Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb's name floated for governor's race
By The Associated Press
April 23, 2009
MONTGOMERY -- The lone Democrat on the Alabama Supreme Court, Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, is among the Democrats being encouraged to consider next year's race for governor now that Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. has decided not to run.
If Cobb were to decide to run, it would shake up the 2010 race for governor and it would bring change to Alabama's highest court because she would have to resign as chief justice to run for governor.
Cobb's name began to surface this week, with speculation popping up on political Web sites.
Asked today if she is considering running, she said, "No comment."
Paul Hubbert, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, said Thursday he had a brief conversation with Cobb about her interest in the governor's race.
He said he is not encouraging or discouraging anyone from running because of his role as a vice chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party. But he added, "I'd like to see the Democratic Party field a good slate and certainly, she would be a good candidate."
Mark White, president of the Alabama State Bar and a good friend of Cobb's, said Thursday he hadn't talked to her about the governor's race. But, he said, "I gather some people are encouraging her to consider it."
White said Cobb has performed well in her three years as chief justice.
"I can see why people would seek out someone of her ability," he said.
Cobb, 53, was elected chief justice in 2006 with 51.5 percent of the vote against Republican incumbent Drayton Nabers. The 2006 race for chief justice became the second most expensive judicial race in American history, with candidates raising $8.2 million.
Cobb became a judge in 1981, serving first as a district judge in Evergreen and then being elected to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals in 1994.
White said state law requires judges to resign if they run for an office in another branch of government, so Cobb would have to step down as chief justice to run for governor.
That would allow Republican Gov. Bob Riley to appoint her replacement -- likely a Republican, which would return Alabama's highest court to being all Republican.
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Commissions Find the Best Judges – [Letter-to-the-Editor]
The Wall Street Journal
April 24, 2009
Regarding you editorial "Missouri Brakes" (April 18): Even if the Missouri plan of appointing judges is being revisited in that state, the American Bar Association stands firm in advocating that states appoint judges using a judicial nominating commission to identify potential judges. Nominating commissions are the strongest safeguard against politicizing judicial races.
The commissions, which some 33 states and the District of Columbia already utilize in some form, have expanded the pool of qualified candidates who are more representative of the community. Involving a cross-section of citizens in the careful evaluation of applicants produces a system that is also more transparent.
In my own state of Alabama, we have recently seen judicial races that have been extraordinarily expensive, where high-dollar contributors have ruled, and have involved name-calling and expenditures by third parties. That is not the way to ensure that judges will act in a fair and impartial fashion.
While the Missouri House may have approved a ballot measure, in the November 2008 elections, Greene County, Missouri, voters spoke in favor of adopting judicial merit selection.
We agree on the critical nature of ensuring that judges are held accountable. Accusations of partisanship and attacks against lawyers will not help in moving toward a system that ensures we have a judiciary that is fair and impartial.
H. Thomas Wells, Jr.
American Bar Association
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Are Law Schools Like Automakers? Dean Says Some Educators Will Fail
By Debra Cassens Weiss, ABAJournal.com
April 29, 2009
The law school dean in the news earlier this year for his charge that some law schools are “exploiting” unsuccessful students is getting more press attention for his predictions about the future of legal education.
This time, Dean Richard Matasar of New York Law School was responding to an audience member who spoke during a panel discussion sponsored by the Best Lawyers in America, according to the Fulton County Daily Report.
The audience member’s provocative comment: "You're producing a product that very few people want. Firms have hiring freezes. Why not stop producing the product--or create new markets for what you're producing? You're like the auto manufacturers who produce a product for which there is no demand."
Matasar’s response: Some law schools will probably go out of business and those that survive will cut the cost of a legal education. Matasar said shortening the time spent in law school could help, but that is difficult because ABA accreditation requirements stipulate a minimum number of classroom credits for graduation, according to the story.
Matasar started his presentation with an observation about the legal job market, the story says. "I've never seen so many lawyers jettisoned and needing career help. Not just those straight out of school but also after two decades of practice," he said.
In January, Matasar said schools need to take responsibility for the failures of their students. He said a law school education can cost as much as $120,000 for students who are making a “lottery shot” at being in the top 10 percent of their class so they can get high-paying jobs.
Law schools are exploiting students, he said during the Jan. 9 conference. “We should be ashamed of ourselves," he said.
The Wall Street Journal Law Blog also noted Matasar’s recent comments.
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U.S. Chamber Institute begins movie ad campaign against 'abusive lawsuits'
Sheri Qualters, The National Law Journal
April 30, 2009
Moviegoers seeking diversion from pressing public policy issues won't escape the tort reform debate in select Colorado, Louisiana and metropolitan Washington theaters.
On April 28, the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform continued its multiyear, multimillion-dollar campaign to curb abusive lawsuits with two-minute movie theater trailers.
The trailers, which are running in four Washington area theaters and a total of four theaters in Denver and Baton Rouge, La., continue an advertising campaign dating back to December 2007. Previous ads have run on television, radio and on the Internet, but the Institute views movie theater advertising as a unique way to reach a captive audience, said spokesman Mark Szymanski.
"We don't know of any [group] who is in public advocacy who has gone out and done these type of movie trailers," Szymanski said. "We had the product and realized that we were looking at other ways to market the product."
One of the four trailers features a Colorado couple whose seven-year-old son was sued by an adult skier after a minor ski collision. Another centers on a Louisiana small business facing more than 100 asbestos lawsuits because it ordered a materials containing encapsulated asbestos — fibers treated with a coating to prevent release — for customers.
"Lawsuits are turning the American dream into a litigation horror film," said Institute president Lisa Rickard, in a statement. "These movie trailers warn that even those who play by the rules can still have their lives turned upside-down by costly, frivolous lawsuits."
The U.S. Chamber's movie trailers are "their latest desperate attempt to discredit the foundation of the U.S. legal system," said Ray De Lorenzi, a spokesman for the American Association for Justice, a national trade group for plaintiffs' lawyers.
"With the U.S. Chamber's core membership receiving all these taxpayer bailouts, they must be flush with cash to waste on stunts like this," said De Lorenzi.
Alabama AG ends complaint about Supreme Court race
By Phillip Rawls, Associated Press
April 17, 2009
MONTGOMERY — Alabama's attorney general said a complaint from the president of the Alabama State Bar about ads and phone calls used in last year's contentious race for the state Supreme Court does not warrant prosecution.
Bar President Mark White of Birmingham had asked Attorney General Troy King to investigate ads and phone calls made by three groups in the November general election for the Supreme Court. They either praised Republican Greg Shaw, who won, or criticized Democrat Deborah Bell Paseur, who lost. The groups behind the campaign activity did not disclose where they got their money or how much they spent.
King wrote the State Bar on April 8, saying his office had issued subpoenas and talked to three people recommended by the State Bar who had received the phone calls. Only one person was willing to sign a letter saying what was said in the calls.
"The known facts do not support a viable prosecution of the Bar's complaint," King wrote.
"I find General King's response to the complaint to be underwhelming," White said Thursday.
Skip Tucker, executive director of Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse, one of the groups cited in White's letter, said King "certainly did the right thing."
Last year's Supreme Court race was one of the most expensive judicial races in the country. Shaw reported spending $1.8 million and Paseur $2.5 million. Two legal organizations that track spending in judicial races estimated outside groups spent about $1 million on ads.
