State court officials mull merger of district, circuit courts
By Katherine Sayre, Mobile Press-Register
February 22, 2010
Alabama court officials are considering a plan to merge district and circuit courts to help reduce case backloads. Alabama court officials are considering a proposal to consolidate the two-tiered system of district and circuit courts and move some judges' seats to counties where the dockets are overloaded.
Some district judges are tackling up to five times as many cases as their colleagues elsewhere, according to a report by Baldwin County Presiding Circuit Judge James Reid, who is head of a judges' committee studying the issue.
District courts handle misdemeanor criminal trials, traffic tickets, small claims lawsuits and child support cases, and certain pre-trial hearings in all criminal cases.
Circuit courts tackle felonies and weightier civil lawsuits.
Some circuits encompass several counties, while others, such as the Mobile and Baldwin circuits, include only one county.
At the circuit level, some judges are handling more than three times the cases when compared to other circuits, according to the report.
"That's a huge discrepancy," said Reid, appointed chairman of the committee by Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb.
Some rural counties have shrunk in population, Reid said, while in urban areas, some outlying counties have grown as city dwellers moved to the suburbs.
In an effort to equalize caseloads and ease court backlogs, judges would no longer be divided as district or circuit judges, under the proposal. All judges would serve on the circuit bench.
At the circuit level, some judges are handling more than three times the cases when compared to other circuits, according to a report. "That's a huge discrepancy," said Baldwin County Circuit Court Presiding Judge James Reid, chairman of a committee studying the issue. That means that all jurists in each of the state's 41 circuits could preside over any kind of case -- from a traffic ticket to a capital murder trial.
The committee also is considering another change: allowing the Alabama Supreme Court to move open judges' seats to circuits with burdened dockets without lawmakers' approval, Reid said.
No sitting judges would be moved. Instead, only seats left open by a judge's retirement, removal or death, could be transferred, Reid said.
In Baldwin County, roughly one in three circuit court criminal cases have been awaiting resolution for more than a year -- a problematic backlog that court officials attribute to a shortage of judges.
Reid wrote a letter to Cobb in January 2009 after hearing her speak about the idea of consolidating the courts, an issue that that he'd also been considering.
Cobb then created a committee to study the issue, deemed the Realignment of Judicial Resources Committee.
"We simply have got to take a fresh look at the court structure," Cobb said. "We're really a court system with reform in our heart. ...We've got to figure out a way to be bold and make the necessary changes."
Cobb said moving judges, rather than creating more judgeships, will save the state money.
A new judicial position adds an estimated $400,000 to the budget, she said.
The committee -- made up of five circuit judges and four district judges -- will meet in April to discuss the proposals, along with experts from the National Center for State Courts.
Reid said he hopes the committee will reach a consensus at that time, present its findings to a statewide judges' conference in July and introduce a bill during the 2011 legislative session.
Alabama's voters would have the final vote on any change, because it would require an amendment to the state constitution.
If approved, Reid predicted it would take about three years, moving between 12 and 24 unfilled bench positions each year, to solve the disparities in caseloads.
In Mobile County, District Judge Charles McKnight, who is also serving on the committee, said no new district judges have been added to his bench since 1977, and the four district judges handled about 80,000 cases last year.
"We're in desperate need in Mobile County of additional judges," McKnight said.
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Time for seniors to get busy applying for scholarships
February 24, 2010
For seniors across the county, the countdown to graduation has begun, and here Andalusia High School student guidance counselor Jenny Pitts shares upcoming coming events that should be on every senior’s calendar:
• The Kids’ Chance Scholarship Fund was established by the Workers’ Compensation Section of the Alabama State Bar in 1992 to provide scholarships for college and technical school to children who have had a parent killed or permanently and totally disabled in an on-the-job accident. Contact the guidance office for additional information.
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Study finds sharp decline in law review circulation
Karen Sloan, National Law Journal
February 18, 2010
It's not just newspapers that are losing paid readership.
Flagship law reviews have seen paid circulation decline significantly during the past three decades, with some facing particularly steep drop-offs lately, according to a study by a professor at the George Mason University School of Law.
Ross E. Davies based his findings on information collected by the U.S. Postal Service to track the paid circulation of 21 law reviews from some of the most prestigious U.S. law schools between 1979 and 2009. The publications submit the information to qualify for bulk-rate postage rates.
