Barbara McDowell

Barbara McDowell was an exceptional activist for social justice reforms. For the three years prior to her untimely death from brain cancer in January 2009, at age 56, she was Director of the Appellate Advocacy Program at the Legal Aid Society of Washington, D.C.1 There she represented the rights of impoverished and indigent individuals in many matters in the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia involving domestic violence, adequacy of housing, unemployment compensation, and administrative requirements related to filing claims for public benefits. While at Legal Aid, she handled more than 70 matters and won several important cases establishing the rights of the poor in the areas of housing, public benefits and domestic violence. She also trained young lawyers, guiding their growth and honing their skills.2

Barbara was the founding Director of the Appellate Advocacy Program, which she established in 2004. Prior to that time, the Legal Aid Society had never had a program dedicated solely to appellate advocacy and, after Barbara’s death, the program was renamed the Barbara McDowell Appellate Advocacy Program.3

During her time as Director, Barbara was awarded the Rex Lee Advocacy and Public Service Award for Appellate Advocacy (named for the former Solicitor General of United States) given by Brigham Young Law School, which recognized her as the outstanding appellate advocate for 2008.4 The award was presented by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. Former recipients of the award included past Solicitor Generals of the United States.5

Barbara was awarded posthumously in April 2014 Legal Aid’s Servant of Justice Award for her work at Legal Aid. Jerry Hartman accepted the award in her honor. See the “News” section of this website as to April 2014 for complete details of the award and videos of the acceptance speeches by Foundation Board member, Sally Gordon, and by Jerry Hartman.

Prior to becoming Director of the Appellate Advocacy Project at Legal Aid, Barbara was Assistant to the Solicitor General of the United States, from 1994 to 2004, in which role she argued 18 cases before the United States Supreme Court, including two cases on the same day. Barbara also was the principal author of more than 12 briefs to the Supreme Court.6 Barbara had many successes, winning almost all the cases that she argued before the Supreme Court,7 including winning a case against Chief Justice John Roberts when he was a lawyer in private practice. The case of which Barbara was most proud was Minnesota v. Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians (1999). In that case, Barbara successfully defended the Tribe’s retention of hunting, fishing and gathering rights guaranteed to them in a 1837 Treaty. The state of Minnesota’s argued that a Presidential Executive Order from 1850 removing the tribe from that land abrogated those rights. To prepare for her argument, Barbara traveled to Minnesota to meet with the Tribe. She smoked a peace pipe at dawn with leaders of the Tribe who had gathered at the shores of a lake on the Tribe’s land to pray for her success in her argument.

Before joining the Solicitor General’s office, Barbara was a partner at the Jones Day law firm from 1987 to 1997, where she was a member of the Issues and Appeals Group. In addition to cases for the firm’s clients, Barbara was committed to handling pro bono matters, including a case involving a felon’s right to serve on a jury many years after he was released from prison.

Barbara was a founding member of the Washington, D.C., Inn of Court, a group of over 60 appellate lawyers who met monthly to discuss issues related to appellate advocacy, and served as its president in 2006.

Barbara’s preparation for the practice of law was stellar. She was a law clerk to Justice Byron White during the 1986 term. Prior to that, she clerked for Judge Ralph Winter of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and, prior to that, for Judge Jose Cabranes of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut.8

Barbara graduated from Yale Law School in 19859 and from the College of George Washington University, magna cum laude, in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Barbara was valedictorian of her college class. She attended college at Fresno State in Fresno, California, where she grew up, for two years, where she was editor of the college newspaper. While at Fresno State, Barbara managed the presidential campaign of Senator George McGovern for Fresno County. She drove Senator McGovern throughout the county in her beloved and ancient Chevy II, “Arthur.” McGovern won the popular vote in Fresno County. Barbara moved to Washington, D.C., so she could work as a press officer for Senator Alan Cranston of California. Prior to attending Yale Law School, Barbara worked as an editor for United Features. While there she edited a variety of its syndicated newspaper columns and edited the Women's Almanac published by United Features. Barbara appeared on the Merv Griffin television show where she touted the Women's Almanac.

