Birmingham named a 'surprising' legal market
by Antrenise Cole, Birmingham Business Journal
February 28, 2011
In the Magic City, the significance of Birmingham’s legal community is well known.
The city is home to a number of large law firms and also houses regional offices for several national firms.
Those factors have helped the city rank as one of the 10 surprising legal markets by the American Bar Association Journal.
The publication looked for smaller metropolitan areas with strong legal industries and Birmingham made the cut.
According to the ABA, lawyers in the Magic City have an average salary of $131,380 and a median salary is $108,000.
One local lawyer told the ABA Journal that he believes that starting salaries at the big firms in Birmingham are competitive with salaries in Atlanta and Houston for law school graduates.
He said there are a number of high-powered and important law firms here that continue to grow and broaden their practice.
Other areas that made the list are Augusta, Ga. and Richmond County, S.C.; Bloomington and Normal, Ill.; Chattanooga, Tenn. and Catoosa County, Ga.; El Paso, Texas; Greensboro and High Point, N.C.; Modesto, Calif.; Odessa and Midland, Texas; Reno-Sparks, Nev.; and Rockford, Ill.
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Click of the mouse will provide free legal help for Tennesseans - 2 new websites set to provide free help
by Erin Quinn, The Tennesean (Nashville)
March 1, 2011
Free access to a lawyer in Tennessee soon will be as simple as printing out and sending legal forms.
The state Supreme Court hopes two websites will combat the need for free legal help. Of the more than 1 million Tennesseans who meet federal poverty guidelines, 70 percent faced legal problems in a year's time, according to the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services.
"We only are able to serve 20 percent of the need that is out there," said Erik Cole, the alliance's executive director. "There are a lot of people not getting any help. The website will at least point people in the right direction."
This spring, the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts will launch justiceforalltn.com, which will provide state Supreme Court-approved, plain-language legal forms for civil issues such as divorces, wills and landlord/tenant documents.
Also this spring, the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services and the Tennessee Bar Association will start a website that will allow people who qualify as low-income to post a legal question anonymously on the site. A lawyer can then click on a question and answer through e-mail.
Cole declined to release the specific site name until it is finished but will be accessible through justiceforalltn.com when launched.
The top legal aid needs? Issues with creditors, health insurance disputes and family law, including divorce and protective orders, Cole said.
She needs a will
Cindy Boron's biggest need is a will for her and her husband. The Murfreesboro mother and grandmother is 55 and has put off drafting a will for years.
"I shopped around for an attorney, but they wanted $500 or $1,000," she said. "We can't afford that."
Several times, she started and stopped writing her will at various online legal websites. She was worried about the sites being legitimate, giving too much of her personal information and whether the forms would stand up in Tennessee courts.
"I know a lot of people out there are just waiting for a website like this," she said. "I would definitely use it."
Easier for attorneys
Jad Duncan, a Nashville civil lawyer, said giving legal advice remotely will make it easier for attorneys to manage pro bono work. They can answer legal questions on their cell phones or laptops while traveling or waiting in court.
But, he warns that in most cases, people should not venture to represent themselves.
"People really need to have someone explain to them exactly what they're signing," Duncan said. "The bottom line is, you can get all the way to the final court date and the judge tells you the form is wrong or a form is missing, and you have to start all over. It happens all the time. I've had to pick up the pieces on several of those."
While Duncan said he would be on-board to provide pro bono assistance through the site, he worries that he could open himself up to be held liable if there is a misunderstanding through the e-mail conversations.
It's a real concern among pro bono lawyers, Cole said. Because of that increased risk with a website, the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services has in-creased its usual professional liability insurance for lawyers who help on the site.
Some forms, including plain-language divorce forms, are already available on the website for the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts. A list of legal aid services in Tennessee is available at las.org.
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Court system in peril amid budget crisis
By DAVID OVALLE, The Miami Herald
February 27, 2011
As state lawmakers prepare to hammer out a balanced budget when the legislative session opens in Tallahassee next month, court personnel in South Florida say their already strained justice system will collapse if state employees are forced to shoulder significant cuts.
Even if budget cuts are not as radical as Gov. Rick Scott had initially proposed, judicial observers say even minor reductions will make the courts less friendly for the public and more exhausting for employees.
