Lawyers to hold oil spill workshop in Gulf Shores
Guy Busby, Mobile Press-Register
August 24, 2010
GULF SHORES, Alabama -- The oil spill in the Gulf has put many coastal residents in unfamiliar legal waters and one group of local lawyers is offering to work with business owners and others on some of those issues.
A group of 15 Gulf Shores and Orange Beach lawyers will meet with residents Saturday to offer free legal advice on problems created by the spill and the economic slowdown on the Gulf Coast since then, Craig Olmstead, one of the organizers, said. The lawyers decided to hold the meeting after finding that many of their clients and neighbors were facing unfamiliar issues, such as mortgage negotiations, possible foreclosures and collection agencies, he said.
"A number of people have come to us that are out of money," Olmstead said. "They’ve essentially used all of their savings and now they can’t pay the mortgage any more."
The meeting is from 9 a.m. to noon at the Gulf Shores Adult Activity Center.
Olmstead said most local residents and business owners also may not have had experience trying to renegotiate loans.
Many banks will not discuss mortgage modifications until a loan is at least three payments late, Olmstead said. By that time, the loan is already in default.
"It can be incredibly difficult to talk with most national banks because they have a structure in place that’s hard to penetrate," Olmstead said. "Many of these banks don’t know where Alabama is and have barely heard of the oil spill."
At the meeting, lawyers will meet one-on-one with residents and business owners. Olmstead, a partner in a firm specializing in real estate and business issues, said all discussions are confidential.
The lawyers will identify possible options or solutions for legal problems, including available legal remedies and government assistance, and, if necessary, make referrals to other attorneys or organizations for assistance, according to Olmstead.
Anyone wanting more information can call 251-943-4002.
Lawyers scheduled to take part in the meeting include Olmstead, Tim Garner, David Chapman, Andrew Harrell, Bobby Hornsby, Pete DeSarro, Burt Taylor, Pete Bridges, Jule Herbert, Blake Lowe, Richard Johnson, D.W. Wilson, Joshua Kesling, David Whetstone and Andrew Monaghan.
Lawyers Offer Legal Clinic In South Baldwin County
By Chad Petri, WKRG-TV (Mobile)
August 28, 2010
GULF SHORES, Alabama - A group of attorneys from Orange Beach and Gulf Shores took time out on their Saturday to help people with a myriad of questions stemming from oil spill fallout.
“What we basically wanted to have people do is come in today tell us what they're looking for or what their needs are and we can direct them in the right direction,” says Gulf Shores Attorney Andrew Monaghan. Another big question is whether or not people should sue for damages or just wait on payouts from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility. Claims Czar Kenneth Feinberg has encouraged people to go through with the claims process rather than seeking legal action and, for now, the advice here is the same.
“A lot of people are taking a wait and see approach, we'll wait and see if they pay us at this point you're not running into any time issues in terms of timely filing a lawsuit,” says Monaghan. He says personal injury suits have a two year statute of limitations. He says people may want to seek legal action if claim payments aren't enough. Attorneys here say getting your accountant involved is also very important. There is legal help available for people who may not be able to afford it. The state bar's Volunteer Lawyers Program and Legal Services of Alabama both provide some pro bono help.
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More Than 24 Hours A Day (a disciplinary decision from the web page of the Ohio Supreme Court)
[Submitted by ASB Commissioner Tom Ryan]
The license of [a] Toledo attorney...has been suspended for two years, with the second year of that term stayed on conditions, for repeatedly overbilling the Lucas County juvenile and common pleas courts for her services as court-appointed counsel representing low-income clients.
In a decision announced today, the Supreme Court of Ohio adopted findings by the Board of Commissioners on Grievances & Discipline that [she] engaged in a pattern of professional misconduct by submitting bills to the courts claiming to have worked for more than 24 hours on the same date on three occasions, and billing for more than 20 hours on five other dates during 2006. In all, [she] invoiced the county for a total of 3,451 billable hours for work allegedly performed during that calendar year, a number that would require her to have worked almost 10 hours per day on all 365 days of the year. [The attorney] acknowledged that she had not worked that many hours, and that a number of invoices she submitted to the court did not accurately reflect her actual hours of work on the dates in question.
The Court agreed with the board’s conclusions that by knowingly billing for more hours than she had actually worked, [the attorney] violated the state disciplinary rules that prohibit charging an excessive fee; engaging in conduct involving fraud, deceit, dishonesty or misrepresentation; engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice; and engaging in conduct that adversely reflects on the attorney’s fitness to practice law.
The court’s 6-0 per curiam opinion was joined by Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Maureen O’Connor, Terrence O’Donnell, and Robert R. Cupp, and by Judge Sheila G. Farmer of the 5th District Court of Appeals, who sat in place of Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger. Chief Justice Eric Brown did not participate in the court’s deliberations or decision in the case.
On their own time, state judges are experimenting with social media such as Facebook, according to a new survey. But judges doubt that that they could use the new media tools in their professional lives without violating judicial ethics codes.
Those are the findings of a survey conducted by the Conference of Court Public Information Officers conducted in June and released Aug. 26 following a recent meeting of the group, which represents spokespersons for state and federal courts.
"Judges appear to be adopting and accepting new media at about the same rate as the general population," said Christopher Davey, director of public information for the Supreme Court of Ohio, and co-author of a conference report on new media and the courts. "But they are being very cautious, very mindful of the canons."
Forty percent of the judges who responded to the survey said they use social media sites. Most of those use Facebook and most are judges who stand for election. Fewer than 9% of non-elected judge use social media sites, the survey indicated.
Some elected judges have used the sites to interact with voters, said Davey, but most use them the same way other adults do, namely "to connect with their grandkids."
Still, close to half of the judges responding disagreed with the notion that they could use social media sites in their professional lives without violating ethics rules. Several state judicial ethics bodies have adopted rules prohibiting judges from "friending" on Facebook the lawyers who appear before them.
Almost all who responded agreed that judges and court personnel need to familiarize themselves with new media. But a very small percentage of courts — fewer than 7% — use the social media sites for official purposes, such as alerting the public or the press to newly issued rulings.
The Tennessee court system has been on Twitter for more than a year with nearly 900 followers, according to spokeswoman Laura Click. "It's a great way to communicate with the public," she said, "It's generated a great deal of interest." She said the Tennessee Supreme Court was quick to embrace the idea when she proposed it, and a YouTube channel is in the works.
Judges are also expressing concern about the use by jurors and other trial participants of Twitter and other sites, which may mar the public perception of fairness.
Earlier this month, according to an Associated Press report, a juror in Michigan was dismissed — and may face contempt charges — for proclaiming the defendant's guilt on her Facebook page, before the defense phase of the trial had begun.
The report notes that the Judicial Conference has adopted suggested jury instructions to be used in federal courts admonishing jurors not to communicate with anyone about the case they are considering through phones, blogging, texting, or other devices.
Davey said the report is "the beginning of a process" to help courts come to terms with new media and new ways of reaching the public. "Over the last 20 years or so, there has been a cultural shift, and there is more support for that view that building trust and confidence in the courts involves some engagement with the public and the media."
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Center for Individual Freedom had challenged Illinois law requiring disclosure of campaign contributions
Ameet Sachdev, The Chicago Tribune
August 31, 2010
A Virginia advocacy group that has been active in judicial elections in other states has declared its interest in Illinois' coming elections. But it has decided to remain silent in Illinois for now.
The Center for Individual Freedom, a nonprofit group, stated its intentions to enter Illinois politics in a grandiose way — by filing a lawsuit.
The group challenged the state's election laws requiring public disclosure of campaign contributions and expenses. The center sought an injunction to stop the state from enforcing its reporting provisions.
But a federal judge in Chicago Thursday shot down the group's attempt to keep its donors private.
Thomas Kirby, a lawyer for the Center for Individual Freedom, indicated that the legal battle may not be over. "My client is considering its options," he said.
The center became an influential force in judicial politics in 2007 and 2008 when it poured big money into Supreme Court campaigns in Pennsylvania and Alabama.
In Alabama, the group spent an estimated $965,529 on television ads, according to a recent study of spending on state Supreme Court elections. While the center describes itself as nonpartisan, it ran ads in Alabama that praised Republican candidate Greg Shaw and criticized his opponent, Democrat Deborah Bell Paseur. Shaw narrowly won.
In 2008, the center successfully challenged West Virginia's campaign disclosure laws and spent money on an attorney general's race in West Virginia.
Special-interest money spending has surged in judicial campaigns in the last decade. Outside groups have been transparent for the most part, but the center's donor anonymity rankles some.
"People can express whatever views they have, but it's important for voters to know where those views are coming from and who's paying for them," said Cynthia Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing the organization's request for an injunction.
Kirby said, "Our donors believe the government cannot and should not impose on privacy as a price for exercising their First Amendment rights."
