The Superpowers of Don Scaramastra
The Seattle attorney says all lawyers have the ability—and obligation—to help others around them
Published in 2023 Washington Super Lawyers magazine
By Alison Macor on July 27, 2023
As a law student at the University of California, Berkeley, Don Scaramastra quickly realized the responsibility that comes with having a J.D.
“It gives you the ability to do things for the betterment of society or the people around you that no one else can do,” says Scaramastra. “Having a law degree, particularly at a sizable firm, is like having
Scaramastra considered working for the government and civil legal aid programs before landing at Garvey Schubert Barer (now Foster Garvey) in 1992. “It was nothing short of a miracle that I ended up there,” he says of the firm then run by Greg Dallaire and John Hoerster. “Greg had been the executive director of Evergreen Legal Services, an organization devoted to providing legal services to the poor, and John had served in the AmeriCorps VISTA program before joining the firm. These were two guys who walked the talk.”
Inspired by the firm’s commitment to pro bono work, Scaramastra began a decades-long involvement with litigation designed to bring systemic change. The first such case concerned the welfare of foster children in the Seattle area, many of whom were sleeping in state offices and receiving vouchers to McDonald’s as their meal plans. Scaramastra was particularly moved by one young woman who lived in more than 30 foster homes before aging out of the system. “What killed me is that she had called every one of those foster mothers ‘Mom.’ I wondered, ‘What does that do to a kid?’” says 56-year-old Scaramastra.
He and other lawyers eventually partnered with the Children’s Alliance, a statewide advocacy organization, took the case to trial and won their suit. The state appealed, and in 2003, the case went before the state Supreme Court, where the decision was upheld. The win led to years of reforms within the state’s foster care system. Afterward, Scaramastra joined the board of the Children’s Alliance, where he remained involved for a decade.
Scaramastra also joined the board of the King County Bar Association, which ran a housing justice program that supported low-income residents facing eviction. And when the pandemic hit, a friend reached out and asked him to join the board of Snoqualmie Valley Shelter Services (now Reclaim).
Scaramastra was impressed that the organization, which serves the Snoqualmie and North Bend areas, was created by the community itself. “The people who were involved took the time to learn, and in the course of learning, really got to know the population that is suffering from being unhoused,” says Scaramastra. “We don’t call them ‘homeless’ anymore because that’s not who they are. They’re fathers and mothers, and they’re engineers and retired people. Calling them homeless is dehumanizing.”
Scaramastra’s most recent piece of pro bono impact litigation concerned those with less means who had their driver’s licenses suspended because of unpaid fines and fees related to non-criminal moving violations. In October 2020, the ACLU of Washington filed a lawsuit on behalf of individuals who had been affected by what Scaramastra describes as a growing trend around the country.
“The courts run the risk of becoming a shakedown operation,” he says of the domino-like effect that happens when poor people receive fines for speeding, for example, and don’t have the money to pay them. Confusing city and county websites compound the problem. Some of them don’t show up in court because they don’t know what to do, resulting in the imposition of a maximum fine. And if they are pulled over by law enforcement en route to their jobs, the result is an even higher fine.
“When we punish the poor for being poor simply to raise funds for the government, we’re going from a country that is flawed but basically good and starting on a path toward something that verges on becoming evil,” says Scaramastra. “And in fact, the Constitution says you can’t do that. You can punish people for thumbing their noses at court—that’s contempt of court. You can’t punish people for being poor.”
In April 2021, a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled that the courts had violated the state’s constitutional right to due process. That June, a judge signed an order reinstating the driver’s licenses of at least 100,000 Washington residents. “Pro bono doesn’t necessarily come to you like your paying clients do,” Scaramastra says of the need to seek out such cases. “More lawyers need to be doing more of this more of the time.”
By the Numbers
Don Scaramastra believes Reclaim’s community-oriented approach offers a humane, effective model for other organizations dealing with those experiencing homelessness. “These are our friends. These are people who might have lived three doors down. These people are us,” he says. “If we don’t make homelessness an ‘everybody’ issue, we will never solve it.”
Seattle has the third-highest population experiencing homelessness in the United States.
Seattle and King County are home to approximately 11,700 individuals who are unhoused, per a King County 2020 count.
Approximately 90% of the population assisted by Reclaim grew up in the community where the agency is located.
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