Routine court functions will drag on at an agonizing pace – everything from seeing a magistrate for a domestic violence restraining order to getting a foreclosure hearing date or even filing for a marriage license.
Crime victims and poor defendants will see their cases slow to a crawl. The best state lawyers and judges, tired of making minimal pay and saddled with too many cases , will flee for private jobs.
In legal circles, the looming budget process has created a sense of fear among courts and justice employees.
“The current proposals will create a never-before seen level of inefficiencies in our court system,” said Miami-Dade Chief Judge Joel Brown, who fears he’ll lose a significant chunk of his circuit’s judicial assistants, who field calls, make copies and calender court hearings.
Said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle: “We’re past cutting fat and cutting bone. We’re into amputations.”
Adding to the dread: The governor wants to save $1.4 billion by requiring state employees contribute five percent of their salary to their retirement benefits. The Senate is taking a less radical route by considering a plan to limit employee contributions to 2 percent for most workers and 4 percent for elected officials, administrators and those making more than $75,000. It also would require contributions only when the pension fund is in the red.
The House hasn’t announced its plans for changes to the retirement system yet,
Under Scott’s proposed budget, Miami-Dade and Broward prosecutors would have lost more than $4.3 million and a combined 88 positions from the previous fiscal year. Public defenders would have lost more than $2 million and 30 positions.
The still fluid budget process for next year comes on top of a more immediate crisis. Because of a drastic decrease in foreclosure filing fees, the courts is facing a $72.3 million shortfall for the end of this fiscal year. Unless the state loans the courts the money in the coming weeks, employees could face furloughs before July 1, said courts administrator Lisa Goodner.
For the Miami-Dade clerks’ office, which has laid off 150 workers during the past two years, there is no firm proposed budget yet. And although the clerk’s office recently unveiled an electronic filing system that’s expected to make filing documents faster, additional cuts could force officials to close the satellite clerk’s offices in Liberty City and Sweetwater, said Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin.
That means citizens wanting to obtain a marriage license or pay a traffic ticket would have farther to go to find a courthouse and longer waits.
Under the governor’s proposed budget, the state courts administration would plunge to $427 million, a drop off of nearly $40 million from the current fiscal year, and an estimated loss of nearly 600 positions. Those positions include mostly staff attorneys and judicial assistants — those would remain would be forced to answer phones calls and calender hearings for two judges instead of one.
For judicial assistants like Elizabeth Fente Gonzalez, that would mean double the workload.
Gonzalez, who works for Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Victoria Sigler, remembers when Sigler’s caseload hovered at about 1,200 at any given time some six years ago. Now, Gonzalez manages about 6,000 cases for Sigler.
“It’s impossible with one judge. The workload is tremendous here in civil,” said Gonzalez, 42, a mother of two who would lose an extra $160 per month under the governor’s pension plan.
Florida Rep. Christopher Smith, D-Oakland Park, a lawyer who is on the appropriations committee said of the threat to judicial assistants: “Anyone who practices law knows that is a godawful idea,”
Several other positions would be affected, including case managers who usher through juvenile and dependency cases through the courts, interpreters for the poor in civil cases and general magistrates, specially appointed lawyers who handle temporary alimony, child support and restraining order cases.
Chief Judge Brown said manpower would be shifted away from civil to the criminal division, where speedy trials are mandated by the constitution and people sit in jail awaiting trials. In South Florida criminal courts, the effect of the looming budget woes will be felt too.
Public defenders say clients will have to wait longer to see their cases go to trial — and in some cases, they’ll sit in county jail at the taxpayers’ expense as their overworked lawyers struggle to keep up the caseload.
“As it is, we have too many cases and not enough attorneys or support staff,’’ said Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez, who has been waging a three-year battle to have his office removed from certain felony cases because he says his lawyers are too overworked to provide proper representation. “It’s going to affect the quality of the work, and the timeliness of the work.”
Under Scott’s proposal, 11 positions in Broward would have be cut, said Assistant State Attorney Monica Hofheinz, the office’s executive director. “The employees have stayed and worked hard during the hard times, and now they’re being used as pawns,” she said.
