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Justice is center’s ‘bottom line’

Rick Eichstaedt
Rick Eichstaedt appreciates how nimble the Center for Justice is.

Rooted in the belief that when one person experiences injustice, everyone experiences injustice, the “bottom line” for the 15-year-old Center for Justice is assuring justice for people and also to entities like the Spokane River that lack financial or political resources.

Founder Jim Sheehen who has sought to model his law practice on Martin Luther King Jr., cited a quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

For the center, justice is about more than winning legal cases and lawsuits.  It’s about “empowering people and communities.”

It is about helping people released from prison with re-entry; helping people facing job discrimination; advocating for police accountability in courts, ballots and community action; protecting the Spokane River and the land, and providing low-income people with legal advice or referrals.

Jim Sheehan
Martin Luther King, Jr. has been an inspiration for Jim Sheehan.

Jim is retiring as board president, but will continue on the board.  Elsa Distelhorst, who retired from 25 years at Whitworth University and is active in community efforts for racial justice, has been elected president.  The center’s board will grow from nine to 12 or more members with the passion and community connections to promote the mission and seek new funding sources. 

“It is time for the center to move beyond my role and financial support,” he said.

Jim, who grew up in Seattle, graduated from college in California and served two years in the army, entered Gonzaga University’s Law School in 1969.  He practiced law 10 years in Seattle and returned to Spokane in the 1980s to practice law and raise his family.  He started the nonprofit Center for Justice in 1999 to protect human rights, preserve the Earth and hold government accountable to principles of democracy.

His vision has driven the center, said Rick Eichstaedt, who has been executive director of the Center for Justice since 2011. 

Jim bought, renovated and opened the Community Building in 2001, as a home for offices of nonprofits.  In 2002, he opened the day care center next door.  He bought and renovated the Saranac as a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building in 2008 and the Main Market Coop in 2010.  He owns the PUB building and is renovating the building next to that at 17 W. Main for a commercial retail space. 

Community Building and Saranac offices include elected officials, tribal groups and 15 peace, justice and environmental nonprofits.

Sharing the building creates synergy, collaboration and partnership, said Rick, who was drawn to the Center for Justice, because he saw it was about the health of the community. 

“We can’t have a healthy, vibrant community if people are denied opportunities or if the river is unhealthy,” he said.

The Center for Justice will have a 15th Anniversary Party at 5:30 p.m., Friday, Jan. 17, in the lobby of Community Building, 35 W. Main.

One new, three-year funding source is a $350,000 grant from the Washington Legal Foundation to assist people released from prison with re-entry and support civil rights of people in prisons.

The center will address legal issues people face on release, such as getting a driver’s license, facing housing and employment discrimination, and gaining access to social services.  The center will challenge denial of medical care or religious freedom to prisoners.

The funds come from a settlement with AT&T, which overcharged prisoners, families and attorneys for phone calls.

Other grant sources include Catholic Charities and environmental foundations that support Riverkeeper and land use cases.

To celebrate its 15th anniversary, the Neighborhood Alliance is helping the center raise $15,000 by providing a matching grant for donations given by Jan. 19, up to $7,500.

Police accountability has been a concern of the center on many levels. It helped mediate a settlement in a case for the estate of Otto Zehm, who died after being beaten by a police officer in 2006.

Rick said that case is an example of how nimble the center’s mission is.  Not only did it successfully mediate a resolution, but it also realized the need to change the police policies and culture.  That has led to ongoing efforts to call for police accountability.

“Traditionally a law firm litigates one case and goes on to the next, concerned about its financial bottom line,” Rick said.  “The center, however, went on to educate the community and help pass a city proposition.

“We took that tragedy and, driven by a grassroots effort of concerned people, we turned around policies,” said Rick.  “While some in city government may want to settle for less, we want the best for the community.

“Recently, we stopped the Spokane City Council from adopting a tentative agreement with the Police Guild that would undo police oversight through an ombudsman, which was approved when 70 percent of voters passed Proposition 1 in February 2013,” said Rick.

Jim said the center’s driving force is justice, not financial gain. 

“We have a bevy of dedicated people on staff and as volunteers who have a passion for justice,” he said.

The center promotes the Smart Justice Campaign, which urges the city and county to create a Criminal Justice Commission.  The campaign will report in January what is working, what is not and what is needed in the criminal justice system to have programs rather than incarceration.

Rick said that programs to prevent incarceration can reduce recidivism and saves government funds.

“Of Spokane County’s budget, 74 percent is for the criminal justice system,” he said.

Some Smart Justice recommendations are being implemented.  The Community Court has started with Judge Mary Logan hearing cases in the downtown library, beginning in mid-December.

The Center for Justice is sending a community advocate and staff attorney to help the Community Court find solutions as it identifies issues for persons coming before the court and identifies services to alleviate those issues, such as housing, health care, food, legal and other services.

The Riverkeeper program has been dealing with coal train issues, helping public voices be heard, and helping draw 100,000 public comments on the coal and oil trains.

Of the center’s 12 staff, there are four attorneys, an environmental advocate, two community advocates, plus front desk staff, paralegals and fund raisers.  Its work is supplemented by assistance from volunteer attorneys and students.

Rick left Minnesota to study environmental law and its intersection with social justice at Lewis and Clark College in Portland. After graduating in 1997, he served seven years as an attorney for the Nez Perce, handling cases on salmon recovery, water quality and cultural resources. 

When he learned the Center for Justice needed an environmental attorney, Rick was impressed with the variety of issues the firm addresses and its ability to affect change.

He started nine years ago and two years ago became executive director.  He continues to do legal work with Riverkeeper and on land use, along with being executive director.

The center’s former summer Street Law program is now Justice Nights, from 5 to 6 p.m., first Tuesdays, when six to 10 volunteer lawyers meet with two to 36 drop-in clients to help them sort out non-criminal legal issues.

Another ongoing program is the Drivers Relicensing Program, recognizing that people in Spokane need a car to go to work, day care, shopping, medical care and more. People who lose their licenses face thousands of dollars of fines.  They are pulled into collections, leading them into a legal and financial pit, said Rick. 

“We help them establish payment plans for as low as $25 a month and restore their licenses by taking courses on rules of the road and financial management,” he said.

The program has helped more than 300 people a year restore their licenses and regain their lives.

“Justice is an experience, not a concept or idea,” Jim said. “We are connected.  When we see a person or entity abused, we’re being abused. To experience justice, we need to be equal.”

Rick’s commitment is to service.

“I tell my nine-year-old son, ‘No matter what you do, try to make the world a better place.’  That’s why I work here,” he said.

For Rick, justice is about being a voice for the voiceless, and doing what is right for the homeless and the environment.

For information, call 838-5211 or email or visit

Copyright © January 2014 - The Fig Tree