The reported paid circulation for the Harvard Law Review, Davies found, was 8,760 in 1979 but a mere 2,029 in 2009 — a decline of nearly 77%. Paid circulation for The Yale Law Journal dropped by more than 57% — from 4,051 in 1980 to 1,725 in 2009.
"I started looking at this last year just out of curiosity, so I gathered the data and I was struck by the trend," Davies said.
Davies offered several theories for the decline. For one thing, he said, readers no longer need a paid subscription to view a law review's content. The emergence of legal information services like Westlaw and Lexis has allowed academics and practicing attorneys to read review articles without direct subscriptions. Law review articles are available for free elsewhere on the Internet, too.
Additionally, the target audience for general-interest law reviews has declined. "Over the past couple of decades, my impression is that law reviews have come to view their primary market as academics and not practicing attorneys," Davies said. "There's been a decline in products being produced for the mass market."
Rival law schools present another market for law reviews, but they don't tend to need multiple hard copies because these publications can be shared in a reading room or online.
Davies didn't track paid circulation of more specialized reviews, but theorized that they may attract a greater percentage subscribers who are practicing attorneys.
Shrinking paid circulation doesn't necessarily mean that fewer people are reading law review articles. It's possible, Davies said, that more people are reading reviews than before because so many are available online.
The increasingly academic focus on flagship journals may mean that it takes longer for ideas they present to find their way into real-world legal practice, he said.
Declining paid circulation probably isn't hurting reviews much financially; they are relatively cheap to produce because contributors and editors are mostly volunteers. Printing costs tend to be low because the publications lack photos and hard bindings, Davies said.
Still, there's cause for concern, Davies said. "The worry is on the influence end. The question is now, 'How useful are we?' "
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Expecting a Surge in U.S. Medical Schools
By ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS, The New York Times
February 15, 2010
NOTE: This article offers an interesting parallel to the legal profession (i.e., too many law schools and the criticism of the ABA for not doing enough to regulate entry into the legal profession. As a result, the nation is flooded with law school graduates who can’t get jobs (or jobs that pay well enough to cover staggering student loan payments).
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Peter Allen applied to 30 medical schools after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh last year. Twenty-eight said no.
Of the two that said yes, one had something in common with Mr. Allen: It, too, was starting out in medicine. He enrolled in the inaugural class of The Commonwealth Medical College in Scranton, Pa.
“I was ecstatic that I had been accepted to a medical school,” Mr. Allen said, adding that he would have gone for a master’s in bioengineering if he had not been accepted. “It’s a giant sigh of relief; it secures your plans for the rest of your life really.”
The Commonwealth is one of nearly two dozen medical schools that have recently opened or might open across the country, the most at any time since the 1960s and ’70s.
These new schools are seeking to address an imbalance in American medicine that has been growing for a quarter century. Many bright students were fleeing to offshore medical schools, or giving up hope entirely, when they could not get into domestic schools. Meanwhile, American hospitals were using foreign-trained and foreign-born physicians to fill medical residencies. During the 1980s and ’90s only one new medical school was established.
“Huge numbers of qualified American kids were not getting into American medical schools or going abroad to study,” Dr. Lawrence G. Smith, dean of the proposed Hofstra University School of Medicine, in Hempstead, N.Y., which is not yet recruiting students, said last week. “I think it was a kind of wake-up call.”
The proliferation of new schools is also a market response to a rare convergence of forces: a growing population; the aging of the health-conscious baby-boom generation; the impending retirement of, by some counts, as many as a third of current doctors; and the expectation that, the present political climate notwithstanding, changes in health care policy will eventually bring a tide of newly insured patients into the American health care system.
If all the schools being proposed actually opened, they would amount to an 18 percent increase in the 131 medical schools across the country. (By comparison, there are 200 law schools approved by the American Bar Association.) And beyond the new schools, many existing schools are expanding enrollment, sometimes through branch campuses. While The Commonwealth is an independent school, many of the other new or proposed schools are affiliated with established universities, like Hofstra, which is teaming up with North Shore Long Island Jewish Medical Center; Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.; the University of California, Riverside; Central Michigan University; and Rowan University in Camden, N.J.