At the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, previous budget cuts have already thinned the ranks. About 60 prosecutors left last year for jobs in the private sector. The narcotics section was disbanded, and other specialized units such as sexual battery, organized crime and economic crime, have been whittled down.
Prosecutors handling lower-level felonies now juggle about 350 cases at any given time.
“Is it humanly possible for one person to handle 350 cases? Who suffers? The victims? The public? The defendants? It’s all of the above,” Fernandez Rundle said.
While it’s not unusual for younger prosecutors to leave after three years, the office won’t be able to hire as many new lawyers to replace them. And the more experienced ones may leave.
Prosecutor Abbe Rifkin, who handles death penalty cases and started with the office in 1981, says the proposed pension changes are a “slap in the face” for her because she’s long forgone a high salary because “it’s as close as I come to doing God’s work.”
Rifkin, who earns $123,000 a year, says she’s considering retiring to go into private practice, or work as a mediator “where no one is going to tell me that I’m not pulling my financial weight,” she said.
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As They Ponder Reforms, Law Deans Find Schools 'Remarkably Resistant to Change'
By Katherine Mangan, The Chronicle of Higher Education
February 27, 2011
Iowa City -- Sweeping changes in the legal profession and stinging critiques of law schools' performance have done little to change the way the nation's 200 accredited law schools educate their students, several speakers said at a national symposium here over the weekend.
While schools are taking small steps to incorporate more experiential learning and encourage students to broaden their job searches, they remain "remarkably resistant to change," said Erwin Chemerinsky, the inaugural dean of the University of California at Irvine School of Law.
Mr. Chemerinsky, who was handed a clean slate when he took over a new law school nearly three years ago, was the keynote speaker at the "Future of Legal Education" symposium, sponsored by the Law Review at the University of Iowa College of Law.
One reason schools are sticking with a familiar playbook: "It's a cost-effective method of education," Mr. Chemerinsky said. "Putting one professor in front of a large group of students is very efficient." Clinical classes and simulations, which require low student-to-faculty ratios, cost more, he said.
Because his own law school wasn't bound by decades of tradition, Mr. Chemerinsky said, he and the founding faculty members were able to do some things differently, like stressing hands-on, interdisciplinary study across all three years.
Asked by an audience member how the school could afford to do that, he answered, "It starts with having to charge ridiculous levels of tuition." Annual tuition and fees at Irvine total just over $40,000 for California residents and $50,000 for out-of-state students—comparable to rates charged at other University of California law schools. (Members of the inaugural classes at Irvine received significant tuition breaks.)
The high cost of a more personalized education isn't the only barrier facing older law schools. Curricular changes have to be approved by faculty members, most of whom graduated from the same elite law schools, have comfortable jobs, and have little reason to want change, several deans said.
Richard A. Matasar, dean of New York Law School, summed up the attitude he sees at many campuses: "We're all old dogs trying to learn some new tricks, and all of us old dogs have got tenure and we're not going any place."
No 'Giant Conspiracy'
The symposium came at a time of soul-searching for a sector that has taken a beating lately in scholarly reports, newspapers, and legal blogs. Critics accuse law schools of churning out too many ill-prepared lawyers and of misleading students about their job prospects with inflated placement statistics.
Mr. Matasar took issue with the latter charge. "There's a common myth that law schools are engaged in the business of lying to people to get them to come to law school," he said. If it were "some giant conspiracy" by law deans, "that would suggest we're all a bunch of immoral, unethical, and terrible people, and we're not."
Law students know what they're getting into when they sign promissory notes for their student loans, and they have no doubt read the many blistering critiques questioning the value of a law degree, he said.
Legal education does cost too much, Mr. Matasar said, mainly because it is "grossly inefficient." Schools could cut costs by stratifying—offering, as a friend characterized it to him, a "Motel 6" education with few bells and whistles, in which practicing lawyers teach many of the courses, as well as a "Ritz-Carlton" version taught by full-time, tenure-track professors. Neighboring schools could share library, faculty, and other resources, he said, adding, "Does every law school need an expert in the law of Timbuktu?"
But while several speakers stressed the need for law schools to differentiate and come up with creative ways to prepare students for a variety of jobs, they argued that accreditation rules set by the American Bar Association discourage innovation.