After the close election Nov. 4, White wrote King asking him to investigate whether state campaign laws were broken by:
-the Center for Individual Freedom, which ran ads praising Shaw's work as a criminal appeals court judge.
-Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse, which ran ads criticizing Paseur's performance as a district judge in Florence and her support from plaintiff lawyers.
-Americans in Contact PAC, which White said appeared to be behind automated phone calls that incorrectly told voters Paseur had received an "F" rating from the State Bar. The statewide lawyers' organization doesn't rate judges.
None of the groups filed campaign finance reports with the secretary of state showing where they got their money or how much they spent. Traditionally, in Alabama, groups don't file campaign finance reports if their ads stop short of mentioning how citizens should vote in a specific election.
In King's letter, he suggested the State Bar might consider asking the Legislature to change state campaign finance laws or seek a court ruling on the constitutionality of Alabama's campaign laws.
Tucker, of Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse, said King's letter followed state law.
"The extremely hypocritical trial lawyers bounced their huge political donations through as many as 20 political action committees for no other reason than to disguise and hide them, and yet want to attack those who fund AVALA. They spent many millions; we spent a few thousands," Tucker said.
White said King's response causes concern about next year's elections, when three state Supreme Court seats will be on the ballot.
"I think absent some sort of control that we have a very high potential for an intellectual meltdown," he said.
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New judgeship hits a snag - Procedural issue, concern over funding hold it up in House
By BOB LOWRY, Huntsville Times
April 17, 2009
MONTGOMERY - Legislation to add another circuit judge in Madison County hit a temporary road block Thursday in the Alabama House.
The Senate-passed bill was brought up for a vote on a list of local bills, but Rep. Richard Laird, D-Roanoke, quickly noted that the legislation sponsored by Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, was a general bill - not a local bill.
The bill was originally introduced in the House as a local bill, but it was later sent to the General Appropriations Committee in the hope that permanent funding could be found for the position.
The Madison County Commission has agreed to put up $425,000 to fund the judgeship for the 2009-10 fiscal year, and Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb has pledged to place it in the state judicial system budget starting in 2010-11.
House Speaker Seth Hammett agreed that the bill could not be considered Tuesday with local bills, meaning the earliest it could be brought up again is Tuesday.
Even though there are agreements on the funding, Laird said he was concerned about who will pay for it in the long run and about setting a precedent the Legislature might not be able to live up to.
"That's up to the budget committee to determine if we're going to have a circuit judgeship in the future, even though Madison County is going to fund it the first year," he said. "That's certainly a good way to get your foot in the door."
Laird said there are "several other judgeships in the pipeline also."
He said he was aware that the Administrative Office of Courts has rated the circuit court judgeship in Madison County as the No. 1 need in Alabama's judicial system.
"What about year two, three and 20 and 30 years? That's going to come out of the general fund," Laird said. "Aren't we setting a precedent that could be dangerous in the future? I'm concerned about the precedent being set here."
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Sanctions are appropriate – [Editorial]
April 19, 2009
THE LATEST and most explicit details of sexual misconduct allegations against former Mobile County Circuit Judge Herman Thomas more than justify the actions taken against him to date.
Last week, a committee of the Alabama State Bar refused to reinstate his law license, which has been suspended since Mr. Thomas was indicted on 57 counts of kidnapping, extortion, sexual abuse and sodomy. All the counts involve men who were between the ages of 18 and 25 at the time and are or have been inmates of the Mobile County Metro Jail.
Documents filed with the State Bar by the district attorney's office reveal details of allegations about paddling of inmates, sexual advances and oral sex. Three of the men said they felt compelled to engage in oral sex with the judge to avoid incarceration or other adverse effects on their sentences.
Also submitted were reports of semen stains being found on the carpet in a small room adjacent to the chambers Mr. Thomas used while a judge. According to a state forensics document, one of the stains matched the DNA of one of the nine alleged victims listed in the indictments.
Mr. Thomas' attorney, Robert Clark, has denied the allegations.
But the documents are more than sufficient to justify both the suspension of Mr. Thomas' law license — attorneys are officers of the court and must be above reproach — and the grand jury's stipulation that he have no contact with men under 21.
Mr. Thomas has a long history of working with troubled young people in many community organizations. The allegations, while unproven, are strong enough that no organization should allow him near young people unless he is cleared of the criminal charges.
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Americans back legal aid to poll, new poll says
The Washington Post
April 19, 2009
WASHINGTON -- Americans strongly support government-paid legal services for the poor, says a poll commissioned by the Legal Services Corp.
Two-thirds of those polled for the American Bar Association by Harris Interactive said they favor federal funding for people who need legal assistance.
Legislation introduced in March by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, would nearly double the budget for Legal Services, which Congress created 35 years ago, and lift restrictions on the kinds of cases legal aid lawyers can file. The ABA, the nation's largest lawyers group, backs the bill.
The Legal Services Corp., a nonprofit corporation that is funded by Congress, distributes grants to legal aid groups in all 50 states. The state and local groups help poor people involved in civil cases, including domestic violence, child custody, housing foreclosures, veterans and Social Security benefits, consumer problems and health issues.
Harkin said his proposal to raise Legal Services' budget to $750 million from the $390 million it is getting in the current government spending year would give legal aid programs roughly the same amount of money, adjusted for inflation, that they received in 1981.
Even before the full force of the recession hit, Legal Services reported last year that cash-strapped legal aid programs around the country had to turn away half of all eligible applicants.
Now those programs have been reporting a wave of new clients seeking help to ward off foreclosure, grapple with late payments on medical bills, and recoup delinquent child support.
In the ABA poll, 53 percent said their financial situation had deteriorated in the past six months and 28 percent said they are concerned they might need legal help as a result.
The poll was conducted by telephone by Harris Interactive April 1-5 among 1,016 U.S. residents age 18 and older. Harris did not provide a margin of sampling error.
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Alabama AG closes Bar president's complaint about 2008 state Supreme Court race
By The Associated Press
April 16, 2009
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama's attorney general says a complaint from the president of the Alabama State Bar about ads and phone calls used in last year's contentious race for the state Supreme Court does not warrant prosecution.
Bar President Mark White of Birmingham had asked Attorney General Troy King to investigate ads and phone calls made by three groups in the November general election for the Supreme Court. They either praised Republican Greg Shaw, who won, or criticized Democrat Deborah Bell Paseur, who lost.
King has written a letter to the State Bar saying his office investigated the matter and found that the known facts did not support a viable prosecution.
White says he finds the attorney general's response underwhelming.
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Herman Thomas says he did nothing improper, but loses appeal of law license revocation
By BRIAN LYMAN, Mobile Press-Register
April 10, 2009
MONTGOMERY — Former Mobile County Circuit Judge Herman Thomas testified Thursday that he checked two inmates out of Mobile County Metro Jail, but that he followed procedure and did nothing improper or unethical.
Thomas said he resigned in 2007 to spare his family from a misconduct trial and the media spotlight. He pointed out that he has two teenage twin daughters.
"I met with them, I met with my wife," Thomas told a Disciplinary Commission hearing at the Alabama State Bar Association. "I gave them a copy of all the statements with the allegations, and my daughters and wife and I decided it was not worth it, that it would be in my family's best interest to leave the bench."
Thomas appeared before the commission to ask that it reinstate his law license, which was temporarily suspended after he was indicted on 57 felony counts last month. He is accused of, while a judge, checking male inmates out of Metro Jail to exert control over them and force them into sexual activity.