In the Illinois suit, the center said it "wishes to speak about judicial matters, legal reform and other justice-related public policy issues" in Illinois in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 2 election.
Its ambitions sound vague, and Kirby declined to expand on them.
Political observers in Illinois suspect the group is interested in the retention race involving Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride. The judge, a Democrat who represents the 3rd Judicial District, already is the target of conservative activists who have attacked his vote overturning monetary caps in medical malpractice damage awards. Kilbride must receive 60 percent of the vote in his district to receive a second 10-year term on the court.
The center said Illinois' disclosure rules were discriminatory because it excluded labor unions from the same reporting requirements as other nonprofits. The center also argued that the type of speech subject to disclosure is unconstitutionally vague.
U.S. District Judge William Hart said the labor union exception does not matter because the Center for Individual Freedom still would be subject to reporting rules as a political committee.
Hart also wrote that "the Illinois Election Code defines with sufficient clarity the type of expenditures and the related speech that subjects an entity to the registration requirement."
The Illinois attorney general's office said in a statement: "We are pleased the court agreed with our arguments that the campaign registration, disclosure and reporting requirements of the Election Code are constitutional and should continue."
An appointed judiciary also comes with a cost – [Op-ed]
By Ala. Supreme Court Justice Tom Parker, The Huntsville Times
August 22, 2010
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. _ This week the Brennan Center issued a report highlighting the costs of judicial races in Alabama.
That is a subject with which our editorial boards in Alabama have seemed infatuated for a number of years - especially since Republicans took over the Alabama Supreme Court. And there is no end, it seems, to their call for the end of elected judges.
But the underlying assumption of these articles and editorials is that special interest influence is somehow muted through an appointment process, where a very small number of elitist insiders get to decide who sits on what has sadly become the most powerful branch of government in our nation - the judiciary.
And what confuses me even more is why these mostly liberal newspapers neglect the incalculable costs associated with the recent actions of appointed of judges.
Today, judges have sweeping powers - not powers they have been granted by acts of law, but power they have ascribed to themselves by themselves. Recently, a single federal judge with a lifetime appointment to the bench in California overturned a constitutional amendment banning so-called "gay marriage."
Over in Iowa, the appointed state Supreme Court recently legalized gay marriage. Seven unelected people decided to fundamentally redefine the family in that state.
In several other states, judges have raised taxes through their court orders. Judges have even destroyed the sacred right to own property, by ruling that private property can be seized by corporations, if their use for the property is arbitrarily deemed to be more important than the owner's use.
Whether it's stripping away the rights of the unborn child or the elderly and infirm; destroying marriage and the rights of parents; or whether it's usurping the legislature's authority to raise taxes; or a private individual's right to own their piece of the American dream - all of these abuses have one thing in common: nearly all are caused by appointed judges.
Very rarely will you find an elected judge with the gall to implement sweeping social changes that go beyond his/her jurisdiction as a judge.
Why? Because elected judges know they must periodically go before their own judge to answer for their actions: We the People.
I would submit that the financial cost of Alabama's judicial elections pale in comparison to the enormous cost in money and lost liberty borne by the victims of the largely unaccountable, unelected judiciary throughout the rest of the country.
I personally prefer a system where voluntary contributions are made on the "front end" during a judicial campaign, versus the perpetual costs imposed on all of us and our sacred institutions through unelected and unaccountable judges.
I am an elected judge. I serve at the pleasure of the voters of Alabama.
I believe their rights come from God (not judges or legislators) and are protected by law.
My job, as a judge, is to fairly administer this law according to the intent of its authors and to provide justice (and thereby, protection) to the fundamental rights of my constituents.
It is judges who do not hold this position who are costing our people so much- not the other way around.
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Guest column: What Justice Parker didn't tell you
By MARCIA L. MCCORMICK, The Des Moines Register (Iowa)
August 21, 2010
Alabama Justice Tom Parker's Aug. 18 guest column raises some interesting points about
judges and accountability. He paints a rather rosy and misleading picture of Alabama judicial politics, however, and completely mischaracterizes the judicial role.
Judges with general jurisdiction have always had the power and the responsibility to make law in some areas. And they have always been required to move the law in some direction when the language of that law is general or unclear.
Even more important, in our constitutional system judges have a duty to protect political minorities from the changing whims or animus of the majority. That check, in fact, is one of the most fundamental principles of our democracy, one Justice Parker conveniently ignores. Of course, he declared in an opinion a few years ago that the state did not have
to follow the U.S. Supreme Court on issues of federal constitutional law. He needs a refresher on our system.
Built into that system, including Iowa's, are direct checks on judges. In Iowa, for example, the people have the opportunity to vote "yes" or "no" to retain Supreme Court justices every eight years. And so I would say that Iowans already have a perfectly
adequate manner of keeping judges accountable.
Alternatively, the people can exercise a different check by electing legislators who will change the law or engage in the process to amend the constitution, depending on what has been interpreted. But in this, Iowa might not aspire to be Alabama, which built racial restrictions into its constitution in 1901 and has since amended it 799 times at last count.
The method of judicial accountability in Alabama also is not something to aspire to. There, judges gain their seats in partisan elections and must defend their seats in partisan elections.
The Brennan Center for Justice, the National Institute for Money in State Politics and Hofstra Law School recently studied one of the effects of this system and found that in the decade between 2000 and 2009, Supreme Court candidates there spent $41 million
on their campaigns, more than twice the amount spent by candidates in the next highest spending state.
And the biggest donors are a big business political action committee on one side, and a political action committee representing plaintiffs' lawyers on the other side. During that period, Supreme Court decisions changed the law significantly, insulating businesses from lawsuits to compensate people they injured.
The campaign financing explosion has only gotten worse. The numbers continue to grow at a ridiculous rate. I lived in Alabama during the last election cycle, and I got to see firsthand what the $1.9 million in ads one candidate spent versus the $1.7 million in ads the other candidate spent accomplished.
Very little of either candidate's ads told me much about the candidates except that they both enjoyed praying and hunting. And while we do know where some of the money has come from for these candidates, campaign finance laws allow an awful lot to remain hidden.
Having lived in a number of different states with different variations of judicial selection, including Iowa, and having studied those systems and practiced constitutional law, I can say with much confidence that judicial elections do not make the judges you end up with better or the process more transparent.
They just put more money in the pockets of the spinmeisters, and create more situations where judges can be pressured to serve big money interests at the expense of everyone else.
Marcia L. McCormick, an associate professor at St. Louis University School of Law, grew up in Iowa. She is also a former constituent of Alabama Supreme Court Associate Justice Tom Parker, whose essay on why judges should be elected prompted this response.
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Courts, cash and democracy
Mike Hollis, The Huntsville Times
August 19, 2010
Something is badly out of kilter when Alabama makes it to the top of a list of spending on judicial campaigns yet remains not far from the bottom economically.
How in the world can candidates for the Supreme Court in Alabama spend more than candidates in any other state from 2000 to 2009? And twice as much as candidates in Pennsylvania, the No. 2 state?
Unfortunately, that's the case, according to a new report by authors from the judicial campaign watchdogs Justice at Stake, The Brennan Center for Justice, the National Institute for Money in State Politics and Hofstra Law School.
In a story Monday, Eric Velasco of The Birmingham News reported that Alabama had three of the top 10"super spenders" in appellate court campaigns nationally. Ranking second nationally among the big spenders was the Alabama Democratic Party, which contributed $5.9 million over the decade.
On the Republican side, Progress PAC, the political action committee of the Business Council of Alabama, spent $4.6 million on state high court races over the decade. It ranked third among the big spenders. Coming in at seventh was the Alabama Civil Justice Reform Committee PAC, which spent $2.7 million.
One campaign illustrates part of the issue.
In 2006, then-Chief Justice Drayton Nabers received nearly half of his campaign money from just three PACs, including Progress PAC. He was defeated by Sue Bell Cobb, who received nearly one out of three campaign dollars from just two PACs, one of them run by the state Democratic Party.
Should a Supreme Court justice or chief justice step aside in a case involving a contributor? Polls show most people think so. And the report says 76 percent of Americans believe campaign contributions have at least some effect on a judge's courtroom decisions.
But Alabama's campaign finance law allows contributors to conceal their identities. So a judge might have no concern about having received campaign money from a plaintiff or a defendant, and no one would know the difference.
Supreme Court candidate Deborah Bell Paseur got 62 percent of her donations from the state Democratic Party in 2008. A closer look showed that more than one-third of that, $606,000, came from the plaintiff trial lawyer firm Beasley Allen Crow Methvin Portis and Miles. The firm and its lawyers funneled money through 30 PACs en route to the state Democratic Party and Paseur, the report said, but the law firm's name never appeared on her campaign records.