"The kind of education you give someone who's going to go out and hang a shingle is very different from the kind of education you give someone who is joining a large law firm," said David E. Van Zandt, former dean of Northwestern University School of Law and now president of the New School.
Many students entering law school today won't earn enough to make their investment pay off, he said, adding that under the current system, going to law school makes economic sense only if a graduate earns a starting salary of at least $66,000 a year.
Taking up for the ABA was Jay Conison, dean of Valparaiso University School of Law and chairman of the ABA's law-school accreditation committee. The committee is considering a variety of changes in its accreditation standards.
Mr. Conison told the audience that one of the goals of that review is to give law schools the flexibility to come up with more-effective, less-expensive ways to prepare students for a rapidly changing profession.
The schools continue to have lots of competition. Despite sweeping law-firm layoffs in recent years, several new law schools are in the works, and many existing schools are expanding class sizes to bring in more money for their cash-strapped universities.
But as enrollments expand, growing number of legal educators are questioning the long-held mantra that law schools' primary purpose is to teach students "to think like lawyers."
"Can you imagine if medical schools graduated doctors without ever having them treat a patient, just teaching them to think like doctors?" Mr. Chemerinsky asked.
Gail B. Agrawal, dean of law at the University of Iowa, cautioned that law schools should be careful, as they shift their emphasis toward practical skills like drafting motions and interviewing clients, that they don't shortchange broader goals, such as cultivating a commitment to social justice.
She summed up the challenges facing law schools. "We need to prepare students to be client ready on Day 1 and have the intellectual foundations of a wise judge and the courage and commitment to take on the unpopular cause or client," she said. "And we have to do it in three years or less without increasing the cost of legal education."
As if that weren't enough, Mr. Chemerinsky said, law schools are also expected to be interdisciplinary by bringing in faculty members from fields like economics and psychology. While that enriches the curriculum, it increases the number of faculty members who are far removed from the day-to-day realities of practice, he said.
"If our primary mission is training lawyers, how successful can we be if a large proportion of our faculty have never practiced law?"
Alabama Bar's Law Day adds social media this year to student contest
By John A. MacDonald, The Birmingham News
February 17, 2011
The Alabama State Bar's annual Law Day contest for students to draw posters or write essays based on that year's theme will expand this year into entries using social media such as Twitter and Facebook.
This year's Law Day theme is John Adams and how he became a symbol of a fledgling United States' commitment to protecting the rights of people accused of crimes, according to a release from the state bar.
"This year's theme fits well with our bar's yearlong emphasis on the importance of civics education in our schools and our communities," Alyce Spruell, state bar president, said in the news release. Contestants "will have the ability to make the connection to the rule of law and how it affects citizens' daily lives."
Contestants are divided into four groups, based on their grade-level in school. Submissions from children in the two youngest groups, students in grade groups K-3 or 4-6, are limited to posters based on the theme.
Students in grades 7-9 and 10-12 can either submit essays or use the social media format based on the theme. Essay and social media entries will be judged separately.
A total of $2,400 in U.S. Savings Bonds will be awarded to the contest winners. In each of the grades K-3 and 4-6 groups, the first-place winner will receive $125 in savings bonds, second-place will get $100 in bonds and third-place will garner $75 in savings bonds.
In each of the grade groups 7-9 and 10-12, $200 in bonds will be awarded for first-place, $150 in bonds for second place and $100 in bonds for third place.
Adams, who became the nation's second president in 1797, also was the first president who was a lawyer.
Adams was ardent voice for independence from England. But he nonetheless defended British soldiers who were prosecuted for their role in the Boston Massacre in which five people were killed in 1770 while protesting colonial rule.
"Focusing on the legacy of John Adams provides us with the opportunity to explore . . . the modern-day role of lawyers in defending the rights of the accused -- one of the cornerstones and often times lightning rods of our system of justice," Spruell said. Contest organizers suggested social media entries such as creating what would have been Adams' top 10 tweets from the Boston Massacre trial or showing what would have been on Adams' Facebook page if those media had been available in the 1700s.
Contest entries must be submitted by April 4 and winners will be announced on or before April 15. Winners will be invited to attend the Law Day awards ceremony and a luncheon set for April 29 in Montgomery.