Supporters of the expansion say that having more doctors will improve care, by getting doctors to urban and rural areas where they are needed, by shifting care to primary and family practice physicians rather than expensive specialists, and by reducing long waits for people to see a doctor and get the care they need.
But skeptics say that although many parts of the country do need more primary care, American doctors tend to congregate in affluent, urban and suburban areas that already have a generous supply.
They say that doctors create demand for their own services, and that nurse practitioners and physician assistants could fill gaps in medical care at a lower cost.
“When you add more physicians to an area, they just add more services, and their salaries don’t go down anywhere near in proportion to the increased supply,” said Dr. David Goodman, professor of pediatrics at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice and a practicing physician who has studied work force issues for 20 years. “More care may not be better, but it certainly is paid for,” Dr. Goodman said.
Many of the developing medical schools are well aware of such arguments, and are billing themselves as different from traditional medical schools, more focused on serving primary care needs in immigrant and disadvantaged communities. Administrators say that they expect that approach to be buttressed by a shift in state and federal reimbursements from specialists to primary care doctors.
Riverside County, an inland area with a diverse population including immigrants and Native Americans that has expanded rapidly, has a deficit of about 3,000 physicians, according to Dr. G. Richard Olds, founding dean of the University of California, Riverside School of Medicine.
Riverside has applied for licensing, the first step toward becoming a medical school, and hopes to admit its first four-year class in 2012, and to have 400 students by 2016, a typical size for the new crop of schools. Dr. Olds said his educational focus, building on his background as a tropical disease specialist, would be on prevention and “wellness.”
“I think we have to crank out different kinds of doctors,” said Dr. Olds, who started his new job Feb. 1.
Whether the demand for new medical schools exists among patients, it clearly exists among prospective doctors.
Dr. Olds said that at his former job as chairman of medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin, 25 percent of the students came from California. “So obviously there’s a ton of California kids trying to get into medical school traveling a long way.”
The Association of American Medical Colleges, a trade group, has called for a 30 percent increase in enrollment, or about 5,000 more doctors a year. The association’s Center for Workforce Studies estimates that 3,500 more M.D.s will enter graduate training over the next 10 years, roughly half of the 7,000 international medical school graduates now entering medical residencies in the United States every year, according to Edward Salsberg, director of the center.
At Quinnipiac, the trustees last month approved plans for a new medical school, to open in 2013 or 2014, if it passes accreditation. John L. Lahey, the university president, said that the proposed school would build on the university’s existing health sciences programs, and the hope was to recruit at least some students who had worked in health care and wanted to become doctors.
“We certainly think they will be what we tend to call nontraditional students, older, some minority,” Dr. Lahey said.
Six developing medical schools, including The Commonwealth, have received preliminary accreditation, enabling them to begin recruiting students, and six more, including Riverside, have begun the application process, according to the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, which accredits American medical schools. An additional 11, including Quinnipiac, have announced their intention to apply for licensing, according to Mr. Salsberg.
Whatever the expansion may mean for the cost of health care, it is a relief to aspiring doctors like Mr. Allen, who took tough undergraduate courses and had a busy extracurricular life of mock trials, robotics and work as an emergency medical technician. His pre-med adviser told him that with his 3.3 grade-point average, he should apply only to osteopathic schools, but he persisted, and was admitted to The Commonwealth and New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y.
He was one of 1,300 applicants for 60 positions (eventually class size will double) in the inaugural class at The Commonwealth, according to Dr. Robert M. D’Alessandri, the president and dean. Mr. Allen has a United States Navy scholarship, but for his classmates, the school took $20,000 a year off the tuition, a reduction of about half, as an incentive to take the risk of a new school.
Given the pent-up demand, Dr. D’Alessandri said, he was not worried that he might produce too many doctors for the good of society. “We should worry about too many lawyers,” he said dryly.
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The Tuscaloosa News
February 14, 2010
Tuscaloosa attorney Claude M. Burns Jr. was recognized at the 2009 annual meeting of the Alabama State Bar for outstanding service to the Alabama bench and bar in continuing legal education. Burns received the state bar’s 2009 Walter P. Gewin CLE Award, named for the late Judge Walter P. Gewin, who practiced law in Tuscaloosa before his appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
As president of the Alabama State Bar, Gewin helped start the Alabama Bar Institute for Continuing Legal Education as a cooperative effort between the University of Alabama School of Law and the state bar. For many years, Burns has served as chairman of the planning committee for CLE at Alabama’s annual bankruptcy law seminar, which routinely receives high satisfaction marks from those who attend. Burns is a partner with Burns & Wilson.
