Deborah Harris to receive Leila J. Robinson Award from Women’s Bar Association

The Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts will present the 2019 Leila J. Robinson Award to Deborah Harris of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and Carmen Ortiz of Anderson & Kreiger.

The Lelia J. Robinson Award honors women attorneys who have captured the spirit of Lelia J. Robinson, the first woman admitted to practice in Massachusetts. The award recognizes women who, like Robinson, are pioneers in the legal profession and have made a difference in the community. Deborah Harris and Carmen Ortiz will be honored at the WBA’s Annual Gala on October 10, 2019 at the Sheraton Boston.

“It is our pleasure to recognize Deborah Harris and Carmen Ortiz with our Lelia J. Robinson Award at our 2019 WBA Gala,” said WBA President Jennifer Saubermann. “They are amazing role models who demonstrate the importance of legal work and commitment to community. Deborah Harris was essential to the recent passage of the ‘Lift the Cap on Kids’ legislation, which made a critical difference in the lives of over 8,700 of the lowest income children in Massachusetts. She has dedicated her career to advocating for social and economic justice, benefitting women and children across the Commonwealth. Carmen Ortiz was the first woman and first Hispanic United States Attorney for Massachusetts and was responsible for overseeing some of the most high profile criminal trials over the last two decades. She has also shown a deep commitment to advancing women in the legal profession. Both of these women have made substantial contributions to our Commonwealth and I am honored to present this award to them.”

Deborah Harris
Deborah is a staff attorney for the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI), where she specializes in public benefits and child support issues. MLRI is a statewide legal advocacy and support center that represents low income people, defends against policies that harm and marginalize people living in poverty, and advocates for systemic reforms to achieve social and economic justice. She has worked extensively in welfare practice and policy for over 40 years. She was lead counsel in MLRI’s lawsuit that stopped Massachusetts from using stale and erroneous wage records to terminate SNAP benefits and obtained order against the Commonwealth to pay $9.4 million in SNAP benefits to 17,000 households whose benefits were illegally terminated. She is a published author whose works include the TAFDC Advocacy Guide: An Advocate’s Guide to Massachusetts Welfare Rules for Families which was first published by MCLE in 1994 and has been republished every year since.

Deborah has worked extensively in welfare practice and policy for over 40 years. This work has encompassed numerous class action and individual lawsuits challenging state or federal welfare rules denying benefits or services as well as advocacy to persuade Congress and the state legislature and state and federal agencies to adopt policies and practices to protect vulnerable populations and promoting economic stability. She also provides technical assistance to legislators and advocates on federal and state laws and regulations regarding welfare and other benefits for low income persons. Recently, she helped lead the successful campaign to repeal the welfare family cap, the state law that denied basic subsistence benefits to children because of when they were conceived.

Georgia Katsoulomitis, MLRI’s Executive Director, said, “Deborah’s contributions to poverty law on the national and state level are truly immeasurable. She is a quiet force, usually preferring to work behind the scenes, but is a relentless fighter and fearless advocate for the Commonwealth’s lowest income families and children. All legal aid and poverty advocates speak of our work in terms of justice — of achieving the right, the just, and the fair outcome for clients. But Deborah also speaks of her work in terms of dignity and power. She believes that a core value of a just society, and of our justice system, is ensuring that the most vulnerable people among us have a voice and are able to live with dignity. She empowers and lifts up the voices of those who are often ignored or forgotten, and speaks truth to power.”

Deborah has a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Her publications include Child Support for Welfare Families: Family Policy Trapped in Its Own Rhetoric, 16 N.Y.U. Rev. L. & Social Change 619 (1987-88); TAFDC Advocacy Guide: An Advocate’s Guide to the Massachusetts Welfare Rules for Families, MCLE (Dec. 2018; first published in 1994, revised and republished every year since then); and Variations on an Unconstitutional Theme: Restrictions on Interstate Use of Cash Benefits, 47 Clearinghouse Review 1 (May-June 2013) (with J. Schlozman).

Carmen Ortiz
Carmen is currently Counsel at Anderson & Kreiger in Boston. From 2009 to 2016, she served as the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, and was the first woman and first Hispanic to serve in that position.