More information about the contest and entry forms can be found at www.alabar.org/lawday or by telephoning 800-354-6154 extension 2126. Information also is available on the Alabama State Bar's Facebook page under "Law Day in Alabama" or via Twitter feed,@lawdayinAL.
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The court’s pricetag: Quality of state Supreme Court – [Editorial]
by The Anniston Star Editorial Board
Feb 16, 2011
Alabama’s Supreme Court races resemble a figurative walk down the Las Vegas strip: All lights, all flash — and all about money.
That’s nothing new, of course. The reputation of this state’s Supreme Court elections is solidified thanks to election cycle after election cycle of exorbitant races that muddy the line between modern campaigning and the quest for impartial courts unburdened by deep-pocketed special interests. Rough partisan campaigns that turn judicial candidates into often-unwilling politicians are the norm.
Thus, that the state’s 2010 judicial elections were again the most expensive in the United States is no shock. Alabamians are used to it.
Last year, candidates in three Supreme Court races raised $4.3 million, according to a recently released study by the nonpartisan Justice at Stake Campaign. Two points instantly stand out: (a.) That amount was raised despite the recession’s obvious impact on the 2010 campaign, and (b.) it surely would have been higher had the chief justice post been on the ballot.
Granted, it’s not as if candidates for court seats were campaigning on loose change found underneath the couch cushion. They still raised more than $4 million. Special interests dedicated to having a high court favorable to their clients didn’t sit out the election. But Democratic consultant and pollster John Anzalone of Anzalone Liszt Research made it clear in comments to The Gadsden Times last week that the recession’s effect on last year’s campaigns shouldn’t be undersold.
“Individuals, associations and companies are not giving as much money,” Anzalone said. “Campaign budgets were down.”
Like the glitz of Las Vegas, these dollar figures are what earn automatic headlines. It’s show, not substance. Alabama’s reputation as a state burdened by expensive Supreme Court elections is well-earned, and it’s also an important fact.
But a separate issue that’s just as vital is, what type of justice is the state receiving from these costly court races?
This is where money and politics creates a mighty problem for the Alabama Supreme Court. The combination of the state’s deep conservatism, abundant Republican voters and influential special interests have, in part, created a Supreme Court that’s anything but politically balanced. Additionally, a court listing heavily to one side often discourages special interests from spending on candidates on the other side, as Justice at Stake Campaign spokesman Charlie Hall rightly told the Associated Press earlier this week.
No need to examine the ideology of each justice here. Instead, suffice it to say that a better-balanced court would be better for Alabama than the court it has today. Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb is the only Democrat on the court’s nine-seat bench.
Alabama would be better served by a Supreme Court that used some form of appointment/retention system in which judges are placed on the bench for their merits, not their party affiliations, and then retained by voters if their performance is worthy.
Unfortunately, Alabama is stuck with a system in which its Supreme Court elections are known as much for their price tags as for their winners. That’s not good for the state’s reputation or for Alabama justice.
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Alabama lawyers worried about state takeover of indigent defense system
By Lee Roop, The Huntsville Times
February 5, 2011
HUNTSVILLE, AL - Leaders of the Alabama State Bar met in Huntsville this week amid new concern the state Legislature may set up a statewide commission this year to govern the fees paid court-appointed attorneys.
"It's not so much concern as a desire to get the chance to thoroughly discuss it," Bar President Alyce Spruell said after a Friday session on the law. However, several Board of Bar Commissioners members were overheard commenting to each other afterward on the "lively debate" during the session.
Supporters have tried for three years to pass a law creating a state commission to review legal billing and costs and analyze the effectiveness of lawyers in the indigent system. Attorneys are appointed to represent clients who cannot afford the cost of a defense.
This year, Spruell said a projected $12.5 million shortfall in the overall state court budget and a Republican Legislature will mean a new look at the system. The indigent system cost the state $67 million last year. State Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb is on record favoring a statewide commission.
"It is a good thing, but there are so many ramifications," Spruell said, citing loss of some local control and "rural versus city" issues. Rural county bar associations frequently have proportionally more attorneys participating in the system and potentially affected by changes.
The Board of Bar Commissioners took no official position on the legislation after Friday's session, opting for an information campaign among its members.