The Tuscaloosa County Bar Association received the Local Bar Achievement Award during the annual meeting. Tuscaloosa was the only mid-sized bar association in the state to receive this award. The award was based on members’ participation in the Wills for Heroes program, offering continuing legal education programs and its donation to the Tuscaloosa Police Athletic League after-school program for at-risk children.
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O'Connor fears cash will flood judicial races
BY JOE SWICKARD, DETROIT FREE PRESS
February 11, 2010
Warning that escalating campaign contributions in judicial elections will breed arms races between deep-pocket donors, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor reiterated Tuesday her call for merit selection of state judges.
And, as in the nuclear arms race, "mutually assured destruction is the likely outcome" of such judicial arms races, O'Connor told a Wayne State University Law School symposium on judicial selection.
The first female Supreme Court justice, O'Connor was nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and served for 25 years. She stepped down in 2006.
Since her retirement, O'Connor has spoken out on her view that a judiciary needs to be insulated from the passions of popularity and politics.
O'Connor said the flooding of campaign dollars into judicial elections is a problem that "may get worse and very soon."
She did not criticize directly the current Supreme Court, which this year in a 5-4 decision allowed corporations and unions to spend directly in support of candidates or attacks against them. But she joked that since her retirement, "there's just no telling what's going to happen."
Michigan is among the states that elect judges and those states, she said, "probably should take a second look" at their process. About 80% of judges in the country have to run to attain or keep their seats on the bench, she said.
Federal judges are appointed, have life tenure and their pay cannot be reduced.
The founding fathers, she said, saw the colonial judiciary corrupted by judges who served at the pleasure of the British Crown. The Constitution was written to ensure "a safe place" where being correct is more important than bowing to what is popular or powerful.
"That one safe space was the courtroom," she said.
She drew laughs and applause when she cracked that elected judges were ushered in by President Andrew Jackson "who saved the country at New Orleans -- who dat!"
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Poll: Large majority opposes Supreme Court's decision on campaign financing
By Dan Eggen, Washington Post
February 17, 2010
Americans of both parties overwhelmingly oppose a Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations and unions to spend as much as they want on political campaigns, and most favor new limits on such spending, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Eight in 10 poll respondents say they oppose the high court's Jan. 21 decision to allow unfettered corporate political spending, with 65 percent "strongly" opposed. Nearly as many backed congressional action to curb the ruling, with 72 percent in favor of reinstating limits.
The poll reveals relatively little difference of opinion on the issue among Democrats (85 percent opposed to the ruling), Republicans (76 percent) and independents (81 percent).
The results suggest a strong reservoir of bipartisan support on the issue for President Obama and congressional Democrats, who are in the midst of crafting legislation aimed at limiting the impact of the high court's decision.
"If there's one thing that Americans from the left, right and center can all agree on, it's that they don't want more special interests in our politics," Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is spearheading the legislative effort, said in a statement after the poll was released Wednesday.
"We hope we can get strong and quick bipartisan support for our legislation, which passes constitutional muster but will still effectively limit the influence of special interests."
Under legislation being drafted by Schumer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), companies with foreign ownership or federal contracting ties would be limited in their ability to spend corporate money on elections.
The lawmakers also want to require companies to inform shareholders about political spending; to mandate special "political activities" accounts for corporations, unions and advocacy groups; and to require that corporate executives appear in political advertising funded by their companies.
Other likely proposals include banning participation in U.S. elections by bank bailout recipients.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and other Republican lawmakers have praised the high court ruling as a victory for free speech, however, and have signaled their intent to oppose any legislation intended to blunt the impact of the court's decision.
In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the high court ruled 5-4 that corporations have the same rights as individuals when it comes to political speech and can therefore use their profits to support or oppose individual candidates. The decision appears to open the door to unlimited spending by corporations, trade groups and unions in the weeks leading up to an election, which has been explicitly banned for decades.
Democrats have seized on the ruling as an example of judicial overreach and vowed to enact new limits on political spending by corporations, which have traditionally favored Republicans in their contribution patterns. Obama said in his State of the Union address that the ruling will "open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections."