Some people may think spending on these races isn't an issue, but others with lots of money apparently believe they will be better off if they open their wallets. That must be why Alabama's three "super spenders" poured more than $13 million into Supreme Court races in a decade. Yet that wasn't quite a third of the $40.9 million court candidates raised during those years. And more than half of that, $22 million, came from just 20 groups.
Alabama was one of 22 states that had competitive elections for supreme court seats over the decade. Other states use different methods, including nonpartisan races and appointments. Three states have turned to public financing. Realistically, Alabama has barely enough money to run state government, and voters are unlikely to agree to give up having a say in the selection of judges.
Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra O'Connor is promoting a system used in her home state. In Arizona, she says, a bipartisan committee recommends a pool of qualified candidates to the governor, who appoints judges. Voters can hold judges accountable in retention elections.
The beliefs that our courts are fair and impartial, and that everyone is equal before the law, are critical to our faith in democracy.
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Young Lawyers Turn to Public Service
By LISA FAYE PETAK, The New York Times
August 19, 2010
WASHINGTON — In August 2008, Nathan Richardson committed to following in the footsteps of so many young lawyers before him: a summer position with a big law firm, followed by a job offer before he ever cracked open a third-year textbook. And then everything changed.
With offers of employment made in August 2008 and the full force of the recession hitting in October, many big law firms — like Latham & Watkins, where Mr. Richardson was a summer associate — had to re-evaluate the job offers made to members of the class of 2009. As a way to keep their costs down while holding on to promising associates, many offered the graduates the chance to take up to a year off before starting as associates, complete with a stipend of $60,000 to $75,000. They could travel, do research, or choose — as many did — to work in the public sector.
With the deferral year ending, some of these newly minted lawyers are surprised to find themselves reconsidering their career goals and thinking about staying with public interest law. When Latham & Watkins asked Mr. Richardson to defer his start date until at least October 2010, he took his interest in environmental issues to Resources for the Future, a nonprofit policy group based in Washington, where he did legal research on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and climate change.
Now, despite heavy student-loan debt and a family to support, he has decided to say no to Latham and stay with public interest law, even though it pays far less.
“This is an amazing work environment,” said Mr. Richardson, who graduated from the University of Chicago Law School. “I’m working with a lot of really smart people and getting published. I’m not sure if there’s anywhere else I could do this, at least at this point in my career.”
Mr. Richardson claims that everyone he knows has at least considered staying in public interest — and law school faculty members confirm that they are seeing a growing interest in that field.
Other deferred associates like Avi Singh see public interest law as a “sustaining motivation” that keeps him coming to work every day. Mr. Singh is a 2009 Harvard Law School graduate who decided to stay on with the Santa Clara County public defender’s office in San Jose, Calif., instead of returning to the firm Quinn Emmanuel after a four-month deferral. “Here, I’m helping clients on a very basic level,” he said.
“What’s interesting about the deferral process is that, even though I thought it wasn’t right, it got me to pursue what I wanted to do in the first place,” Mr. Singh said.
Educators say more students are holding on to their attraction to public interest law throughout law school.
“For the first time, there is now a public interest lawyer in the Oval Office,” said Diane T. Chin, the director of the John and Terry Levin Center for Public Service and Public Interest Law at Stanford Law School, as one explanation for why more young lawyers are considering service careers.
In 2009, 25 students entering their third year at Stanford Law indicated a commitment to public service. In 2010, that number was 36, according to Ms. Chin. The average class size is 180.
Alexa Shabecoff, the assistant dean for public service at Harvard Law School, said: “There is an uptick in global interest in public service that has trickled down to the high school level, and students go on to college and law school with a public service ethos.”
For some, an interest in public service is why they go to law school, but a load of debt and a traditional pipeline move them toward the private sector.
David Stern, executive director of Equal Justice Works, an organization devoted to getting new legal talent in the nonprofit and public sectors, notes that the pay gap between public interest and private firm work is steep. “The gap is multiples of the public interest salary, with a public interest attorney starting at, on average, $35,000 to $39,000 a year,” he said. “In a big law firm, these attorneys are starting at $140,000 to $150,000.”
Someone who took a stipend from a law firm and then opted for public service law could also find themselves negotiating a payback plan for the stipend; policies differ from firm to firm on whether or how much of a stipend must be repaid.
Jennifer Romig, another 2009 University of Chicago graduate, decided to return to the Washington office of Ropes & Gray after her deferral year, but said her experience at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services in New Orleans would color the rest of her career.
“Like most law students, I had intentions of doing pro bono work,” Ms. Romig said. “Now, after having spent an entire year seeing what a difference you can make, the theoretical has become real. And I cannot imagine forgetting that.”
Some in the legal community perceive a sense of competition among recent graduates who were once on different career paths. “I think it is hard for those wholly committed to public interest to see their deferred friends getting jobs at great public interest organizations while they struggle to land their dream jobs,” said Ms. Shabecoff, the assistant dean at Harvard.
But it could be that nonprofits would have few, if any jobs, for entry-level lawyers because of the economic climate, and deferred associates are picking up the work for public interest groups that would otherwise be slashing services because of budget cuts.
Tiela Chalmers, the executive director of the Volunteer Legal Services Program of the San Francisco Bar Association, said the seven deferred associates who worked there for a year were invaluable in providing legal services for the indigent. After three full-time employees left in 2009, Ms. Chalmers was prepared to freeze hiring and make do with a depleted staff. Then she heard about this wave of graduates being offered stipends from law firms to work in the public interest sector, often with salaries higher than those of an entry-level legal aid attorney.
Her group, like other nonprofits, was able to offer training and substantive work without the burden of paying a salary.
“It’s a win-win, even if public interest firms have to take on the training,” Ms. Chalmers said. “Given the realities of the economic climate, a year is a long time to have these very bright folks. We get eight or nine months of really strong work out of them” before they return to their firms. Without the deferral program, she believes her group would have handled only half of the landlord-tenant disputes and domestic violence cases from the past year.
For Mr. Stern and Equal Justice Works, the short-term benefit is evident: “In the relay race for justice you always need fresh legs, because it’s really hard work.”
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Grads taking law schools to task for poor job market
By Mary Beth Marklein, USA TODAY
August 25, 2010
Law schools, once viewed as a guaranteed path to a high-paying career, are coming under fire as disillusioned graduates find a tighter job market than they say they were led to expect.
A small but growing coalition of graduates, on blogs with names like "Scammed Hard" and "Shilling Me Softly," blame their alma maters for luring them into expensive programs by overstating their employment prospects.
In July, Law School Transparency, a non-profit founded by two Vanderbilt law students, requested that 200 schools submit salary and employment data for 2010 grads, which they aim to post online.
One recent grad even went on a hunger strike on Aug. 5. "We have a new crop starting, and no one's telling them anything about this," says Zenovia Evans, 28, of Denver, who uses the name "Ethan Haines" on her blog, UnemployedJD.com.
The first in her family to finish college, she says that "no one wants to say, 'Hey, career office, you failed me,' " but "I couldn't take this lying down." She says she owes more than $150,000 in loans.
The American Bar Association, which accredits law schools, acknowledges such concerns. A report in November, noting the average student borrowed $59,324 for a public law school and $91,506 for a private one in 2007-08, cautioned prospective
students to "have a clear picture of the debt they will incur and the expected earning power."
Among 2009 graduates, 88% are employed, down from 92% in 2007; they were more likely than in previous years to hold part-time or temp jobs or those not requiring a law degree, says the non-profit National Association for Law Placement. Summer job openings for second-year students, often the first step to getting hired full time, "shrank
dramatically" this year, it says.
Meanwhile, the number of law school applicants for this fall rose 2.2% to more than 87,000.
Ohio University economist Richard Vedder says the question goes beyond law. "We are entering the age of the overeducated American, the person with college degrees who cuts hair, trims trees, drives trucks," he says.
Kelsey May, a 2010 University of Tulsa law school grad and co-author of What the L? 25 Things We Wish We'd Known Before Going to Law School, agrees law school can be tricky to navigate but says the anger is "misplaced. ... There should be some level of (personal) responsibility."
Accredited schools typically collect and post information about recent graduates using ABA surveys. But data can be incomplete — and misleading. Even with widely reported hiring cutbacks, "we had some schools reporting 100% employment," probably because unemployed grads didn't respond, says Donald Polden, Santa Clara University law school dean. He chairs an ABA committee on legal education and admissions that is now looking at how to report data "in a more robust way."
Georgetown Law student Roger Gordon, who says he has racked up $175,000 in loan debt, wants more than that. In June, he petitioned the Supreme Court to decide whether people who take the bar exam even need three years of law school. "If you count on law schools to do the right thing, you're going to be waiting a long time," he says.