The commission denied Thomas' appeal.
Bob Clark, Thomas' attorney, suggested during cross-examination of a State Bar staffer that the witnesses against Thomas were not credible.
"Several of the witnesses have retracted their statements," Clark said after the hearing. "They're all lying felons. They chose to put lying felons over someone who's been a prestigious member of the bar for over 20 years."
Mobile County District Attorney John Tyson Jr. said Thursday afternoon that "the grand jury made a finding of probable cause in the cases we have brought. And in those cases, I am unaware of any of those people changing their mind."
Thomas' law license was temporarily suspended March 30 after the commission determined there was probable cause that Thomas engaged in "improper sexual contact with criminal defendants."
He had been practicing law since he stepped down from the bench. His resignation allowed him to avoid a looming ethics trial before the Alabama Court of the Judiciary.
Thomas declined to speak to a Press-Register reporter after Thursday's hearing.
At the hearing, Thomas acknowledged checking two inmates out of Metro Jail, one of them a family friend who Thomas said had been shot sometime before being booked into jail.
Thomas said he ordered the man's release, then took the inmate to his family's home. In both cases, Thomas said, he followed proper procedure and spoke to the defendants about getting into treatment programs.
One of the accusations against Thomas is that he paddled inmates.
At the hearing, Thomas said that he owns two paddles, which he described as gifts displayed in his home. He denied ever bringing them into the courthouse.
Clark said he was "shocked and upset" by the State Bar ruling.
"But it's something we have to face," Clark said. "We're moving on. It's all we can do."
Tony McClain, general counsel for the State Bar, said the facts of the case supported the suspension.
"Within the legal context, if the grand jury indicts someone, that is probable cause," McClain said. "All we did is offer that to the commission to support a basis of the suspension of Thomas."
Thomas' arraignment is expected to take place next week.
"We're looking forward to the trial," Clark said. "We think 12 citizens will exonerate Judge Thomas."
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Experts differ on whether lawsuits hinder growth
By Cosby Woodruff, Montgomery Advertiser
April 12, 2009
The head of a legal reform organization said disparities in Alabama's rankings for friendliness to large and small businesses illustrate problems with the state's legal environment, but business and economic development experts questioned his conclusions.
Skip Tucker of Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse said a recent U.S. News and World Report ranking had Alabama No. 47 in business environment. He said a similar ranking by the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council ranks Alabama No. 8 in its latest rankings.
Tucker, who leads a group that wants to limit some lawsuit awards, said the results show large companies fear doing business in Alabama because of additional liability exposure. Smaller companies, he said, find the state more appealing because they are less likely to face multi-million-dollar verdicts.
Sam Addy, director of the Alabama Council for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama, questioned Tucker's conclusions.
Rosemary Elebash, director of the Alabama Chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said the issue was of concern to her members, but it was not at the top of their list of current issues.
Neither state ranking included legal climate as a factor in the rankings, but Tucker said they reflect what he called Alabama's reputation as a good place to get sued.
The magazine's report was on each state's ranking in the new economy based on digital jobs. It used measures such as the number of information technology professionals, work-force education, foreign direct investment and the number of fast-growing firms.
The small business ranking used factors such as taxes, crime rates, local taxes, fuel taxes and utility costs.
Tucker said it was all a reflection of how parts of the state feel about big businesses.
"From my perspective, small businesses are not targeted like big businesses," he said. "Big business is afraid to move to Alabama."
Addy chuckled at that suggestion, pointing to the state's recent record of luring large international firms to the state.
Tucker said the state tried harder to recruit the businesses and may have overspent to attract them.
"We went after them in such a big way," he said. "Any industry is going to look at the overall picture. They look at the breaks and who is giving the biggest breaks."
Addy responded that companies only look at incentive packages in the final stages of deciding where to locate.
He also questioned whether the state overpaid in incentives for businesses.
"I don't know who can state that," he said. "The incentives are on a 20-year timeline, and it is chump change for these big companies."
Tucker admitted that firms that sell in Alabama but don't manufacture in the state are often targets of lawsuits, but he insisted that does nothing to attract the firms to the state.
"Why move to a neighborhood controlled by gangs and bullies?" he asked. "The business climate here is unfriendly."
Addy took direct issue with the idea Alabama's business climate is unfriendly, and Elebash said her members don't find the state to be particularly unfriendly.
"Alabama is a business-friendly place," she said. Addy, who works with state leaders in recruiting businesses, said he was unaware of any firm that had declined to locate to Alabama because of its legal climate.
Elebash also said she was unaware of any small firms that had either refused to open or locate in Alabama based on the issue. However, she did say that small firms are just as vulnerable to being destroyed by a lawsuit as a larger company.
"A $25,000 judgement against a small company can be a really big deal," she said.
Elebash and Tucker both said the cost of defending a lawsuit can be as big a burden as the judgement.
"The issue that I hear from our business owners is that the biggest cost of litigation in defending these lawsuits is very, very expensive," Elebash said.
Tucker insisted the legal environment of defending suits and paying large judgements scares businesses from the state. That, he said, negates much of the progress the state is making.
"We are still in the bottom 10 (of personal income)" he said. "We made a small step when we needed a giant leap."
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Federal judges take their own case to court – for more pay
By Warren Richey | The Christian Science Monitor
April 10, 2009
Eight federal judges are suing the US government for back pay in a potential landmark case that raises fundamental questions about how the Founding Fathers sought to protect an independent judiciary.
Five US district judges and three appeals-court judges charge in their suit that Congress reneged on a pledge to provide America's jurists with automatic cost-of-living increases. Congress has excluded judges from receiving inflation adjustments in six of the past 16 years.
The judges say the action violates the Constitution's compensation clause, which bars Congress from reducing a judge's pay.
The lawsuit, Beer v. US, is being litigated in the Court of Federal Claims in Washington. Government lawyers filed their response this week. In it, the government says the same issue was fully litigated in a 1997 case called Williams v. US, and the judges who filed that complaint lost.
"Plaintiffs are barred from relitigating the essential dispute in this case," writes Justice Department lawyer Brian Simkin in a brief asking that the case be dismissed.
What makes Beer v. US particularly significant is that the plaintiffs are federal judges claiming a constitutional violation. It is generally a judge's job to follow the legal precedents set down by prior courts and higher courts. But that is not the judges' approach in Beer v. US.
"Plaintiffs respectfully submit that the Williams decision is wrong," the judges' complaint says in part. "At the very least, plaintiffs have a good faith belief that Williams should be reversed."
The case is also worth watching because the ruling judges themselves will have a direct financial interest in the outcome. The law authorizes judges to hear such cases when there is no other provision for appointment of a disinterested adjudicator.
It is unclear how the trial judge or an appeals-court panel may rule in the case. But the complaint seems aimed at the US Supreme Court, where seven of the nine justices have made public statements urging congressional action on judicial compensation.
Compensation has long been a sore point among judges in the US. Chief Justice John Roberts has repeatedly asked Congress to boost salaries.
"I suspect many are tired of hearing it, but I must make this plea again – Congress must provide judicial compensation that keeps pace with inflation," Chief Justice Roberts said in his December 2008 year-end report on the federal judiciary.
"Judges knew what the pay was when they answered the call of public service," he said. "But they did not know that Congress would steadily erode that pay in real terms by repeatedly failing over the years to provide even cost-of-living increases."