Republicans and business groups have rallied around the ruling, arguing that the decision merely levels the playing field with free-spending unions and other liberal interest groups. The new poll, however, suggests there may be political risks for the GOP in opposing limits that appear to be favored by the party's base.
Nearly three-quarters of self-identified conservative Republicans say they oppose the Supreme Court ruling, with most of them strongly opposed. Some two-thirds of conservative Republicans favor congressional efforts to limit corporate and union spending, though with less enthusiasm than liberal Democrats.
Indeed, the poll shows remarkably strong agreement about the ruling across all demographic groups, and big majorities of those with household incomes above and below $50,000 alike oppose the decision. Age, race and education levels also appeared to have little relative bearing on the answers.
The questions on corporate political spending were included as part of a poll conducted Feb. 4 to 8 by conventional and cellular telephone. The margin of sampling error for the for the full poll of 1,004 randomly selected adults is plus or minus three percentage points.
Riley budget does not help vital services – [Editorial]
The Dadeville Record
February 3, 2010
There are people who like to run down anything about government. There are many instances where people run down public services. They protest “big government” and shout that nothing good can come from public programs. Looking at an issue without considering all sides is not the best way to govern.
Look at the most effective yet far reaching “big government” program there is, Social Security. Everyone in some fashion or form participates, and it works very well, especially here in Alabama.
Federal census data show that the poverty rate for Alabama seniors runs over 10 percent. That figure skyrockets to well more than 50 percent without Social Security. The reason is that we have been a traditionally low wage state where it was tough to save for old age and keep food on the table, and many jobs did not provide any or an inadequate pension. Social Security became the lifeline from fear for most of our Alabama seniors, and that is what we want as a state and a nation. Despite the critics, especially the most vocal ones right here in the South, government works.
There are many things in state government that works well and do important services that benefit everybody. Our Public Health Department does excellent work, and is credited for one of the nation’s best child health insurance programs. The Department of Human Resources is the agency in charge of our most vulnerable citizens, abused children, and they do this on a shoestring budget compared to other states. Our State Agriculture Department protects consumers by leading the fight against imported foods that have toxins and hormones banned in the United States.
Another area is the courts. The Alabama judicial system not only provides trials, makes legal judgments, and dispenses sentences, it also does important things like keeping track of troubled youth. Juvenile probation is an important service, making sure young people who were going down the wrong path have a chance to right it and avoid going to jail, or worse.
Recently, Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb blasted the governor’s proposed 2011 budget for the courts, saying that if it doesn’t change it will lead to layoffs of up to 600 court personnel statewide, including folks like juvenile probation officers who follow troubled kids that must be monitored.
Cobb says the administration’s budget would make a 12 percent cut in the court system. She says that such a cut would reduce Alabama’s courts to nothing more than a judicial triage center. There is concern that such cuts would not keep up with the demands for justice and safety.
This is the same budget that the governor recently touted as one with “no crisis” and plenty of funds for every essential government service. What the Chief Justice found out is what everybody else in the statehouse has come to realize early on, the administration’s pronouncements and its budget plans don’t match.
It gets worse. The governor’s budget plans rely solely on a billion dollars in new stimulus funds, with $500 million going to transportation and the rest to shore up state shortfalls. The problem is this money has yet to be approved by Congress and its chances of approval seem to diminish each day.
In the meantime, juvenile probation officers and other vital government employees are threatened with layoffs, and we as the public that rely on these people are threatened too.
Let the antigovernment protesters say what they want, if we can steer a kid in the right direction, we not only save the thousands it would take to keep him in jail, we save his life and he contributes to a better Alabama. Without funding, this doesn’t happen.
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The Recession Was Bad For Minorities In Law
Lauren Streib, The Business Insider
February 8, 2010
A new report authored by the ABA Presidential Initiative Commission on Diversity is out and, in short, it's depressing. The report found some unfortunate realities in the legal industry, which were exacerbated by the financial downturn.
In a section titled "disappointments," the report pointed out that in 2000 about 90% of professionals in the legal industry were Caucasian (compared to a national population that was 70% Caucasian). Projections for this year are similar.
According to the authors, diversity programs can be an expensive time-suck, with few results and no measured assessments. As well, there is still no central, reliable source for statistical data on diversity in the industry.