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Citizens can see Alabama court records online
August 20, 2010
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama's court system is allowing greater access to court records through the Internet in hopes of making better use of its limited resources during strained economic times.
The Administrative Office of Courts has started a program called "Just One Look" that is intended to give people a more convenient way to view and download the documents on a pay-per-view basis.
"A lot of the people just need 'one look.' They don't need a lot of information. They just need a cursory view of it," said Callie Dietz, director of AOC.
But it isn't free. Users have a few options available to them, but a one-time viewing is $9.95 and it costs $19.95 and $29.95 to follow district and circuit court cases, respectively, through the life of the case.
The site is located at www.alacourt.gov. The "Just One Look" link is located on the left-hand side of the screen.
Users can access records involving criminal, civil, small claims, state traffic and domestic relations/child support cases, and searches can be done by name or case number.
The program has been available for about a year, but court officials believe that few people are aware of it. As of Wednesday, 76 cases had been monitored to their conclusion and more than 4,500 cases had been viewed in the past year, according to Fred Lilly, director of court services and IT. There are 1,645 users.
That's without any effort to publicize the service.
"I think the potential is limitless," Dietz said.
Today, there are thousands of people who request court files at clerk offices all over the state each day, with millions of pages accessed each day on the court's server. That demand is being placed on court staffs that have been shrinking over the years due to diminished funding.
While it costs $5 for the first 20 pages and then 5 cents for each additional page for both hard copies and election downloads, the online option can be used 24 hours a day.
"The primary issue for us is an access to justice issue," Dietz said. "This is a good way for them to get the information in a fair and equitable manner."
But it's also about economics, Dietz added. With limited manpower and limited state funding, the court system had to find ways to be more efficient with its resources.
As of today, there are more than 112 million scanned pages in the court system available for public viewing through the program, according to Lilly. About 1.6 million pages are added each month.
AOC has been in a public-private partnership with On-Line Information Services Inc. for about 10 years, and the two entities collaborated to create a subscription-based website called www.alacourt. gov that is popular among attorneys in Alabama.
Jefferson County Commission unanimously approves occupational tax settlement
Barnett Wright, The Birmingham News
August 17, 2010
The Jefferson County Commission this morning approved a settlement to occupational tax issues that clears the way for taxpayer refunds.
The resolution, brought up under "new business" after receiving unanimous consent, means the county will:
- Receive a total of about $20 million.
- Not challenge the fee requested by the plaintiffs' lawyers.
- Scrap a plan to impose a retroactive tax covering the eight-month period for which the tax is being refunded.
The three lawyers who successfully challenged the tax seek a 35 percent fee from the court-ordered $37.8 million refund pool, though David Rains, the circuit court judge in charge of the case, could approve a lower percentage.
Under the agreement, $7 million of the refund pool would go to the county and the remaining $30.8 million to refunds to taxpayers and to fees for the taxpayers' attorneys.
The settlement was hammered out between a mediator and lawyers for the county and taxpayers.
In 2009, Rains struck down the occupational tax and a business license fee. He ordered refunds of money from those sources that the county had collected during an eight-month period.
Rains ordered the mediation Aug. 6. James Pratt III, president-elect of the Alabama State Bar, offered his services as mediator for free as part of an ongoing initiative by the state bar.
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OUR VIEW: Settlement mercifully brings Jefferson County occupational tax case closer to an end – [Editorial]
August 19, 2010
Once the lawsuit challenging Jefferson County's occupational tax was filed three years ago, there was no way it would end happily for county residents.
The best possible outcome would have been for the county to have won the case and have the county's one-half percent job and business license tax affirmed. That way, county taxpayers would have been out only the cost of its lawyers to defend the tax.
The worst outcome is, well, what we've had the past three years: a judge striking down the tax and ordering refunds; long lines at courthouses as the county furloughed workers and closed satellite offices to deal with the loss of tax money; and lengthy court proceedings running up lawyers' fees.
About the only good that has come out of this case is it forced the Legislature to finally replace the old tax that unfairly exempted professionals, like lawyers, with a slightly lower tax which applies to all workers. But even that is likely short-lived; the law authorizing the new tax calls for a countywide vote in 2012 on whether to keep or phase out the tax.
The unanimous vote Tuesday by the County Commission to settle the case might not be what taxpayers would have liked -- their refund checks will be smaller -- but at least it mercifully promises to stop the bleeding and bring finality to the case.
Under the settlement, mediated by Alabama State Bar President-elect Jim Pratt, Jefferson County will get back a little more than $20 million of the more than $50 million in the fund a judge initially ordered refunded to taxpayers. That leaves about $30 million -- minus fees for the lawyers who sued to get the tax ruled illegal and won -- to be returned to workers.
In exchange, the county agreed to forgo efforts to make up for lost money by retroactively taxing workers, and not to contest the fees to be awarded to the lawyers. Circuit Judge David Rains, who ruled the tax illegal, will decide how much they are paid.
For taxpayers, it means their refund checks, though reduced, won't continue to be delayed indefinitely.
The agreement likely rules out another trip to the state Supreme Court. The case already has been to the high court twice.
Stopping the revolving-door court actions is in the county's and taxpayers' best interest. Millions of dollars in legal fees already have been rung up. More lengthy court battles would add to the total.
For example, the two law firms that have represented the county have been paid more than $2.3 million. But that pales compared to the potential pay-out to the taxpayers' lawyers. They have asked for 35 percent of the refund amount, which would come to more than $10 million.
The hope is Rains won't award such a high percentage. But even something more in line with the usual awards in class-action cases, 20 to 25 percent, would give the lawyers $6 million to $7.5 million.
Of course, the bigger the check for lawyers, the smaller the ones for taxpayers. The average worker can expect less than $50.
Which gets us back to the point at the start of this editorial. From the onset of the lawsuit, the taxpayers were doomed to be the losers.
And, repeating something we have said since even before the lawsuit was filed, this is the Legislature's fault.
Lawmakers foolishly passed a bill in 1999 to repeal the tax to try to force the county to go along with their plan to earmark millions of dollars in occupational taxes for legislative pork projects. And even after signs the repeal would land the county in court, the Legislature did nothing to fix the mess it made until after the court struck down the occupational tax.
If only there were a way to force lawmakers individually to pay all the lawyers. Now that would be a happy ending.
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Campaign reform needed – [Editorial]
August 17, 2010
THE ISSUE Alabama, one of the poorest states in the nation, has the most expensive Supreme Court races.
What do the individuals and corporations who made Alabama the top state in the nation for Supreme Court campaign contributions expect for their money?
Do they expect a fair shake in court? Or a little something extra?
A justice on the state's highest court should be beyond reproach, relying on nothing but the law when reaching a decision. The millions of dollars flowing into the system, however, create both the appearance and the opportunity for corruption and outside influence.
Despite its spot as one of the poorest states, Alabama ranks No. 1 in campaign contributions to Supreme Court candidates. Between 2000 and 2009, candidates raised nearly $41 million, according to The Associated Press.
The distant second in this contest is Ohio, which saw $29.8 million for Supreme Court candidates. Pennsylvania ranked third at $22.7 million. And guess what. Those states have more than twice the population of Alabama.
Alabama is No. 1 in this dubious ranking because its Supreme Court races became cash-filled battles between business groups and plaintiff lawyers who fought over laws that cover damage judgments.
Some critics blame the situation on the fact that Alabama has contested races in which candidates run under political parties. Large jury verdicts caused business groups to get active in Republican races for justice seats. They succeeded in changing the nine-member court from all Democrats to eight Republicans and one Democrat.
Some proponents of change say the state should switch to nonpartisan elections, but, as is evidenced by other states, that doesn't stop individuals and corporations from trying to buy influence. They simply throw their cash at a particular candidate rather than a particular party.
A better solution would be to limit contributions and overhaul a system in Alabama that allows political action committees to transfer and hide the identity of contributors.
If you need a reason to care about this issue, ask yourself this question. How would you feel about your chances if you were an individual in a lawsuit involving a major corporation that makes significant contributions to Supreme Court justices? How would you feel if you represented a major corporation in a lawsuit involving a law firm that makes large contributions to the justices?
Despite what contributors and candidates say, justice will never be blind in Alabama until the campaign contribution system is reformed. And the system will not be reformed until state senators find the motivation, courage and personal ethics to make it happen.
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State leads court election spending – [Editorial]
August 17, 2010
If he were alive today, Will Rogers might say that Alabama has the best justices money can buy. The comedian and biting social commentator used that line to describe Congress, but it could work now just as well for the Alabama Supreme Court.
Over the past decade, there has been more money raised and spent in election campaigns for the Alabama Supreme Court than in similar contests in any of the other 21 states that elect their highest courts, according to a new report on state judicial elections by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan group called Justice at Stake, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The report laments the impact that such large sums of money have on the credibility of the court system.