Approximately 40 of the 76 member Board of Bar Commissioners made this first meeting of the group in Huntsville. Spruell said Thursday's unexpected bad weather in mid-Alabama depressed the turnout.
Spruell also pushed the group's new initiative to promote civics education in the state. She said lack of understanding of the court system is widespread, citing one national poll that showed 66 percent of respondents could name a judge on "American Idol,", but only 15-17 percent could name U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
Spruell urged teachers and students to visit icivics.org, a website featuring games and tools to learn about the court system.
New York Takes Step on Money in Judicial Elections
By WILLIAM GLABERSON, The New York Times
February 13, 2011
New York’s top court officials will bar the state’s hundreds of elected judges from hearing cases involving lawyers and others who make significant contributions to their campaigns, a move that will change the political culture of courts and transform judicial elections by removing an important incentive lawyers have for contributing.
Campaign fund-raising of the more than 700 trial-level judges around the state who are elected has been a persistent source of complaints and allegations of corruption, with some judges doling out lucrative assignments to lawyers who were political contributors.
The decision takes the form of a new rule of the state court system and will be announced on Tuesday by Jonathan Lippman, the state’s chief judge. It is believed to be the most restrictive in the country, bluntly tackling an issue — money in judicial politics — that has drawn widespread attention.
The rule is more restrictive than similar measures adopted recently in Washington, Oklahoma, Michigan and other states, and would take the question of disqualification entirely out of judges’ hands. It flatly states that “no case shall be assigned” by court administrators to a judge when the lawyers or any of the participants involved donated $2,500 or more in the preceding two years, court officials said.
Judge Lippman, who promoted the adoption of the measure by a statewide judicial board, said in an interview that the rule was critical to preserve the integrity of the state’s courts. “Nothing could be more important for the judiciary than to have the public see that we’re neutral arbiters of disputes,” he said. “If we don’t have that, we don’t have anything.”
Judge Lippman will make the announcement and detail specifics of the rule at his annual State of the Judiciary speech in Albany on Tuesday. It was adopted on Feb. 1 by the Administrative Board of the Courts, a five-judge body that has broad rule-making authority. Court officials said that, to permit comment, the rule would not become final for 60 days.
One of the recent campaigns that drew attention to the issue was a 2008 three-way Democratic race for Surrogate’s Court in Manhattan in which the candidates raised nearly $900,000. The winner, Nora S. Anderson, was indicted and then acquitted of campaign finance violations after taking $250,000 from a Brooklyn lawyer for whom she had worked.
The issue has been less intense in New York than in many states that have had multimillion-dollar political campaigns for top courts because the judges on New York’s highest court are appointed rather than elected.
Judicial politics in New York State and New York City are byzantine, with the political parties often controlling the nomination process. But even uncontested elections in the city can cost $25,000 or more, with judges hiring campaign consultants and paying for campaign events and mailings. Of about 1,140 full-time trial judges in the state, about 730 are elected, including judges in the powerful Surrogate’s Court and the highest-level trial court, the State Supreme Court, which can hear cases worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Primary contests for judicial positions that pay $136,000 or less have cost $250,000 or more. In some upstate counties it is routine for candidates for the bench to raise $100,000 or more, partly to pay for television advertisements to create name recognition.
In New York City there have been widespread allegations that the political consultants in judicial races are so closely tied to political organizations in some boroughs that their fees have essentially become the price of a judgeship. But a series of judicial scandals in Brooklyn and a challenge to New York’s method of judicial selection that failed in the United States Supreme Court left the system of financing judicial campaigns largely untouched.
In 2005, a Surrogate’s Court judge in Brooklyn, Michael H. Feinberg, was removed partly for awarding $9 million in legal fees from estates to a friend who was a political contributor. In 2008, a Rochester City Court judge who was running for State Supreme Court was admonished for asking a lawyer who appeared before her for political backing from the bench, though she did not ask for a contribution.
There have been disputes, including one that reached the Supreme Court, over the influence of political contributors in multimillion-dollar judicial races in West Virginia, Illinois, Alabama, Pennsylvania and other states.
In New York, for much of the last decade there have been calls for change, including in 2003 from a commission appointed by the previous chief judge, Judith S. Kaye. Its report described “the problematic nature of having judges raise money from the lawyers that appear before them.”