Some of the trends recognized by the commission:
- The recession is drying up monies for diversity initiatives and creating downsizing and cutbacks that may disproportionately and negatively affect lawyer diversity—thereby undoing the gains of past decades.
- The increasing cost of legal education makes attending law school and the debt burden exceedingly difficult for poor and working class people. Because income and wealth converge disproportionately with race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and disability, the cost of legal education in our current economy must be a central site for advocacy in the interest of a diverse legal profession.
The report calls on law schools to inform applicants about what the true opportunity costs are of a legal education, and on law firms to readjust the way they view diversity with an emphasis on the pervading culture rather than just recruitment.
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No Talking, No Texting, No Tweeting
Marcia Coyle, The Legal Times Blog
February 9, 2010
A committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States has endorsed a set of model jury instructions for district judges to help deter jurors from using cell phones, computers or other electronic technologies during their jury service.
The Committee on Court Administration and Case Management “developed these instructions to address the increasing incidence of juror use of such devices as cellular telephones or computers to conduct research on the Internet or communicate with others about cases,” wrote Judge Julie Robinson, committee chair, in a memo to district judges. “Such use has resulted in mistrials, exclusion of jurors, and imposition of fines.”
Federal and state court judges have been struggling with the issue, and many are now instructing juries to avoid using technology for case research. There is no uniform standard across the country for jurors in state trials, according to the National Center for State Courts.
The suggested federal instructions inform jurors that they may not use those technologies in the courtroom, in deliberations or outside the courthouse to communicate about or research cases on which they are serving.
“The committee believes that more explicit mention in jury instructions of the various methods and modes of electronic communication and research would help jurors better understand and adhere to the scope of the prohibition against the use of these devices,” explained Robinson.
In case you haven’t seen the federal jury instructions, they follow:
You, as jurors, must decide this case based solely on the evidence presented here within the four walls of this courtroom. This means that during the trial you must not conduct any independent research about this case, the matters in the case, and the individuals or corporations involved in the case. In other words, you should not consult dictionaries or reference materials, search the internet, websites, blogs, or use any other electronic tools to obtain information about this case or to help you decide the case. Please do not try to find out information from any source outside the confines of this courtroom.
Until you retire to deliberate, you may not discuss this case with anyone, even your fellow jurors. After you retire to deliberate, you may begin discussing the case with your fellow jurors, but you cannot discuss the case with anyone else until you have returned a verdict and the case is at an end. I hope that for all of you this case is interesting and noteworthy. I know that many of you use cell phones, Blackberries, the internet and other tools of technology. You also must not talk to anyone about this case or use these tools to communicate electronically with anyone about the case. This includes your family and friends. You may not communicate with anyone about the case on your cell phone, through e-mail, Blackberry, iPhone, text messaging, or on Twitter, through any blog or website, through any internet chat room, or by way of any other social networking websites, including Facebook, My Space, LinkedIn, and YouTube.
At the Close of the Case:
During your deliberations, you must not communicate with or provide any information to anyone by any means about this case. You may not use any electronic device or media, such as a telephone, cell phone, smart phone, iPhone, Blackberry or computer; the internet, any internet service, or any text or instant messaging service; or any internet chat room, blog, or website such as Facebook, My Space, LinkedIn, YouTube or Twitter, to communicate to anyone any information about this case or to conduct any research about this case until I accept your verdict.
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President Lamm Hopes Full ABA Backing Will Help Win Loan Breaks for Law Grads
By James Podgers, ABAJournal.com
Feb 6, 2010
After months of calling on Congress to provide debt relief for law graduates struggling economically with the rest of the country, ABA President Carolyn B. Lamm is hopeful she'll leave the ABA Midyear Meeting in Orlando with more ammunition for her efforts.
On Friday, the ABA Board of Governors included loan assistance for law students as one of the ABA's 10 legislative priorities on Capitol Hill.
And next week, the ABA's policy-making House of Delegates will consider a late report that urges Congress, the executive branch and commercial lenders to introduce programs to help relieve the heavy debt burdens that many law students face. The recommendation is co-sponsored by the Commission on the Impact of the Economic Crisis on the Profession and Legal Needs and the Law Student Division.