In a foreword to the report, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor warned that elected judges are widely seen by the public as beholden to campaign benefactors.
"This crisis of confidence in the judiciary is real and growing," O'Connor wrote. "Left unaddressed, the perception that justice is for sale will undermine the rule of law that the courts are supposed to uphold."
While the report makes it clear that this crisis of confidence affects many states, Alabama is where the big spending trend took off and where it continues to fester the greatest.
Total spending on Supreme Court races in Alabama was 46 percent higher than in Ohio, the second-highest spending state.
From 2000-2009, candidates for the Alabama Supreme Court raised $40.96 million to fund their political campaigns. Another $2.6 million was spent by non-candidates on television advertising to influence the races. That compares to a total of $29.8 million spent in Ohio and $22.6 million spent in Pennsylvania. The remaining Top 10 states in state Supreme Court spending were Texas, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Wisconsin, Nevada and West Virginia.
Alabama is one of just eight states in which judicial candidates run under political party labels. These numbers also should prompt renewed discussion over whether the state's system of partisan judicial elections is the best way to operate.
However, while nonpartisan elections might help, the real issue is the impact of all that money -- and the impact of a judicial candidate having to raise it.
We do not mean to imply that every judge is directly influenced by campaign contributions. But it likely affects the judgment of some of them, and at the very least it undermines the public's perception of an independent judiciary. Citizens would do well to ask themselves whether they really want to see candidates for judicial office engaged in this kind of large-scale fund-raising.
Alabama needs Supreme Court justices and other judges with a deep commitment to the law and an unyielding determination to address each case on its legal merits. When court elections require judges and judicial candidates to raise hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, Alabamians are right to be troubled by the implications for what should be an independent judiciary not beholden to
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Judicial campaign spending: a dubious honor? – [Editorial]
August 17, 2010
ALABAMA HAS added another infamous No. 1 ranking. According to a new national report, its partisan races for the state Supreme Court were — by far — the most expensive in the country between 2000 and 2009.
Candidates for the high court raised almost $41 million in Alabama, well ahead of second-ranked Ohio (which has more than twice the population) at $29.8 million.
The reason for the heavy spending is that Alabama’s Supreme Court races have become the major battleground for plaintiff lawyers and business groups. For most voters, it means nastier campaigning in the form of negative TV ads.The problem with the big-money campaigns is that they create the perception that the court’s justice is for sale — though its members may actually be well qualified and impartial.
According to the report, the Democratic Party contributed the most money to candidates over the decade, nearly $5.5 million. Although the state’s lax campaign finances laws hide the details, much of that money came from plaintiff lawyers. The Business Council of Alabama, meanwhile, spent the next largest amount, $4.6 million, while the Alabama Civil Justice Reform Committee spent $2.7 million.
So what’s the remedy?
One recommendation is to hold nonpartisan elections. That plan may not make much of a difference, however, as is seen in a growing number of states where business groups and lawyers still put big money behind the so-called independent candidates.
Another recommendation is to cap campaign spending, but that proposal could easily be condemned by groups who argue that donations are a form of free speech.
The most appealing idea for Alabama is to choose justices using the Missouri Plan. Under this system, the governor selects justices from a short list submitted by a blue-ribbon committee. Then, perhaps after a year or so in office, the justice stands in a "retention election," in which voters can retain or remove him or her.
If the state were to adopt such a merit-based system, it could remove the worst of politics from the court while still preserving public accountability. In the process, Alabama could eliminate the nasty campaigns that have landed it this dubious honor.
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Alabama judges spend far more on elections than other states in 2000-2009
Eric Velasco, The Birmingham News
August 16, 2010
The decade from 2000-2009 was marked by runaway spending and advertising in judicial elections nationally, with Alabama leading the pack, a new report shows.
Supreme Court candidates in Alabama spent $41 million in that decade, more than twice the amount spent by candidates in the No. 2 state, Pennsylvania, the report, The New Politics of Judicial Elections, said.
Alabama's candidates also aired more ads -- 40,167 -- than those in any other state, the report found.
"Alabama's judicial politics are extreme," said the report authors, with the judicial campaign watchdogs Justice at Stake, The Brennan Center for Justice, the National Institute for Money in State Politics and Hofstra Law School.
Polls show voters believe campaign money buys favorable court rulings, the report said.
"This crisis of confidence in the judiciary is real and growing," Sandra Day O'Connor, former U.S. Supreme Court justice, wrote in a forward to the report.
Nationally, ad spending increased nearly seven-fold in the 2000s versus the 1990s, the report said.
The trend is expected to grow after this year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling killing limits on corporate and union spending in elections, the report said.
The last decade has seen the rise of what the report called "Super Spenders," groups that substantially underwrite individual judicial campaigns.
Alabama groups comprised three of the top 10 "Super Spenders" nationally identified in the report.
The Alabama Democratic Party, which poured $5.9 million into judicial races last decade, ranked second, the report said.
Corporate-backed groups that helped fund the Republican takeover of state appellate courts ranked third and seventh nationally.
One was the Business Council of Alabama's political action committee, Progress PAC, which spent $4.6 million on state high court races over the decade. The other, the Alabama Civil Justice Reform Committee PAC, spent $2.7 million, the report said.
Since the 2000 election, several state Supreme Court candidates received one-third or more of their funding from these "Super Spenders," the report said.
Justice Mike Bolin, who is seeking re-election this year, got 32 percent of his funding in the 2004 campaign via the Business Council of Alabama, the report said.
"Small contributors simply can't keep up," the report said.
Other examples cited in the report include:
In 2006, Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb got a total of 32 percent of her contributions from two PACs, including one run by the state Democratic Party.
The Business Council's Progress PAC, ACJRC and a related PAC, Lawsuit Reform, provided nearly half of the money Drayton Nabers raised when he lost to Cobb that year.
In 2008, Deborah Bell Paseur got 62 percent of her donations from the state Democratic Party. More than one-third of that, $606,000, came from the plaintiff trial lawyer firm Beasley Allen Crow Methvin Portis and Miles.
The firm and its lawyers funneled money through 30 PACs en-route to the state Democratic Party and Paseur, the report said.
The 2008 race between Paseur and the man who beat her, Justice Greg Shaw, also illustrated the growing role outside advocacy groups play in state high court races, the report said.
That year the Virginia-based Center for Individual Freedom -- which does not disclose its donors -- spent more on ads supporting Shaw than the candidate himself, the report said.
But the combined $1.9 million Shaw and the Center for Individual Freedom spent beat Paseur's ad spending, $1.7 million.
"Massive spending on television is almost a prerequisite for gaining the bench," the report said. "To compete, judges need tremendous financial support, either in the form of large contributions or independent expenditures."
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An ethical redux in the state’s judiciary
By Bob Martin, Hartselle Enquirer
August 12, 2010
In the early 1970’s following a decades-long demise in the ethical conduct of our elected judges in Alabama, including, but not limited to the “quickie divorce” scandals of the 1960’s, Alabama voters enacted constitutional reform of the court system that included a judicial disciplinary system to monitor and discipline judges.
A two-tiered system was created. A Judicial Inquiry Commission (JIC) composed of lawyers, non-lawyers and judges was created to hear complaints against judges and file charges if necessary. A judicial body named The Court of the Judiciary was created to adjudicate any complaint filed by the JIC.
The system worked for over two decades; then came the case of Harold See, a justice on the State Supreme Court, who was charged by his opponent, Roy Moore, with making improper allegations in their political race.
Moore was chief justice of the GOP-dominated court, but a court majority changed the commission’s rules to no longer protect the identity of people filing complaints. It then enacted rules providing a judge with detailed information about a complaint, including who filed it, the evidence gathered, and the identity of people interviewed during the investigation.
That change made the Judicial Inquiry Commission’s work less like a grand jury, which operates largely in secret. The state’s highest court made the rule changes retroactive so that they applied to charges the Judicial Inquiry Commission had brought against See.
Those charges accused him of running false and misleading ads against Moore in the 2000 Republican primary for chief justice, which Moore won.
The Inquiry Commission decided to drop the See case rather than disclose its sources of information about his campaign ads.
Fast-forward to 2009, when Birmingham attorney Tom Wells was president of the American Bar Association and the national group accepted an invitation from the Alabama Supreme Court to study Alabama’s disciplinary rules.
The ABA’s Standing Committee on Professional Discipline recommended that the court undo the 2001 rule changes made to protect See, including notification of the complainant and allowing evidence to be provided while the investigation is in progress.
It found that revealing who filed a complaint “has a chilling effect on persons who might want to file a complaint against a judge.” Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb was the only justice who voted for the ABA recommendation.
A return to the ethical wasteland
The severe restrictions placed by the high court on complaints about judges, as noted above, has spawned an ethical demise in the state’s judiciary. Complaints dropped significantly after the 2001 rule change that required a person’s identity to be disclosed — from 279 in 2000 to 159 in 2009.