Judicial pay increases, and even requests for cost-of-living adjustments, can be a tough sell given the current economic crisis. Many Americans are happy just to have a job – and a paycheck.
But the judiciary depends on an inflow of talented individuals from a pool of high-earning workers. Once on the bench, they are expected to hold themselves above and apart from financial concerns while tackling some of America's most difficult and divisive issues.
Currently, district judges earn $174,000 a year. Federal appeals-court judges are paid $184,500 a year, while associate justices at the Supreme Court make $213,900. The chief justice is paid $223,500.
Supporters of pay increases say flat or declining judicial compensation threatens the independence of the judiciary and the quality of American justice. The best legal minds, they say, will opt for million-dollar careers in the private sector.
Sixty-three judges have left the federal bench since 2000, according to James Duff, director of the Administrative Office of the US Courts. Eighteen of them left before qualifying to receive any pension or annuity benefits, he says.
Mr. Duff declined to discuss the pending lawsuit. "We continue to believe and hope that the best solution to this is a legislative one," he says.
The judicial pay problem is particularly acute in major urban areas, Duff says: "$174,000 a year is still a great salary in Booneville, Ky., where my family is from. But in New York or Washington or San Francisco, it is not [a great salary] when you are raising a family and trying to send children to college and so forth."
In the top US cities, a judge's former law clerk may earn more in the first year of private practice than the judge he or she clerked for. Many government lawyers also earn significantly more than federal judges.
In 2007 testimony before Congress, Justice Samuel Alito explored the issue by referring to an ad for new lawyers at the Securities and Exchange Commission. The advertised pay for a supervisory attorney at the SEC was $26,000 more than a federal judge was earning at the time. The pay for a trial attorney was $10,000 more.
"It would be reasonable to conclude," Justice Alito said, "that a district judge who presided over an SEC case may be the lowest-paid attorney in the courtroom."
Federal judges are appointed for life, in part because the Founding Fathers wished to create a branch of government largely insulated from political pressures. The Founders were also concerned about potential financial pressures, so they included in Article III of the Constitution a mandate that Congress not reduce a judge's pay.
For the past 20 years, Congress has linked cost-of-living and salary increases for the judiciary with its own compensation. Senators, members of the House, and US district judges all make the same amount – $174,000.
The problem with this approach, analysts say, is that instead of insulating judges from political influence, it holds them hostage to the lawmakers' own fear of political repercussions for granting themselves a pay raise.
The Beer v. US complaint says that in 1989, Congress established a system for judges to receive automatic annual salary adjustments. The adjustments were to be equal to adjustments granted to federal civil servants.
But Congress has blocked the adjustments for judges six times.
In 1997, a group of federal judges filed a class-action lawsuit, Williams v. United States, claiming a constitutional right to receive the cost-of-living adjustments. For Congress to deny the cost-of-living adjustments amounted to a diminution of judicial pay in violation of the compensation clause, they argued.
The federal judge hearing the case agreed, but an appeals-court panel threw the suit out. The appeals court ruled that because the judges hadn't actually received a paycheck at the higher, adjusted amount, Congress was still free to renege on its earlier pledge of future salary increases.
In November 2001, Congress responded to the Williams lawsuit by amending the existing law to prohibit automatic cost-of-living or other salary adjustments without specific year-to-year authorization by Congress.
A few months later, the judges asked the Supreme Court to take up their case. The high court declined, leaving the appeals-court decision in place.
Three justices dissented from the high court's decision not to hear the Williams case. "I believe the judges have raised an important constitutional question, the answer to which at present is uncertain," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a dissent joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy.
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Study urges overwhelmed attorneys for the indigent to reject new cases
Marcia Coyle. The National Law Journal
April 16, 2009
WASHINGTON — Many studies have documented nationwide problems with indigent criminal defense, but a new study, saying reforms are more urgent than ever, recommends that defenders reject new cases when faced with excessive caseloads; lawsuits seeking systemic reforms should be filed when other options fail, and appellate advocates and others should press the courts for a new test for determining ineffective assistance of counsel.
The Constitution Project's National Right to Counsel Committee, formed in 2004, recently released its examination of whether criminal defendants and juveniles charged with delinquency receive adequate legal representation when they can't afford to hire lawyers — and its recommendations for achieving lasting reforms.
The committee, whose members share judicial, prosecution, defense, academic, law enforcement, policymaking and victim experiences, reported that although there has been considerable progress since the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark right-to-counsel ruling, Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963, the evidence is "overwhelming" that jurisdictions that have done reasonably well in the indigent defense area are in a distinct minority.
"In most of the country, notwithstanding the dedication of lawyers and other committed staff, quality defense work is simply impossible because of inadequate funding, excessive caseloads, a lack of genuine independence, and insufficient availability of other essential resources," the report states.
Among its recommendations for systemic reforms, the committee called for the following:
• Defense attorneys and defender programs should refuse to compromise their ethical duties and, therefore, should refuse to continue representation or accept new cases for representation when faced with excessive workloads that will lead to a breach of their professional obligations.
• Prosecutors should adopt open-file discovery policies in order to promote the fair administration of criminal and juvenile justice.
• When indigent defense systems require defense attorneys to represent more clients than they can competently represent or otherwise fail to assure legal representation in compliance with the Sixth Amendment, litigation to remedy such deficiencies should be instituted. This litigation should be instituted pretrial on behalf of all or a large class of indigent defendants. And, whenever possible, litigation should be brought by disinterested third parties, such as private law firms or public interest legal organizations willing to serve as pro bono counsel, who are experienced in litigating major, complex lawsuits and accustomed to gathering and presenting detailed factual information.
• The Supreme Court's Strickland two-pronged test for determining ineffective assistance of counsel should be replaced by a straightforward test: Has the accused received "competent" and "diligent" representation, as required by the rules of professional conduct adopted by the legal profession? Lawyers who provide representation in appellate and post-conviction cases and organizations that advocate as amicus curiae should urge the Supreme Court and state supreme courts to adopt a new test.
• The federal government should establish an independent, adequately funded National Center for Defense Services to assist and strengthen the ability of state governments to provide quality legal representation.
• Federal financial assistance through grants or other programs as provided in support of state and local prosecutors should also be provided in support of indigent defense, and the level of federal funding for prosecution and defense should be substantially equal.
• States should establish a statewide, independent, nonpartisan agency headed by a board or commission responsible for all components of indigent defense services. The board or commission should establish and enforce qualification and performance standards for defense attorneys in criminal and juvenile cases who represent persons unable to afford counsel.
The committee's honorary co-chairs are former vice-president Walter F. Mondale, who, as the then-attorney general of Minnesota, organized a remarkable amicus curiae brief joined by 23 states on behalf of Clarence Earl Gideon. The other is former FBI Director and U.S. District Judge William S. Sessions. The committee's co-chairs are Timothy K. Lewis, a former U.S, circuit court judge; Rhoda Billings, a former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court; and Robert M. A. Johnson, chief prosecutor of Anoka County, Minn., and a former president of the National District Attorneys Association.
UA law school may drop LSAT standard
By Adam Jones, Tuscaloosa News
April 5, 2009 at 3:30 a.m.
TUSCALOOSA | The University of Alabama School of Law has admitted a select group of UA undergraduates to next fall’s first-year class without scores from the Law School Admissions Test.
If the pilot program is deemed successful, the state’s lone public law school would join a handful of such schools around the country in dropping the LSAT requirement, long used as part of the admissions process, for some students. The move has drawn criticism and praise within the law education community.