Barbara served on the Board of Trustees of her church, Westmoreland, United Church of Christ, in Bethesda, Maryland. She also served on the board of the Church’s Social Outreach Ministry. For many years, Barbara was President of the Shaw Community Ministry, an organization dedicated to the rebuilding of an inner city area in Washington, D.C., known as “Shaw.” Westmoreland Church provides financial support and volunteers to the Shaw Community Ministry, which offers after-school programs to children and adults living in buildings in Shaw that were built under the Ministry's auspices.

Many articles about Barbara appeared in newspapers and magazines. Those articles are collected below.

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1 The Legal Aid Society was formed in 1932 to provide legal aid and counsel to indigent persons in civil law matters and to encourage measures by which the law may better protect and service their needs. Legal Aid is the oldest general civil legal services program in the District of Columbia. Over the last three quarters of a century, tens of thousands of the District’s neediest residents have been served by Legal Aid staff and volunteers. In pursuit of its mission, Legal Aid employs a range of strategies to address the legal needs of its clients and client community. The largest part of Legal Aid’s work is individual representation in housing, family law, public benefits, and consumer law. From the experiences of Legal Aid’s clients, it identifies opportunities for law reform, public policy advocacy, and systemic reform litigation. A link to the Legal Aid Society of Washington, D.C., can be found at www.legalaiddc.org.

2 While at legal Aid, Barbara wrote a law review article entitled “Legal Developments in Landlord-Tenant Law: 2005-2006” that appeared in the University of the District of Columbia Law Review, 10-UDC-DCSL L. Rev. 249 (2007).

3 A list of cases that Barbara argued at Legal Aid can be found here as well as the oral arguments in some of those cases.

4 In naming Barbara as a recipient of the Rex Lee Award, Brigham Young Law School described Barbara’s achievements which appears here.

5 Barbara’s remarks in accepting that award can be found here.

6 The briefs that Barbara filed with the Supreme Court can be found here.

7 The text of those Supreme Court decisions that Barbara argued and the audio of the oral arguments in those cases can be found here.

8 A list of Barbara’s co-clerks during her clerkships can be found here.

9 At Yale Law School Barbara was Notes & Topics Editor of the Yale Law & Policy Review and President of the Women’s Law Society. She also assisted professor Michael J. Graetz write his casebook on Federal Taxation. Of Barbara’s work on the book Federal Income Taxation, Principles and Policies (1985), Professor Graetz said: “Barbara McDowell, a Yale law student who was a professional editor in her prior life, has provided crucial aid at every stage of preparation of this book. She has performed significant original research, prepared early drafts of selected materials, and made useful editorial suggestions for virtually every page of the manuscript. She has almost taught me the proper usage of "which" and "that" to introduce subordinate clauses. She has been imaginative, dedicated and thorough and throughout the entire process has maintained remarkable good humor. It is impossible for me to imagine how this edition could have been completed without her aid.” With this same professor, Barbara wrote a law review article entitled “Tax Reform 1985: The Quest for a Fairer, More Efficient and Simpler Income Tax,” 3 Yale Law & Policy Review, Review 5 (1985).

Barbara McDowell's Parents

Joyce Benson was born on October 18, 1923, in Bemidji, Minnesota. She lived at Island Lake, Minnesota, most of her childhood and attended a one-room school. Joyce graduated from Ashby High School in western, Minnesota in 1941 and the University of Minnesota in 1944. She then enlisted in the United States Navy as a WAVE and served for 20 months. After discharge in 1946, Joyce moved to San Francisco and married James McDowell on June 28, 1946. They lived in Berkeley before moving to Fresno, California.

James McDowell was born March 1, 1924, in Glendive, Montana, and grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota. He graduated from Rapid City High School in 1941 and attended the then South Dakota School of Mines until March, 1943, when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. In September 1943 he was sent to the University of Minnesota where he met and became engaged to Joyce Benson. With the need for more manpower in the invasion of Europe, Jim was sent to the infantry to prepare for front-line fighting. He was a member of the 7th Army that fought through France, Germany and Austria during one of the coldest winters on record. His 44th Division was brought back to the United States in August of 1945 and given a month's leave before preparing for the invasion of Japan. After the atomic bombs were dropped, he was sent to Camp Chaffee in Arkansas until October 1945 when he was discharged. Jim studied Civil Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and graduated in 1948. He spent his entire career at the California Department of Highways, from which he retired in 1983 as a Senior Highway Engineer.