Justices on the Supreme Court know it is against judicial ethics to communicate with parties or their lawyers who are involved in a case before them, yet more than one of the justices has communicated with Bob Riley or the lawyers representing him and his anti-gambling task force.
The Independent reported about phone calls last year from Riley or his lawyer to members of the court as it was preparing to rule on the appointment of Birmingham Circuit Judge Robert Vance to hear one of the cases involving bingo. Not only that, but for weeks Riley had been observed visiting the justices for coffee and discussion at the State Judicial Building. He failed to get a quid pro quo for his solicitations on the Vance appointment, but probably only because his actions were made public.
Then in a mysterious budget maneuver this year, Riley pulled $25 million dollars from the Highway Department Trust Fund to bail out the court’s budget for next year. It was the first time that fund had ever been “raided” other than for minor law enforcement matters. That maneuver obviously worked since the court now seems to be acting out his alter ego.
These are serious ethical breaches that should be looked at by the Judicial Inquiry Commission which doesn’t need a complaint to be filed in order to initiate an investigation. A simple check of phone records should shed some light on the Riley communications.
Then there were the revelations last week about Kenya Lavender Marshall, the uncontested Democratic nominee for a civil court judgeship in Jefferson County, and two other judges in Jefferson County who are facing disciplinary action. Marshall’s law license was suspended last week when she was accused of pilfering $30,000 from a client.
We need a way to keep judges honest and out of politics.
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Backlash building against college rankings - Critics say system encourages deception, doesn't focus on value
By Bill Briggs, msnbc.com
August 17, 2010
As the annual binge of college rankings crests this week, Ethan Haines isn’t just fed up. He’s fed out.
The unemployed law school grad launched a hunger strike Aug. 5 to protest U.S. News & World Report’s law school rankings and the undue influence he believes that yearly index has on college selections and, eventually, law firm hires.
His criticisms: The magazine’s rankings contain “inaccurate” employment stats and “ineffective” career counseling. What’s more, law schools collaborate with the magazine which, Haines argues, skews the profession’s already-brutal entry-level environment.
“This is a plea for reform,” Haines wrote in an e-mail interview. He has forwarded his “official notice” to 10 law schools plucked “randomly” from U.S. News’ top 100. He wants them to address “the public’s overwhelming reliance on these controversial rankings” which, he contends, hurts law students by “increasing the cost of legal education.” Haines won’t reveal his age or alma mater because, he said, his anonymity boosts the sense that young lawyers have a “united front.” But his blog describes what he’s feeling — cramps, headaches, muscle weakness — and what he’s lost, 10 pounds in 12 days.
“If the same tactics are used in (ranking) undergrad as in law school, then I have the same concerns,” Haines wrote to msnbc.com. “If you are undertaking a major where your undergrad institution is irrelevant, then you should not be cajoled into attending a higher-ranked institution at a higher cost just because someone says that is the only way to get hired.” For some students, the chance to attend college “is a matter of survival. Rankings ... should not exploit this desire.”
Haines’ ravenous rant comes amid a feast of fresh college rankings. This month, U.S. News & World Report (law schools), the Princeton Review and Forbes Magazine all published separate lists. On Tuesday, U.S. News offers its “2011 Best Colleges” analysis.
Echoing the unemployed lawyer, however, a backlash is building against the thickening crowd of college reviewers. According to many parents, students and educators, the annual lists are misleading and unhelpful — and some fail to focus on a pressing issue: value.
“I do not like the rankings,” said Kristin Hiemstra, a high school guidance counselor in Chapel Hill, N.C. “The same way designer labels define the perceived value of the popular high school clique, designer college rankings define the perceived value of a particular school’s education. In the same way poor-fitting designer clothes are a waste of money so is a poor (college) match. ... When a student is a good match for a school, they will learn more about themselves. ... This highly personal aspect of education is not measurable.”
Of course, many students pick colleges simply because the schools score high in exclusivity. The name on the diploma can make or break a job applicant’s candidacy.
“When the Wall Street Journal ranked Johns Hopkins (University) as one of the 10 most expensive schools in the country, it cemented our decision — though it sounds strange,” said Judy Schaffer, who lives in Teaneck, N.J. Her son attends Hopkins. “We are willing to pay for the prestige, networking and quality of staff that Hopkins offers. ... The people who belittle the importance of top-ranked schools may not understand the value of the connections these schools provide.”
Still, the once-mighty power of college rankings has unquestionably slipped among parents who are shopping more cautiously for education, said Mike Sexton, whose two daughters recently graduated from colleges.
“The (lists) have lost their misplaced position of importance,” Sexton said. The erosion of their relevance, he added, has been accelerated by market clutter: “Every magazine has to have some slant on colleges and everybody and their mother keeps writing new books on college admissions.”
A college admissions executive himself, Sexton has joined other academics in specifically chastising U.S. News & World Report.
“I share some wide-held concerns about the ability for the magazine to determine ‘best.’ This is not unique to U.S. News,” said Sexton, vice president of enrollment management at Santa Clara University. “In America, we want to keep score. We want winners and, therefore, ‘lessers.’ We want simple answers to often complex questions, the college search being a prime example.”
Sexton is one of 15 college admissions officials who advise the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit launched in 2005 to help applicants “overcome commercial interference in college admissions,” its website says. In 2007, the Conservancy drafted a letter, signed by 65 college presidents, rebuking the U.S. News & World Report rankings as a tool of “false precision” that overemphasizes “prestige” and encourages “wasteful spending.” The 65 presidents, representing schools including Dickinson College, Drew University and San Francisco State, pledged not to cooperate with the magazine or use its rankings in promotional materials.
U.S. News & World Report still surveys, according to the magazine, more than 1,400 colleges to assemble its hierarchical pecking order of undergrad schools. To stack the schools, the magazine uses a weighted set of data points provided by the universities, including student retention, student selectivity and alumni giving, the magazine’s website explains. What’s more, U.S. News asks college presidents to assess their peers — asking them to score the academics at competing colleges from five (“distinguished”) to one (“marginal”).
“We believe we’re filling a void,” said Robert Morse, the magazine’s data research director. “The cost of education is going up faster than ever. There are reduced counseling resources at high schools from budget cuts. People are left on their own to try figure out where the best schools are. We’re providing information to help them do that.”
That law colleges and legal firms apply significance to the U.S. News rankings is not the magazine’s fault, said Morse, who vowed to “try to reach out to” Haines. He added that the rugged financial realities faced by new lawyers, including a decline in top-paying jobs, are beyond any magazine’s control. “Students are getting frustrated — they’re frustrated at the legal profession and the economy.”
But within the larger world of undergraduate schools, U.S. News also has been chided by educators for raising the stakes of student recruitment. Several colleges have overtly manipulated — and, thus, elevated — their standing in the magazine’s rankings. A lofty position on that index can lure more applicants and, of course, increase revenue. During a 2009 gathering of the Association for Institutional Research in Atlanta, one educator revealed how such “gaming” occurred at Clemson University. Catherine Watt, who headed Clemson’s institutional research office until 2006, told the forum that Clemson artificially inflated faculty salaries, purposely gave rival schools low grades and fudged class-size stats — all to ascend the U.S. News rankings.
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Panel recommends the ABA accredit overseas law schools
Karen Sloan, National Law Journal
August 16, 2010
The American Bar Association is already tasked by the U.S. Department of Education to accredit U.S. law schools. Now an ABA committee has recommended that it should seriously consider expanding that power to overseas law schools that follow the U.S. model.
In June, the ABA's Council of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar appointed the committee of law professors, attorneys, judges and law deans to examine whether foreign law schools should be allowed to seek ABA accreditation. The council is scheduled to consider the committee's recommendations in December.
The committee cited an earlier ABA report's conclusion that state supreme courts and bar associations are under more pressure than ever to make decisions about admitting foreign lawyers as the legal profession becomes more globalized.
"Such an expansion would provide additional guidance for state supreme courts when lawyers trained outside the United States seek to be allowed to sit for a U.S. bar examination," the committee said in its report. "Since that is a key function of the accreditation process generally, the expansion would be consistent with the historic role of the section in aiding state supreme courts in the bar admissions area."
The committee cited figures from the National Conference of Bar Examiners that between 4,000 and 5,000 foreign-trained law graduates each year take the bar exam in the United States. Most of them sit for the exams in New York or California.
If the ABA decides not to expand accreditation, and states are forced to make their own decisions about foreign-trained attorneys, some lawyers with "less reliable training" than graduates of U.S. law schools will be admitted to the bar, the the committee said. Additionally, there will be a lack of consistency among states as to how foreign-trained lawyers are admitted, it said.