To qualify, UA seniors must be enrolled in the Honors College with at least a 3.75 undergraduate grade point average, a sliver of UA’s undergraduates.
In a letter sent to eligible seniors in Honors College last fall, Claude Reeves Arrington, associate dean for admissions at the law school, wrote that the joint Law-Honors program is being revised to streamline the admissions process for the seniors.
Arrington wrote that essays, recommendation letters and LSAT scores are not required of seniors from Honors College, and an admission decision for those students will likely come within 24 hours.
“We have enhanced the program this year to attract more students like you,” Arrington wrote. “The Law School is excited about this enhanced program.
“The Law School is well aware of the excellence expected of students in the Honors College at the University of Alabama. You have excelled in Honors, and we hope you apply through this plan.”
Besides the minimum GPA, seniors in Honors College must be Alabama residents and have an ACT score of at least 25 or an SAT score of at least 1210 both in the mathematics and critical reading sections.
For all other students, the UA law school requires submission of scores from the LSAT, a standardized test that assesses logic and verbal reasoning skills. Like college entrance exams taken by high school seniors, the LSAT is the gold standard by which schools decide among students with similar undergraduate GPAs and strong admission essays.
The median LSAT score for first-year students at UA in fall 2007 was 164, according to the school’s Web site. The lowest score on the test is 120, and the highest possible score is 180.
The average undergraduate GPA for first-year students in 2007 was 3.63.
Arrington and law school Dean Ken Randall both declined to comment on the program through the school’s spokesman, Aaron Latham. Latham later released a statement.
“Although over 140 different colleges are represented within our student body, the decade-old Law-UA Honors partnership, which is a select but important part of our recruitment effort, is experimenting this year with ways to keep top local students on campus for their legal education,” Latham wrote.
In an interview last month, UA President Robert Witt said he is aware of the program, but he declined to discuss it further, saying he has faith in Randall.
“I fully support the law school program,” Witt said.
The letter to the seniors was provided to The Tuscaloosa News through a public records request made after university officials declined to speak for the record about the program earlier this semester.
Two other universities announced similar programs last fall, and both came under criticism by some law educators who said the move was done to simply improve law school rankings.
In September, the University of Michigan announced its Wolverine Scholars Program, which drops the LSAT requirement for Michigan undergraduates with at least a 3.8 GPA.
Michigan officials predicted that about 10 student from the small pool of eligible seniors would be accepted. The program, officials told news outlets, was meant to steer Michigan residents into the state’s law school, since only about 22 percent of law school students come from the state.
Later in the fall, the University of Illinois College of Law announced that it was dropping the LSAT requirement for its undergraduates as well. The university took it a step further and did not place a GPA cutoff for admissions. Instead, Illinois undergraduates are required to submit additional essays and sit for interviews.
Illinois officials gave similar reasons for the program, saying it hoped to snag talented in-state students, especially those who might not have considered law school.
But both schools took heat from the legal blogosphere for what some saw an attempt to get an advantage in U.S. News & World Report’s annual ranking of law schools by attracting students with high GPAs but potentially low LSAT scores. Without those LSAT scores, the class average could increase, along with the average GPA, two components the magazine uses in ranking the schools.
However, some also heaped praise on the two universities for recognizing the possibility of admitting students without measuring them with a standardized test.
“The LSAT is like any standardized test — ACT, SAT, MCAT — they have their place, but the concern is you’re omitting a large section of the community that doesn’t perform well on standardized tests for whatever reason,” said Keith Norman, executive director of the Alabama State Bar. “It’s something that’s worried law schools.”
The American Bar Association, the accrediting body for law schools, only requires a “valid and reliable admission test,” according to its rules.
“A law school that uses an admission test other than the Law School Admission Test sponsored by the Law School Admission Council shall establish that such other test is a valid and reliable test to assist the school in assessing an applicant’s capability to satisfactorily complete the school’s educational program,” according to the rules.
As for the Law School Admission Council, which administers the LSAT, Jim Vaseleck, executive assistant to the LSAC president, said there is no concern of an assault on the test. He said he wasn’t surprised to learn UA was offering a similar program as Michigan and Illinois, and he predicted more law schools attached to a baccalaureate college will do the same.
“Even at Michigan and at Illinois the numbers are quite small even though those are both fairly good-sized institutions,” Vaseleck said. “It has more to do with law schools wanting to recruit its own undergraduate students than any signal that there is concern about the LSAT.”
Norman said UA probably drew from its campus for the pilot program because law school administrators are more familiar with the curriculum and requirements.
“It’s a further limitation, and in a trial program, that’s probably not a bad idea,” he said.
Advisers of the pre-law programs at Auburn University and Birmingham-Southern College had not heard of UA’s program and declined to comment.
The UA law school would not release information on the undergraduate institutions of its students, citing federal education privacy laws, but a roster of each class on its student Web site shows students who attended UA as undergrads have been taking more seats in the past few years.
The class of 2008 had 19 students who came from UA with 41 from Alabama’s other public and private schools. The class of 2009 has 37 UA students and 48 students from the state’s other colleges and universities.
The 2010 class has 57 students from UA with 38 coming from other schools within the state. The class of 2011, this year’s first-year class, is more even, however, with 40 students from UA and 48 from other schools within the state.
However, the rosters are current snapshots of each class and do not include students who could have dropped out, so they are not accurate portrayals of who law school officials admit each year.
Norman said he is taking a wait-and-see approach before making a judgment on UA’s admission policy.
“It’ll be interesting to follow how this works, and I think that’s the real impetus behind this to see this on a test model,” he said. “If the results are good, maybe we can expand. From that standpoint, it has its place.”
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Noted civil rights attorney Vernon Z. Crawford inducted into Lawyers Hall of Fame
By ROY HOFFMAN, Mobile Press-Register
April 4, 2009
Vernon Z. Crawford, a Mobile native and civil rights attorney who had to go north to Brooklyn Law School in 1952 because the University of Alabama would not admit blacks, was inducted into the Alabama Lawyers Hall of Fame on Friday.
The event, which annually adds the names of four deceased attorneys to the roster of legal greats, took place at the Alabama Supreme Court in Montgomery. A plaque honoring Crawford will be placed in a lower hallway of the building next to those commemorating other legal figures.
"Crawford is remembered as the dean of African-American attorneys in Mobile," said Sam Rumore of Birmingham, former president of the Alabama Bar Association and chairman of the selection committee.
Despite his Brooklyn education, Crawford returned home with his degree in 1956 to open the first African-American law firm in Mobile.
"He didn't like shoveling snow," joked his wife, Jean Crawford, of her husband's decision to return South. "But I'm sure it was his family that brought him back."
In the early days, she reminisced of his law career, "he took whatever came through his door."
To help make ends meet for their growing family — the Crawfords had four sons — the young attorney moonlighted as a waiter and bartender at area country clubs and the Battle House Hotel. But Crawford's legal practice flourished.
"He was always a civil rights person," added Jean Crawford, who moved to Montgomery after her husband's death in 1986 and is chairwoman of the department of finance and accounting at Alabama State University.
That civil rights conviction played itself out in the commitment Crawford showed to high-profile cases involving school desegregation and voting rights.
He was the lead attorney in Birdie Mae Davis v. Mobile County School Board, a school desegregation case brought on behalf of 20 African-American students.
