chapter project to ensure living wage benefits for public employees. The bulk of Steinhagen’s funds come from local grants and gifts, an annual fund-raiser and — this is a measure of the center’s success — fees from awards and settlements. In the past three years, those fees have totaled $162,000, she says. The center’s board of directors is chaired by Bernard Bressler of Bressler, Amery & Ross, who Steinhagen calls, “my mentor.” He’s a member of Harvard Law’s 1952 class who got involved through his friendship with Bertrand Pogrebin, a ’58 graduate who is one of New York’s best-known labor lawyers. The New Jersey members include Christopher Placitella of Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer, David Broderick of McCarter & English — another Harvard Law alumnus — and Richard Roob, a lawyer who is the retired chairman of Benjamin Moore & Co. Walter Schauban, a partner in Wiss & Co. accounting firm and Gerry Goodrich, a vice president of St. Barnabas Health Care System, are also members. Like a lot of lawyers, Steinhagen recruits during cases; she met Goodrich when he was involved in the dispute over St. Joseph’s hospital. Bressler says it’s the individuals, not their firms and companies, who provide assistance, leadership and an occasional dollar to the center. “We’re here to give both guidance and help,” Bressler says. He estimates that he and other attorneys at his 55-lawyer firm donate 300 or 400 hours a year to the center’s work, of which about half is pro bono of the purest kind: hours doing the kind of legal work for which the firm would normally bill. Each of the helping counsel is aware of potential conflicts, particularly counsel at big firms that represent corporate clients of the type Steinhagen might sue. The center’s adversarial relationship with various Blue Cross-Blue Shield entities over the years requires three board members to step out of the room during meetings at which Blue Cross is discussed. McCarter & English and Wilentz Goldman have represented Blue Cross, and so has PricewaterhouseCoopers, whose national litigation counsel, Walter Ricciardi, is on Steinhagen’s board. Steinhagen says that in 1999 when the center took part in the controversy over the collapse of HIP of New Jersey, she was called on to give Wilentz Goldman a waiver to represent another party in the case because Placitella had worked with her on the matter. KEEPING OUT OF PRE-EMPTED AREAS Steinhagen and Bressler say that although the center works with other public interest law groups it strives to stay out of niches already heavily occupied, like rights matters traditionally handled by the ACLU. “Major constitutional issues are not what we are about, not because we don’t agree they are important but because there are other people doing them,” Bressler says. The same goes for large pieces of education reform work, which would duplicate efforts by the Education Law Center, Steinhagen says. Steinhagen says her primary goal is not to use litigation to effect change but as one of many tools in the process of identifying good policies and bringing them about. She has begun a project with New Jersey Policy Perspectives, for example, to examine the state’s urban tax abatement polices to see if they are working as intended or have deteriorated into boondoggles for particular corporations. She’s also delving into whether there is adequate public disclosure of the abatement decisions. Another project involves an examination of the role of green space and playgrounds around urban schools in providing a proper education. The project includes the preparation of a booklet that includes legal arguments that such facilities are necessary for educational purposes. Like other lawyers who do her kind of work, Steinhagen laments the dismantling of the public advocacy branches of the state’s Department of the Public Advocate under governors Jim Florio and Christine Todd Whitman. While private attorneys have taken up the cause in some areas, they don’t have the resources to do what the public advocate used to do. “The public advocate had resources. If they wanted to look into something they had a staff to do it,” she says. “I don’t have the money to hire consultants.” While Steinhagen’s center has had identifiable success in several cases it also has had losses over the years. In 2000, it joined the ACLU in a suit on behalf of Newark citizens seeking a ballot initiative to give them the right to speak at city council meetings, but the suit was shot down in Essex County Superior Court. Also on her list of losses is a failed attempt to block the privatization of Bergen Pines Hospital in 1998, a deal that a coalition of health groups believed to be a violation of state rules governing charitable institutions. In 1995, the center also lost an effort on behalf of Newark firefighters aimed at improving the enforcement of Occupational Safety and Health Act regulations.

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