"If we believe that the American legal education model is the 'gold standard' for legal education world-wide and that well-trained lawyers are critical to the global economy, then a willingness to expand accreditation to schools embracing the American model is an appropriate way to improve the training of lawyers globally and contribute to the modern economy and the international legal profession," the panel said.
The committee cited potential downsides to accrediting international law schools, however. For one thing, it might expand practice opportunities for foreign-trained attorneys with no reciprocal benefit for graduates of U.S. law schools. There also could be political fallout if the ABA failed to accredit a government-sponsored law school. The committee said that the cost of the overseas accreditation would be born by the foreign law schools, not the ABA.
Should the council prove receptive to the idea, it might want to visit a foreign law school to see if it could meet the standards for U.S. law schools, the committee said.
ABA spokeswoman Nancy Slonim said that nine-page report has been sent to state supreme court justices, the leadership of the ABA, deans of ABA-approved law schools and other interested parties. People have until Oct. 15 to submit comments, she said.
The committee included University of California Hastings College of the Law professor Mary Kay Kane, Virginia Senior Justice Elizabeth Lacy, University of Miami School of Law Dean Dennis Lynch, Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard, and K&L Gates partner David Tang.
OUR VIEW: Jefferson County taxpayers should hope mediation can resolving remaining sticking points that stand between them and occupational tax refund – [Editorial]
The Birmingham News
August 12, 2010, 5:43 AM
Taxpayers in Jefferson County can understand why Circuit Court Judge David Rains might be running out of patience over the county's occupational tax. Taxpayers' patience is running thin, too.
Last year, Rains ruled the old occupational tax had been repealed by a 1999 law passed by the Legislature, and he ordered refunds to taxpayers of occupational taxes collected and held in a special fund during the county's eight-month appeal. Nearly a year later, taxpayers are still waiting.
The Alabama State Bar recently offered to mediate the remaining issues that stand between taxpayers and their refund, and Rains is giving it a shot. The judge wants a report on the negotiations by Monday. That's appropriate.
Lawyers for the county and the plaintiffs representing taxpayers need to do everything to wrap this up quickly and get the checks in the mail.
A couple of the unresolved issues are the amount of money to award the lawyers who sued and won the case, and whether that money should come from the refund pool or be billed to the county.
There is $37.8 million in the refund pool. The three lawyers -- Jim McFerrin, Sam Hill and Allen Dodd -- have asked for 35 percent of it, which would come to $13.2 million. That's an outlandishly high amount, made even more extreme by the fact the lawyers didn't even pay the tax. Lawyers, like many other professionals, were exempted because they buy business licenses.
A new occupational tax the Legislature passed during a special session last August, which took effect Jan. 1, removes the unfair exemption. It also lowers the tax rate from 0.5 percent to 0.45 percent.
As to where the money to pay the lawyers should come from, that should be clear: the refund pool. To require the county to pay the lawyers' fees would be to further punish county government for something that wasn't the county's fault.
It was the Legislature that foolishly passed the act in 1999 to repeal the occupational tax. Lawmakers did so to try to strong-arm the county into going along with their attempt to direct county tax dollars to legislators' pork projects. Those lawmakers clearly are to blame for the now three-year court battle and the millions of dollars in legal fees that have been run up.
Rains, however, raised the possibility of ordering the county to pay the lawyers. That stems from a misguided proposal by Commission President Bettye Fine Collins that the county bill taxpayers retroactively for the money they are refunded plus the lawyers' fees. "There seems to be some effort to anger the public by saying taxpayers are going to have to pay more," the judge said at a May 21 hearing.
Fortunately, other commissioners rejected Collins' idea.
But two wrongs don't make a right. If anything, Rains ordering the county to pay the lawyers could revive the talk of a retroactive tax.
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Justice is not blind, but Alabama seems pretty dumb
By John Archibald, The Birmingham News
August 08, 2010
Justice, in Alabama, is not blind.
You just think it is, because it's always there holding that tin cup.
Alabama justice -- or its judiciary, to be precise -- is not disinterested, non-partisan or free. It fails at the things people say they want on the bench: fairness, competence, common sense.
And we let it happen.
"When it comes to problems in judicial elections, Alabama is in the big leagues," said Charles Hall of the Justice at Stake Campaign, which pushes for impartial courts. "The judicial campaigns cost more than anybody else's, and they are more partisan."
And, dare I say it, they saddle us with a system that is less trusted and trustworthy.
Alabama's Supreme Court justices have been bought and sold for years, by trial lawyers on one side and big business on the other. Supreme Court races have cost a nation-leading $40 million since 2000. The 2006 race, in which candidates raised $13.4 million, is the most expensive anywhere. That's a lot of special interest influence.
Justice is not blind in Alabama. But Alabama has to squint to see justice.
Every four years we turn judges into money-raising, ideology-spitting politicians. And then we expect them to forget about it.
These judges, from the smallest courts up, on any given day have more power to affect lives than any mayor. But we vote them in on partisan tickets with little thought for their skills. And then we forget them.
Until they remind us -- as several have done this year -- that they're just politicians.
Kenya Lavender Marshall
Kenya Lavender Marshall, you recall, beat Nikki Still in a Democratic runoff for a civil judgeship last month, despite the fact Birmingham lawyers rated Still as far more qualified. Maybe the lawyers knew something. Marshall's law license was suspended last week when she was accused of pilfering $30,000 from a client.
Judge Dan King
Then there was Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Dan King, who was seeking a third term in his Bessemer division this year when the Judicial Inquiry Commission claimed he stepped off the judicial balance beam. Among other things, it said he used his position to erase the rape conviction of an old client. He didn't win his runoff, but he was in it.
Last but not least is Carnella Greene-Norman. She was a presiding judge in Birmingham Municipal Court until she was sued for discrimination, entered into a secret pact to step down, and was finally forced out by a federal judge. When lawyers rated her ability this year, only 7 percent found her qualified. Still, she won her runoff for domestic relations court against an opponent thought qualified by 61 percent of her peers.
What does it mean? If you want to get divorced in Jefferson County, for heaven's sake do it now.
What it really means is that Alabama desperately needs to reassess the way it picks judges. Because true justice can't be bought and sold. It can't lean to the left or the right. It can't be picked on a whim.
But it can be fixed, the guy from Justice at Stake says. "If the people have the will."
There are a lot of ways to go about it. Some states have non-partisan judicial races and some use nominating committees to help screen candidates. Some require judges to face a "retention" vote after every term, essentially a personal thumbs-up or down every few years.
Some states limit campaign contributions, and a couple, including North Carolina, provide public money for high court campaigns.
If we want true justice, we can change.
Until then, just pray that Alabama justice will cover her eyes.
Watch her, though. She peeks.
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Economic pressure has lawyers looking for a niche markets - Small practices emerge as technological advances, economy change legal profession
By Elijah Turan, Dayton Daily News (Ohio)
August 7, 2010
DAYTON — Technological advances and economic pressure are changing the legal profession and pushing some lawyers to start their own boutique law firms.
These firms are small practices that specialize in niche legal topics.
The growth of boutique firms is closely related to recessional forces like budget cuts and a tough job market. According to a July study by the Ohio State Bar Association, attorneys in Ohio are working longer and making less, and a plurality (34 percent) feel that the economic health of their practices is deteriorating.
According to David Lefton, one of the authors of the study, bankruptcies and divorces are more numerous because of hard times, thus bolstering attorney workloads. But cash-strapped clients are often unable to pay.
As a result, large firms are responding by not hiring from the ever-increasing pool of newly minted J.D.s, and they are making budget cuts and layoffs in auxiliary wings that often focus on niche topics. About one in five Ohio lawyers are considering making a change in their careers, and many of them are striking out on their own, according to the OSBA study.
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Tribe to judges: take action on poverty issues
Tony Mauro, National Law Journal
August 03, 2010
Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe, now a senior Justice Department counselor, got a standing ovation from the nation's state chief justices last week after challenging them to take immediate steps to improve access to justice for juveniles, the poor and the middle class.
"The problems facing our state judicial systems can only be described as deplorable," said Tribe in an impassioned July 26 speech in Vail, Colorado before the annual conference of chief justices and state court administrators.
Calling on the judges to engage in a form of "judicial activism" – not ideological, but rather, as he put it, the "opposite of passivity" – Tribe laid out specific measures that the chief justices could take to make pro bono and pro se representation easier, as well as to enforce the rights of juveniles and indigents to counsel.
Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, current president of the Conference of Chief Justices, said Tribe's message was "very well received" by the 47 chief justices in attendance. "I was watching, and we were all taking notes." Jefferson added, "The message he gave was inspirational. As chief justices, we can do no better than to spend our time making sure there is access to the courthouse."