One of the cases that originated with Crawford's firm was Bolden v. City of Mobile, which challenged the constitutionality of Mobile's three-person commission form of municipal government and brought about the mayor-council system.
"The most important things he did were in the school desegregation cases and public accommodation cases," said A.J. Cooper, who served as Prichard's mayor in the 1970s and began his legal practice in Crawford's firm in 1969.
"Without him, a lot of the gains we've made in the legal area of civil rights would not have happened," said Mobile County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood, who also started her legal career in Mobile in 1981 in Crawford's firm.
The late Michael Figures, an Alabama state senator from Mobile who served from 1978 until his death in 1996, had also gotten his start in Crawford's firm.
Crawford's firm included white attorneys, too, said Jean Crawford, mentioning James Blacksher, Larry Menefee and Greg Stein. The Blacksher, Menefee and Stein Law Firm, which branched off from Crawford's, went on to deal with civil rights cases initiated in part by Crawford, according to papers of the Vernon Z. Crawford Collection and the Blacksher, Menefee and Stein Collection at the University of South Alabama Archives.
Cooper said that Crawford also helped establish Gulf Federal Savings and Loan.
"He had a wonderful sense of humor, a lot of gusto," said Ludgood. "He was a very positive person, and a good mentor."
Cooper, who now practices law in Baldwin County, said Crawford's firm "was the fountainhead of African-American lawyers in the city of Mobile, and we all stand on his shoulders.
"But for Vernon, I would not be who I am today."
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Inductees to the Alabama Lawyers Hall of Fame: Edward Friend Jr., Elisha Peck, Vernon Crawford and John Scott
ERIC VELASCO, The Birmingham News
April 03, 2009
The latest inductees to the Alabama Lawyers Hall of Fame include a Birmingham native and a former state Supreme Court chief justice who practiced law in Elyton, the former seat of Jefferson County, the state bar association announced.
Edward Malcolm Friend Jr. and Elisha Wolsey Peck are among the four inductees this year to the Hall of Fame, established by the Alabama State Bar to honor lawyers who have made extraordinary contributions to the legal field on the state, national or international level.
Plaques honoring the inductees will be unveiled today in a ceremony starting at 11:30 a.m. in the Alabama Supreme Court Building.
The honorees are:
Edward Malcolm Friend Jr. (1912-1995). Friend was "a highly regarded corporate and estate attorney, military hero, community servant, philanthropist, advocate for the poor, strong supporter of legal education and champion of racial reconciliation," according to a state bar news release.
Friend participated in the D-Day landing at Normandy in World War II during his 22 months of overseas duty, and he eventually retired as a Brigadier General in the U.S. Army Reserve. A partner in the law firm Sirote, Permutt, Friend, Friedman, Held & Apolinsky, Friend was involved in a variety of civic groups. He also was a former president of Temple Emanu-El and the Jewish Federation of Birmingham.
Elisha Wolsey Peck (1799-1888). Peck was Alabama's 12th chief justice of the state Supreme Court. He started his law career in New York, but moved to Elyton in 1824 and established a law practice, according to the Alabama Department of Archives and History.
He moved to Tuscaloosa in 1832, served on the middle division of Chancery Court 1839-1841 and served as chief justice 1868-1873. Known as an advocate for unpopular clients and causes, Peck opposed secession.
Vernon Z. Crawford (1919-1985). The Mobile lawyer was a merchant marine who became a highly regarded civil rights attorney. He established Mobile's first law firm run by a black lawyer and founded Gulf Federal Savings and Loan. He filed suits that led to several landmark cases, including the libel case New York Times v. Sullivan.
John B. Scott (1906- 1978). The former soldier and Montgomery municipal court judge, Scott became the first reporter of decisions for the Alabama appellate courts and the first full-time executive secretary of the Alabama State Bar. He was executive secretary of the state bar 1950-1969, taking on the role full-time in 1964.
Scott is the judge who fined Rosa Parks $10 and court costs in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus, an iconic moment in the civil rights movement, according to a commentary by civil-rights lawyer Fred Gray, Park's lawyer in the case.
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ABA president: Regulation threat to lawyer independence
By Marie Price, The Journal Record (Oklahoma City, OK)
April 9, 2009
OKLAHOMA CITY – Mandatory state bar associations must walk a fine line in dealing with state legislatures, but clearly there are issues for which bar groups should lobby, such as adequate funding for the courts, American Bar Association President H. Thomas Wells Jr. said Wednesday in Oklahoma City.
Wells addressed an effort this legislative session to make payment of Oklahoma Bar Association dues voluntary, because the OBA may lobby on issues with which some members disagree.
He said that increased regulation of attorneys is a threat to lawyer independence, because sometimes, “regulation becomes overregulation.”
“The issue of interference with the bar association, whether it’s the legislative or executive branches of state government, are a bit like weeds in a garden,” he said. “They pop up here or there, whether you want them to or not.”
Wells said he always tries to point out the interrelationship between an independent bar and a fair and impartial judiciary.
“In my view, things like that, like additional state regulation of lawyers, is a threat to lawyer independence, because one of the primary functions of lawyers is to stand up to government and hold government accountable to the rule of law,” he said. “At some point, regulation becomes overregulation, because if lawyers can no longer stand up to the government, then you end up with the situation, like in some places in Russia, where you hear about ‘telephone justice.’”
Wells said that refers to the situation that exists in some places in that country, where after a judge hears a case, he must call government officials to ask how they want him to decide a particular matter.
Wells said the bar association in his home state of Alabama is lobbying on judicial selection issues.
The ABA itself is a voluntary association, which, Wells said, may lobby on more than 100 issues in any given year, issues on which its House of Delegates has adopted policies.
For example, Wells said the ABA is proud to have played a key part in securing a $40 million increase in funding over the past year for the Legal Services Corporation, which funds groups that provide legal help for low-income individuals.
The ABA has scheduled a summit in May on the issue of fair and impartial state courts, which Wells said came about during his travels as president-elect, listening to concerns raised by bar leaders, judges and lawyers.
“It occurred to me that the one theme that was coming back is, to one level or another, they were all threats to fair and impartial state courts,” Wells said.
He said those concerns ranged from what he termed a “jail for judges” initiative on the ballot in South Dakota to a Colorado initiative that would have severely term-limited judges and efforts in other states aimed at the way judges are selected.
Wells said a key threat to the judiciary, which was almost universal in his meetings, was the negative effects of inadequate funding of the courts.
“So, a good portion of our summit is going to talk about inter-branch relations, among the branches of state government,” he said.
Wells said it is more important than ever to be able to explain the importance of the courts and their existence as a third branch of government, with fewer state governors and legislators coming from the legal profession.
“On both the civil and the criminal sides, if you don’t give them adequate resources to do their job, we’re going to have a hard time delivering the rule of law that the American people have come to expect,” he said.
Wells was in Oklahoma Wednesday visiting with legal groups, including Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, to discuss issues facing attorneys across the country. He has been traveling the country speaking with state and local bar groups since his year as president-elect.
“It’s always informative,” he said. “I always learn something.”
Wells said he tries to include a visit with local legal aid providers wherever he goes and to stress the importance of the work they do.
“Obviously, access to justice is one of the real core values, I think, of the legal profession,” he said. “In these economic times, it’s even more important than ever.”
Wells said people have more legal problems during the recession, although resources to address them are less.
“It’s more than just problem solving,” he said of legal aid’s work. “A lot of times, it’s problem avoiding.”
