CLS and the entire legal services and public interest law community mourns the passing of a brilliant, energetic, and visionary lawyer, Tom Gilhool, who passed away on August 22, 2020.
Although most of his career was spent in over three decades of ground-breaking advocacy at the Public Interest Law Center (PILC), Tom Gilhool first staked out his values and vision of law as an engine of social justice change in the early years of Community Legal Services. Tom worked as CLS for three remarkable years, starting in 1966 before catapulting his career at PILC, and also becoming Governor Bob Casey Sr.’s Secretary of Education (1987-89).
At CLS’ inception in 1966, the staff were largely attorneys from the pre-existing Legal Aid Society who were re-hired and worked in one-lawyer neighborhood offices throughout the city. The War on Poverty’s new Office of Economic Opportunity and Legal Services Program included the mission of fighting poverty and bringing about systemic justice reforms. In line with these goals, CLS opened a Consumer Advocate law reform office headed by Tom , who was just a couple of years out of law school. Tom’s life had been shaped by the Civil Rights Movement, and especially student involvement in supporting the movement in the South. He had participated as an activist with the Northern Student Movement and the Philadelphia Tutorial Project. When CLS was founded, he had been at the Dilworth Paxson law firm for two years and was chair of the Public Services Committee of the Philadelphia Bar Association, which was instrumental in supporting the creation of CLS.
As head of CLS’s new Consumer Advocate unit, Gilhool created a model for affirmative, major impact litigation, bringing one of the nation’s three challenges to state welfare residency requirements. He argued the first round of the successful U.S. Supreme Court case Shapiro v. Thompson, which overturned residency requirements and helped establish a series of Court cases affirming the civil constitutional rights of poor people. This case was one of the first legal services wins in the U.S. Supreme Court. Tom also set the model for representing groups of low income clients, working closely with the emerging Philadelphia Welfare Rights Organization and public housing tenants groups, showing the impact and importance of empowering low income people with the support of legal services lawyers. In one effort involving negotiations with the Pennsylvania Governor, Tom reported in his oral history at Temple University that the joint advocacy got the state welfare grant doubled from $1,800 a year to $3,600 a year for a family of four, a tremendous victory.
Tom helped recruit to CLS a new cadre of recent law graduates committed to the new anti-poverty and social justice mission of Legal Services, including Jonathan Stein, who later became CLS’s Executive Director and General Counsel. Tom’s vision of the societal reform goals and breadth of legal services advocacy served as a model for a new generation of legal services lawyers at CLS and beyond. During his 25 outstanding years at PILC, Tom continued to collaborate with his colleagues at CLS.
According to Jonathan Stein, “Tom was one of the most remarkable people I have ever known, his dynamism and determination to tackle the most intractable of long-standing injustices served as a motivating beacon for me and many other legal aid and public interest lawyers.”
Later in his career Tom, brought Scott v. Snider, No. 91-CV-7080 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 2, 1994) in cooperation with CLS with the goal of strengthening the Medicaid program for all children, and especially for children with significant medical needs. Scott resulted in Medicaid coverage of thousands of Pennsylvania children, ensuring that children with greater needs received all the care that was medically necessary.
As one of Tom’s Scott co-counsels, CLS lawyer Richard Weishaupt said, “Tom was a pioneer of the legal services movement and inspired many of the early staff who are still working for CLS and the public interest community in general. We are thankful for having worked with him and grieve for him and his family.”
See an oral history of Gilhool’s disability rights advocacy work compiled by Temple University. The Philadelphia Inquirer has published an obituary, and PILC has offered its remembrance as well.