Tribe, a leading liberal constitutional scholar for decades, said he had left the "relatively quiet groves of academe" to try to "fix things" and help make the justice system more humane and just. In his five months on the job as senior counselor to Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. for access to justice, Tribe said, "I have come face to face with the anxiety and desperation of ordinary citizens, who look to our legal system for their fair share of decent treatment."
While applauding "the integrity and efficacy of American courts," Tribe said no one should "condone indifference to the early warnings of disintegration to which some of you have called sober attention."
Among the ills Tribe catalogued were: "a system in which the deck is stacked in favor of those who already have the most;" the "punitive urge," which results in over-incarceration matched by inadequate legal assistance for defendants; sharp budget cuts in state courts, which handle 95 percent of all legal cases; and a turning away from public courts in favor of private adjudication for "privileged litigants who can afford it." The last trend, Tribe said, has the unfortunate result that "the powerful constituencies that once treated the public courts as their arbiters of last resort develop a diminishing stake in keeping the public judicial system afloat."
As an illustration of the kind of "good activism" he was advocating, Tribe told about a Philadelphia trial judge, Annette Rizzo, who has ordered that no house foreclosures be judicially approved without some effort at mediation – an action that Tribe said has kept hundreds of families in their homes. Tribe also applauded efforts in Nevada and New York to improve indigent defense.
To guarantee the right of counsel for juveniles guaranteed by the Supreme Court in the 1967 decision In Re Gault, Tribe urged the chief justices to prohibit the judicial acceptance of waivers of the right without the juvenile being advised by a lawyer about the consequences of waiver. "Juveniles who lack counsel are much more likely to plead guilty without offering any defense or mitigating evidence," Tribe said. And once they have pleaded guilty, juveniles can be tangled up and dragged down by the system and by a criminal record for decades.
Rather than suggesting sweeping reforms and unrealistic budget increases, Tribe also listed three practical changes that could be quickly achievable and would fall under the purview of many state chief justices:
• Make pro bono service by lawyers easier, by adopting rules that allow for "discrete task" representation rather than a full-blown attorney client relationship;
• Relax rules governing lawyer conflicts so more lawyers can serve, and permit lawyers licensed in other states to assist pro bono clients, as is allowed in the District of Columbia.
• Update rules regarding unauthorized practice of law to enable pro se litigants to use technology and non-lawyer help in ministerial tasks that now require lawyers.
Tribe recommended that the jurists follow the lead of states that have created "access to justice" commissions with a mandate to study and advocate for changes that improve legal services. He singled out the commissions in California, Washington state, and Texas for implementing concrete projects that have boosted civil and criminal legal aid programs.
These modest reforms, said Tribe, "demand the leadership that you as state chief justices are uniquely situated, qualified, and authorized to provide." Tribe pledged that if chief justices act, the Obama administration will be "cheering you on."
Texas chief justice Jefferson said all of Tribe's proposals merited consideration. Access-to-justice commissions have been very effective, Jefferson said, and proposals to allow limited representation and to relax conflict rules would help. "Lawyers are plagued with conflicts," he said, and the rules can unnecessarily "stand in the way of representing an individual."
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Lawyers seek more work-life balance; firms accommodate them
By Péralte C. Paul, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
August 9, 2010
By day, Katie Birmingham is all about her inner foodie, as chef-owner of her Atlanta eatery, Noon Midtown. By night, Birmingham's a barrister for Counsel on Call, a law firm that gives its network of lawyers the choice to take on as much or as little legal work as desired.
Though she loves the law and has practiced since 2003, Birmingham loves cooking just as much, and left the big Atlanta firm Kilpatrick Stockton in 2008 to have the flexibility to do both.
"Cooking is such a strong passion for me; it always has been," she said. The flexible scheduling with Counsel on Call "gives you a little bit more control over your time and, as a consequence, more control of your life."
As a new wave of younger lawyers has hit the workforce, law firms have adjusted their operations slightly to provide more of the work-life balance they seek.
The newcomers have a new set of expectations and definitions of success. Though they're just as dedicated and hardworking as their predecessors, not all of new attorneys define success as making partner in the requisite six to eight years. Some want to take longer, others are not interested at all, law firms say.
The shift, which has occurred in the last five years, is part of a larger whirlwind stirring up the industry.
"The legal profession right now is changing so much. First, there are fewer jobs now in the industry. Second, you have a squeeze on rates, which makes it hard to bill a premium on associates," said Stephen M. Paskoff, an attorney, founder and president of ELI, an Atlanta-based employer consulting firm that specializes in harassment, wage and hour compliance and other workplace training. "I do think there's a greater appreciation for diversity."
Part of that diversity appreciation comes from a realization by law firms they risk losing good lawyers by holding on to rigid standards. "For today's people coming fresh out of law school, it's not at all unusual for them to talk to you about their desire to have balance of life," said Roger Quillen, chairman and managing partner of Fisher & Phillips, a national labor and employment law firm based in Atlanta.
One lawyer took seven months off to do intensive backpacking and mountain climbing, a life ambition, Quillen said. "We did accommodate that and gave him the freedom to come back and pick up where he left off."
Andria Lure Ryan, a partner at Fisher & Phillips, works on a reduced schedule. As a single mom, she's juggling her kids' wrestling, softball and volleyball practices and games and other activities. She's wired, though, so whether she's in the office or at her youngest daughter's softball game, she's never more than a iPhone "beep" away. "If I’m not responsive to my clients when they need me to be, then I’m going to lose my clients."
There is a trade-off: Ryan earns roughly 25 percent less than her peer partners who do not work a reduced schedule, but she saidit's worth it.
"I have had a variety of work schedules. I've had partial weeks and partial days; I've had reduced hours," she said. "I work my own schedule. I'm responsive to my clients and service the firm's clients. I set it."
Giving associates more flexibility has changed how firms measure productivity and gauge professional growth, Quillen said. It's a stark change from the old days.
"There's no denying that there was a stigma as being the person who didn't make the jump (to partner) at the same time as his classmates," he said. "I think most firms are becoming much more qualitative in their analysis. What we see is more attention to the individual progress of the person."
Traditionally, such adjustments would be made for female attorneys who were having children or both male and female lawyers needing time to care for ailing parents.
With more lawyers seeking time do engage in activities beyond familial obligations, more firms are formalizing leave policies tailored for that.
"A couple of generations ago, it was unheard of for you to think you could be an effective lawyer and work reduced hours. It's no longer," said Vanessa E. Goggans, human resources partner at Morris, Manning Martin in Atlanta.
The firm instituted its leave and reduced work schedule policy in 2008, as a result of requests from associates and partners.
"We don't want to lose talented people. It's worth it for us to change our model in order to accommodate them," Goggans said. "It's not a big part of our marketing strategy, but we recognize it's something we need to do."
Case in point: Kevin J. Wright, an associate at Morris, Manning in the firm's corporate, securities and real estate capital markets practices.
Earlier this year, he took 11 weeks off to get his pilot's license, a lifelong ambition.
"When you have good talent, you don't want to risk it by being inflexible," Goggans said.
"People in my generation are a little less bound by a specific mold," said Wright, who is who is on the partnership track and will be eligible to become partner next year. "For me, flying is an excellent release. It allows me to escape and come back. It's something else to focus on that I enjoy."
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ABA Honors ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and Atticus Finch
By Edward A. Adams, ABAJournal.com
August 10, 2010-08-11
The ABA’s House of Delegates paused in its consideration of the legal issues of the day on Tuesday to honor To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel by Harper Lee that was published 50 years ago.
The 561-member House praised “the positive role that the book has played in the lives of lawyers, their families and the American public,” in Resolution 10A which passed unanimously. [NOTE: Clark Cooper who practices in Birmingham and is the state delegate to the American Bar Association House of Delegates, contacted Pres. Spruell about the Alabama State Bar sponsoring the resolution to honor Harper Lee and her novel To Kill a Mockingbird on the 50th anniversary of its publication].
The novel’s protagonist, Atticus Finch, has been a role model for lawyers for generations. Representing an African-American man accused of raping a white woman in a small Southern town in the 1930s, Finch saves his client from a lynching and destroys the accuser’s story in a vivid cross-examination. Despite his heroic efforts, his client is convicted and later killed during an attempt to escape prison.
Finch’s ultimately failed defense of an unpopular client has encouraged generations of readers to consider a career in the law.
The character is so revered that it was put in a category of its own for the list of the 25 Greatest Fictional Lawyers in the current issue of the ABA Journal. The 1962 movie version, staring Gregory Peck, was named the greatest legal movie in the Journal’s August 2008 issue.
The book won the Pulitzer Prize and the film won three Academy Awards. Harper Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the nation’s highest civilian honor—in 2007. She has also been named an honorary member of the bar in her native Alabama. To Kill a Mockingbird is the only novel the 84-year-old Lee has published. Lee is in frail health; a copy of the resolution will be presented to her by ABA officials in the coming weeks.
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