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Impact Stories Published March 1, 2019

Overcoming A Legal Catch-22

By all accounts, Essie Corbitt should have qualified for the City’s subsidized housing program for seniors. She was visually impaired; she met the program’s age requirements; and she lived on a modest Supplemental Security Income benefit. In hope of securing affordable, accessible housing, she spent years patiently advancing on the waiting list. But when her turn drew near, one short phrase sent her to the bottom of the list: “Photo ID required.”

These seemingly straightforward words can be anything but for low-income Philadelphians like Ms. Corbitt who lack government-issued identification. Such documentation has become essential to finding employment, obtaining housing, applying for benefits, and much more.

Born in rural South Carolina, Ms. Corbitt was never issued a birth certificate, and went through life without official identification. Like many others in her situation, she found herself in a catch-22 when she attempted to access critical services and benefits: she needed a photo ID to obtain a “delayed” birth certificate, but was told she needed a birth certificate to obtain a photo ID.

Stuck in bureaucratic limbo, Ms. Corbitt came to VIP for help. VIP matched her with Marc Zucker, a seasoned commercial litigator and arbitrator/mediator with Weir & Partners LLP. Over the course of his two decades volunteering with VIP, Zucker has developed a niche in helping his pro bono clients surmount ID-related hurdles like the one Ms. Corbitt faced.

Ms. Corbitt’s case would have been impossible to navigate without legal counsel. The School District of Philadelphia had lost her primary school records, and she had no nearby relatives who could testify to her place of birth. On top of this, while Zucker was representing her, the boardinghouse where she lived burned down. She lost everything but the literal clothes on her back.

In the wake of this calamity, Zucker submitted an emergency petition to establish the details of Ms. Corbitt’s birth. Even when the Court ordered the issuance of a photo ID card for Ms. Corbitt, Zucker’s representation did not end. His wife, Karen, a magisterial district judge, bought Ms. Corbitt clothes to replace those she had lost in the fire. Zucker then assisted her, now with ID in hand, in finding low-income housing. He also bought her some new furniture and accompanied her on her move-in day. Ms. Corbitt now has the affordable, accessible housing and access to services she needs – as well as the security that comes with official documentation.

In reflecting on his pro bono service, Zucker says it “provides inspiration and recognition that we participate in a higher calling. That is an immensely satisfying feeling.”