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Local lawyer has quietly dispensed free legal advice at homeless resource center for 13 years

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 24 2013 1:26 p.m. MST

But there’s clearly a need for his legal advice. People travel from as far away as St. George and Logan to seek his help, he said.

Many people he assists are clients of The Road Home and Catholic Community Services. They come to him with a wide array of legal questions.

At times, the most important service he can offer is to explain the law, including statutes of limitation for taking legal actions. Many people who come to the clinic are unfamiliar with these limited windows of opportunity.

Like the man who asked Kessler’s help in filing a lawsuit against a man who had “stabbed” and “sliced” him.

Kessler asked him when and where the stabbing occurred. It was in Chicago in 1968.

After explaining that the deadline to file a lawsuit had long ago expired — more than three decades ago — Kessler offered this advice, “Close that door and move on.”

“One of the best things this legal clinic does is diffuse pent-up frustrations and anger in the community,” he said.

Kessler said he averages about six consultations a week, which means he’s assisted more than 4,000 people since he started running the pro bono legal clinic in May 2000.

“I’ve had people who didn’t like what I had to say. I’ve had people curse me out,” he said.

Don Welch Marsh, who has sought Kessler’s advice on numerous occasions, speaks highly of Kessler and the service he provides.

“I don’t think there’s any attorney who does what Jay does. I’m laudatory to the extreme,” Marsh said.

“Jay is a remarkable man. We have our differences, but we’re always gentlemen about it.”

Generally speaking, Kessler does not appear in court on behalf of people who come to the legal clinic.

On a few occasions, though, he has made exceptions.

Like the time Roman Catholic nuns asked him to represent a Sudanese “Lost Boy” against a shoplifting charge.

The 20-year-old man, holding multiple grocery items in his arms, had tucked a package of cookies in his coat so he could carry them to the cashier without dropping them.

Because he had concealed the merchandise, the young man was charged with shoplifting.

“He put the cookies in his pocket, and they swooped down and arrested him. He was charged with retail theft,” he said.

Prior to trial, Kessler appealed to the prosecutor that the young man had not carried the items out of the store. He had also learned that in the Sudan, few shoppers use shopping carts or baskets. When people’s arms are full, they sometimes place items in their pockets to carry them to a cashier.

The prosecutor didn’t buy it.

“She said, ‘Sorry, he concealed it,’” Kessler said.

So Kessler prepared for trial. The morning of the proceeding, the courtroom was packed with members of the Sudanese community and a number of Catholic nuns, some wearing habits.

The prosecutor started the proceedings by asking the court to dismiss the case for lack of evidence.

“The whole courtroom exploded. Hats went flying. I think even a habit went up in the air,” he said.

It was a banner day, Kessler said.

“If there’s a frustration, it’s that I can’t represent everyone.”

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