During hard economic times, Wells said, people may first need a financial intervention, which can help keep them from spiraling down into needing more and more government services.
“It really is a financial savings, not just for the individual involved, but for society as a whole, if we can get a lawyer involved in a situation earlier rather than later,” he said.
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As Courts Face Cuts, States Squeeze Defendants
By JOHN SCHWARTZ, The New York Times
April 6, 2009
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Valerie Gainous paid her debt to society, but almost went to jail because of a debt to Florida’s courts.
In 1996, she was convicted of writing bad checks; she paid restitution, performed community service and thought she was finished with the criminal justice system. Earlier this year, however, she received a letter from Collections Court telling her that she was once again facing jail time — this time, for failing to pay $240 in leftover court fees and fines, which she says she cannot afford.
Ms. Gainous has been caught up in her state’s exceptionally aggressive system to collect the court fines and fees that keep its judiciary system working. Judges themselves dun citizens who have fallen behind in their payments, but unlike other creditors, they can throw debtors in jail — and they do, by the thousands.
As Florida’s budget has tightened with the economic crisis, efforts to step up the collections process have intensified, and court clerks say the pressure is on them to bring in every dollar. “I would say there is an even more dramatic focus on those funds now,” said Beth Allman, the spokeswoman for the Florida Association of Court Clerks.
Other states are intrigued by Florida’s success, and several, including Michigan and Georgia, have also cracked down on people who owe fines. John Dew, the executive director of the Florida Clerks of Court Operations Corporation, said that when he attends national conferences about fees collection these days, states “are really looking to what we’re doing in Florida.”
With 44 states looking at budget deficits totaling $90 billion this year, 25 state court systems already have budget shortfalls, said Dan Hall, the vice president of the National Center for State Courts. Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court told the American Bar Association in a recent speech that the state courts were in crisis because of budgetary and other issues.
States facing lower revenue from income and property taxes are taking action that includes court cutbacks and fee increases. Oregon will try to save $3.1 million by closing its courthouses every Friday for four months and cutting the pay of 1,800 court workers by 20 percent. New Hampshire began suspending civil and criminal jury trials in eight counties for a month, starting last December, and postponed filling seven of the state’s 59 vacant judgeships.
Massachusetts is looking to cut its court system budget by 7.5 percent, which will almost certainly mean staff cuts. Maine is no longer staffing the metal detector checkpoints at its local courthouses. Utah is looking at imposing an $8 “conviction fee” to pay for its security and metal detectors; civil filing fees in the state will be raised as well. Florida has cut its court payroll by 10 percent, with more cuts expected.
Mr. Hall, of the courts organization, said that when states cut their judicial budgets, they “really cut deep into the fabric of our society” by causing delays of weeks or even months in resolving cases. In Iowa, for example, where the courts are trying to make up for a $3.8 million budget cut, courthouses in every county will close for eight days until June 30, and the travel budgets have been cut for judges who go from county to county to hear cases. This means delays for rural residents who have matters that have to be heard by a district judge, including divorce.
Access to efficient courts is essential to helping people resolve life’s crises — foreclosures, debt collection, divorce, child support — said Rebecca Love Kourlis, the executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver. “You can’t put them on the back burner and say, ‘we’ll get back to you when we have more money and more staffing.’ “
Advocates for the poor have urged other states not to follow Florida’s example of squeezing defendants harder to make up for budget cuts. Rebekah Diller, deputy director of the justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, said the state’s system wasted resources “to get blood from a stone.” Judges, she said, should not become “debt collectors in robes,” which she called both demeaning to the judges and humiliating for the people who must stand before them.
Rhode Island seems to agree. Faced with statistics showing that arrests for nonpayment cost far more than they bring in, the state passed a law in August granting judges latitude to waive court debts for poor defendants.
Florida, however, has continued to tighten its grip. Since 2004, the Legislature has required courts to substantially support their operating expenses through fees collected by county clerks. Some of the clerks use collection agents, while about a third use the collections courts, state officials said. Here in Leon County alone, 839 people were arrested and jailed in the year ending last September over court debts or failure to appear at collections court, according to a study by the Brennan Center. Other Florida counties have less stringent policies.
Around Leon County, there are some 5,400 outstanding “blue writs” — the civil equivalent of an arrest warrant for failing to appear and pay fees. Some people come in and pay when they receive their summons; others spend a night or more in jail, often having been arrested when the writ pops up during incidents like routine traffic stops.
In part, the numbers are high because it can be expensive to be arrested. Fines and fees for a first offense on third-degree felonies like credit card fraud or possession of cocaine are around $500, said Nancy Daniels, a Florida public defender who works in Tallahassee: $340 in court costs, a $100 prosecution fee and $50 for the public defender application fee. If the defendant cannot pay up front, starting a payment plan costs $25.
Constitutional law forbids jailing people solely over fees and fines that they cannot pay, but Florida officials argue that, technically, they are jailing people because they violated court orders, not because they failed to pay fines. Charles A. Francis, the chief judge of the state’s Second Judicial Circuit, said most judges found collections court “the most unpleasant part of the job.” The judges try not to jail people over fees, he insisted, but added, “Do you allow the orders of your court to go ignored?”
Few people are truly unable to afford monthly payments, he argued.
Shannon Russell, the supervisor of the Leon County collections department, said: “People come in and say, ‘I can’t pay this.’ My answer is, ‘you shouldn’t have gotten arrested.’ ”
Estimates for the amount collected by the county vary; the Brennan study said the program took in $18,365 from those arrested for the 12 months studied, after costs, while the county court system said the overall program brought in $768,000 last year, an amount boosted by the threat of a court process.
When Ms. Gainous appeared at a recent collections court hearing, Judge Nina Ashenafi Richardson spoke compassionately, but nonetheless pressed each of the dozens of people in the courtroom to pay what they could or face arrest.
Ms. Gainous, 39, a single mother of four, said she had been sick and could not even make a $40 down payment on her $240 in fees.
Suddenly, there was a startling moment of grace: Another woman waiting in the courtroom, Latasha Penny, volunteered to pay the $40 for her. Ms. Gainous hugged her and sobbed.
When Ms. Penny’s case came up, Judge Richardson reduced her monthly payment on $345 in fines to $30, from $45. “You did a very nice thing earlier,” Judge Richardson said with a smile.
Days later, Ms. Gainous was still incredulous, and said that she would pay the $10 a month. “It’s still hard,” she said. “But I’m going to try to get that in, to keep from going to jail for being poor.”
State agrees to allot cash for judgeship - Relief on way for Madison County's busy Circuit Court
By BOB LOWRY, Huntsville Times
April 01, 2009
MONTGOMERY - Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb has agreed to set aside money for a new Madison County circuit judge in the Alabama Judicial System's budget for 2011, Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, said Tuesday.
"We have gotten a response from Judge Cobb that it will be included in their budget," she said.
If the Alabama Legislature passes a bill this session to create the judgeship, the County Commission has already agreed to fund it for the fiscal 2010.
A bill that would create the judgeship was expected to be considered Tuesday by the Senate, but the upper chamber got bogged down in a filibuster and adjourned before considering any local bills.
The Senate will meet again today.
Because Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, sponsor of the bill in the Senate, is chairman of the committee that controls the flow of bills to the Senate floor, he will have the opportunity to bring the bill up again today.
Sponsored in the House by Hall, an identical bill is still sitting in the House General Appropriations Committee.