A key provision of the recommendation calls on commercial lenders to offer law students the same repayment terms that are available to them under federal student loan programs. That would mean students would be able to suspend payments on commercial loans for up to three years. Generally, commercial loans don’t provide that option, which is available under federal loan programs. But many students must finance at least part of their law school debt with commercial loans because the government loan programs have a cap of $60,000.
“Because of the recession, a lot of students are facing debt they can’t pay,” said Lamm, a partner at White & Case in Washington, D.C. “We’ve been urging the White House, DOE [Department of Education] and Congress to persuade lenders to create the suspended payment period. This resolution will give that effort the full policy backing of the ABA.”
In an interview this afternoon with the ABA Journal, Lamm said helping law students gain debt relief is a crucial aspect of helping the legal profession deal with the recession.
During the past few months, Lamm has been talking to law students about their financial predicaments. “It’s so sad to hear some of the stories," she said. But, she added, there are even bigger stakes involved. “Lawyers are important to society and their communities,” and more comprehensive assistance for students in financial need is necessary “if you want the profession and the bench to adequately reflect the community.”
Lamm acknowledged that some critics say the ABA actually should take steps to limit the number of law schools and students in the United States to help ease the competition for jobs in a tight market. But she takes issue with those arguments. “There is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the ABA can do,” she said, pointing out that efforts to impose restrictions would run afoul of antitrust rules.
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Magazine's planned law firm rankings raise ABA's hackles
Karen Sloan, National Law Journal
February 09, 2010
U.S. News & World Report's decision to start ranking law firms along the lines of its much-maligned law school rankings has prompted the American Bar Association to investigate the magazine's methods.
The ABA House of Delegates narrowly approved a resolution on Monday during its mid-year meeting to "examine efforts to publish a national, state, territorial and local ranking of law firms and law schools." Although the final resolution did not specifically name U.S. News, officials of the New York State Bar Association, which sponsored the resolution, acknowledged that the magazine was the catalyst for the move. The inquiry will look at a range of attorney and law firm rankings — not just the one by U.S. News.
The magazine announced in July that would release it first "Best Law Firms" rankings in September of this year, in partnership with Best Lawyers. U.S. News has long produced its popular annual law school rankings.
"[The U.S. News] rankings have a profound impact on the law schools. The deans hate it," said past New York bar President Vincent Buzard, citing reports that law school leaders juice administrative data to boost their schools' rankings. "It seemed to us that the ABA should look into the methodology of these rankings and ensure that they are reliable and aren't based on inadequate data."
While numerous publications and Web sites offer attorney ratings, sitting New York bar President Michael Getnick worried that the magazine's plan to numerically rank firms could prove problematic and misleading.
"What considerations do you take into account when you go out and say somebody is No. 1 and somebody is No. 10?" he said.
Representatives of U.S. News and Best Lawyers both welcomed the opportunity to discuss their methodology with the ABA.
"I think the resolution is extremely reasonable. At Best Lawyers, we have long felt that transparency is extremely important," said Best Lawyers President Steve Naifeh. "We don't think we have anything to hide.
Bob Morse, director of data research for U.S. News, said the magazine has approached the ABA in the past about setting up a system for communicating about the law firm and attorney rankings, but that the organization never acted on the idea.
Naifah noted that other law firm and attorney rating organizations already use the client references and information that the new rankings will cite. The rankings also will take into account attorney diversity, pro bono work and peer review surveys.
University of Chicago Law School professor and legal blogger Brian Leiter said that the ABA should have taken a critical look at the U.S. News rankings long before the magazine turned its attention to law firms.
"Unfortunately, a mere investigation won't do much," Leiter said. "Everyone with any knowledge of education or statistics or survey methods who has examined the U.S. News rankings has come to the same conclusion: They are irresponsible, misleading and provide consumer misinformation. This has had little or no impact on the irresponsible practices of U.S. News."
The best way for the ABA to counteract the negative effects of the U.S. News rankings would be to release its own data on school quality and performance, Leiter said.
The resolution prompted a lively debate among ABA delegates. It was a last-minute addition to the agenda that originally made no mention of examining law school rankings. Opponents worried the probe could raise antitrust and First Amendment implications. ABA President Carolyn Lamm told the ABA Journal that it was too soon for the organization to take a position on the rankings and that the legal concerns are legitimate. Buzard noted that the ABA has no authority to force the magazine to make any changes.
"We're not the government and we can't tell them to do anything," he said.