With Cobb's commitment, Hall said Tuesday she expects the bill to be reported from the committee quickly.
The County Commission has agreed to pay the first-year expenses of the judgeship, estimated by the state Administrative Office of Courts at nearly $425,000.
The Madison County Circuit Court's average caseload per judge in 2007 was 2,530, which was No. 1 in the state.
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State Bar Sets Thomas’ Hearing
Jessica Taloney, WKRG-TV (Mobile)
April 02, 2009
The Alabama State Bar's Disciplinary Commission has scheduled a hearing to review its decision suspending Herman Thomas' law license.
The commission issued a temporary restraining order against the former Judge on Monday, three days after Thomas was arrested on allegations that he sexually assaulted inmates from Mobile Metro Jail.
Thomas' attorney, "Cowboy" Bob Clark, filed a petition requesting the dissolution of the order saying "there are no times, dates or places alleged in the notice of suspension that would put Petitioner on notice of what the charges are that he is called to defend."
Thomas, who was indicted last week by a Mobile County grand jury, faces 57 counts of kidnapping, sodomy, sexual abuse, extortion and ethics violations.
According to the State Bar's two page order, evidence submitted to the organization "establishes probable cause to believe that Herman Young Thomas has engaged in improper sexual conduct with criminal defendants in violations of the law and the Alabama Rules of Professional Conduct." But, Clark insists the affiant cited in the order does not have first hand knowledge of any of the incidents. "The only knowledge the affiant has is hearsay from convicted felons," Clark wrote in the petition.
Thomas resigned from the bench in October 2007 when the allegations first surfaced. He was booked Friday in Mobile Metro jail, but quickly posted bond. His first court appearance has not been scheduled, according to the court clerk.
The Disciplinary Commission's hearing is scheduled for April 9th at 10 am.
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It's still a judicial pig – [Editorial]
March 29, 2009
TO BORROW a phrase used by President Obama, Alabama Democrats are trying to "put lipstick on a pig" with their proposals to reform judicial elections.
Sue Bell Cobb, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, and many Democratic legislators want to make judicial elections nonpartisan. Their crusade ran into a wall last week when a House committee defeated a bill calling for nonpartisan elections and a related proposal to limit campaign contributions to judicial candidates.
From the viewpoint of Democrats, a change to nonpartisan elections makes sense: Chief Justice Cobb is the only Democrat on the state's appellate bench. But if the goal is to clean up judicial elections, nonpartisan races won't help.
The nastiest judicial race in the country last year was held in Wisconsin. Two sitting judges slugged it out for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, with the challenger accusing the incumbent of siding with criminals and the incumbent claiming his opponent benefited from corrupt political alliances.
This ugly brawl took place in a nonpartisan election.
Democrats are right that expensive judicial races dominated by mean-spirited television advertising demean the courts. But nonpartisan elections won't stop warring interest groups from shedding political blood — and undermining the independence of judges — in a struggle to control the appellate courts.
The best solution is the Missouri Plan. Under the Missouri Plan, the governor picks judges from a list compiled by a blue-ribbon committee. The appointed judges then must periodically face voters in retention elections.
Both parties should favor gubernatorial appointment and voter retention of judges. What do they have to lose except the expense and ferocity of regular judicial elections?
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Courthouse gets new name
The Montgomery Advertiser
March 27, 2009
The Montgomery County Courthouse will soon bear a new name that honors two local judges.
The county commission has approved the courthouse being renamed the Montgomery County Courthouse, Phelps-Price Justice Center. It will honor the late Joseph Phelps and the current presiding judge, Charles Price.
An official dedication ceremony will be held at a later date, but the name was officially acknowledged this week because outgoing County Commission Chairman Todd Strange said it was something he felt strongly about.
Phelps, a judge for 18 years, is credited with having been instrumental in reforming Alabama’s justice system. The Alabama State Bar recognized him for his work in 1990 when it gave him its Judicial Award of Merit.
The county wanted to honor Price for creating numerous creative programs that are “designed to improve the administration of justice,” according to a resolution passed Monday. Those programs include drug court, mental health court and a progressive restorative justice program.
Price has been given the Raymond Pace Alexander Award for Lifetime Contributions to Judicial Advocacy, the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award and the Dr. Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award.
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With the Downturn, It’s Time to Rethink the Legal Profession – [Op-ed]
By ADAM COHEN, The New York Times
April 1, 2009
The economic downturn is hitting the legal world hard. American Lawyer is calling it “the fire this time” and warning that big firms may be hurtling toward “a paradigm-shifting, blood-in-the-suites” future. The Law Shucks blog has a “layoff tracker,” and it is grim reading. Top firms are rapidly thinning their ranks, and several — including Heller Ehrman, a venerable 500-plus-lawyer firm founded in 1890 — have closed.
The employment pains of the legal elite may not elicit a lot of sympathy in the broader context of the recession, but a lot of hard-working lawyers have been blindsided, including young associates who are suddenly finding themselves with six-figure student-loan debts and no source of income.
Leading firms have historically avoided mass layoffs, concerned that their reputations would take a hit. But some have been putting those inhibitions aside, perhaps calculating that the stigma of pushing out their colleagues has faded. Law firm managers and bar associations should be looking for more creative ways to deal with the hard times — like reducing pay for both partners and associates to save jobs, as a few firms have begun doing.
The silver lining, if there is one, is that the legal world may be inspired to draw blueprints for the 21st century.
The changes are likely to begin with compensation. Years ago, law firm starting salaries were not that different from government or public-interest jobs. But the gap has become a chasm. First-year salaries at top firms are around $160,000, compared with $48,000 to start for state and local prosecutors and $40,000 for legal-services lawyers. New associates often earn more than the judges they appear before.
The downturn will probably rein in salaries at the high end. Top firms are already under pressure to lower the $160,000 starting salary; one industry-watcher says it could fall as low as $100,000. And fewer firms will feel the need to pay the top salary.
Lower pay should mean that associates will not need to work the grueling hours many have been forced to. And it will mean less pressure to go into private practice for law graduates who would rather do something else.
Clients are also likely to benefit — and consumers, since legal fees are built into the cost of almost everything. Even before the downturn, big-firm clients, led by the Association of Corporate Counsel, were pushing to phase out the billable hour — which can go as high as $1,000. Tight corporate budgets will give clients more leverage to push to pay by the project or for successful outcomes.
For years, law school tuition rose along with big-firm salaries. Between 1990 and 2003, the cost of private law schools rose at nearly three times the rate of consumer prices. The average graduate now leaves with more than $80,000 in debt. In one survey, 66 percent of students said debt prevented them from considering government or public-interest jobs.
If the downturn is prolonged, law schools will need to keep tuition and other costs in check so students do not graduate with unmanageable debt. More schools may follow the lead of Northwestern, the first top-tier law school to offer a two-year program.
Law schools may also become more serious about curriculum reform. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released an influential report that, among other things, urged law schools to make better use of the sometimes-aimless second and third years. If law jobs are scarce, there will be more pressure on schools to make the changes Carnegie suggested, including more focus on practical skills.
They may also need to pay more attention to preparing students for nonlegal careers. Law graduates have always ended up in business, government, journalism and other fields. Law schools could do more to build these subjects into their coursework.
The past few decades of prosperity made a lot of lawyers wealthy, but they were not always good for the profession. Law school deans, bar association leaders and firm managers should follow Rahm Emanuel’s advice about never allowing a crisis to go to waste and start planning for what comes next.