Lawyers have long been the main contributors in judicial campaigns in New York, and, in some instances, the reasons were evident. One study in 1998 of two powerful Surrogate’s Court judges in the city who are no longer in office showed that lucrative appointments for legal work went to campaign contributors in 66 percent of one judge’s cases and in 54 percent of the other’s.
The national drive for scrutiny of contributions to judicial campaigns gained momentum after a 2009 Supreme Court ruling that said the chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court had wrongly ruled in the $50 million case of a coal company whose chief executive had spent $3 million to help elect him.
But the New York rule is more stringent than even what many critics of the judiciary have proposed. Court officials said they planned to use computer programs to compare the names of lawyers and other people involved in cases against public records of contributions to judicial candidates. If contributions of more than $2,500 over two years are found, the case would be assigned to a different judge.
It could be a disciplinary offense or create a ground to appeal if a judge were to handle a case involving a contributor.
The statewide judiciary board consists of the chief judge and the presiding justices of each of the state’s four intermediate appeals courts, and it has the authority to adopt rules without public comment.
Around the country, some judges have defeated efforts to force them to disqualify themselves over political contributions, saying it is a precept of judicial independence that judges decide whether they can rule fairly. In New York State that argument has had special resonance among some judges who say that the court system’s administration has increasingly encroached on their powers.
But critics of the judicial campaign finance system have been saying that the courts have been tainted by a political culture that permits lawyers to try to gain influence with judges by contributing to their campaigns. Sandy Galef, a Westchester County Democrat in the State Assembly, said she had been frustrated about the fate of a bill she has filed for years to require judges to recuse themselves in cases involving political contributors, including lawyers.
The bill never attracted much interest in the Legislature, said Ms. Galef, a former schoolteacher. “Maybe,” she added, “one of the problems is we have a lot of attorneys.”
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Montgomery County Bar Association's first black president looking forward to serving community
By Mary Sell, The Montgomery Advertiser
February 6, 2011
The new president of the Montgomery County Bar Association wants to increase and to better publicize charitable work by the bar's members.
"In my opinion, the reason people have so much angst toward attorneys is because whenever you need one, something has gone wrong in your life," said Kendall Dunson, an attorney with the Beasley Allen law firm.
This year, the association's volunteer efforts will focus on One Place Family Justice Center, which brings together several different agencies under one roof to assist victims of domestic violence.
"We want people to know that we are not just attorneys, we are here to serve our community," said Dunson, who was installed as the association's president last month.
He is the organization's first black president.
"Montgomery is the birthplace of the civil rights movement, and this is another milestone in our history," Suzanne Duffey, executive director of the bar association, said in a written statement. "As public servants and leaders of our community, MCBA members promote equality and help people get justice. This is a reflection of that leadership."
Keith Norman, executive director of the Alabama State Bar Association, said a few other local bar associations across the state previously have had black presidents.
"I know Kendall through his service with the bar," Norman said. "He has been active in state bar matters, and certainly on the county level.
"He's worked his way up the ladder, as one does to become president of a bar organization."
Dunson said that while he appreciates the acknowledgement that he's received for being the first black president of the nearly 100-year-old organization, he said, "I like to believe that I was selected because I can do a great job."
"(Being the first black president) did add a little bit of pride, but that should not be the primary focus, in my opinion."
Beasley Allen founder Jere Beasley said Dunson is a "good combination" of very good person and very good attorney.
He said it is important and significant that the bar now has a black president.
"And I might say, it's overdue," he said.
Dunson has served as the president of both the Alabama Lawyers Association and the Capital City Bar Association. He recently completed a term as a board member for the National Bar Association. He served on the board of the Montgomery County Bar Association until he was elected to the executive committee a few years ago.
Members of the Capital City Bar Association, which Dunson said is primarily a black bar association, each April speak with area high school students about careers in the legal profession.
"From that program, I am aware of at least two people who have become lawyers," he said. "It started out (as a program for) black students, but now anyone can attend."
The program also has expanded to Birmingham, with the help of the Alabama State Bar Association.
Dunson, who said he does see himself as a role model, spends additional time in area schools.
He tells students that where there is a will, there is a way. "If you put your mind to it, it can be done," he said.
His advice to students: Prepare early for whatever it is you want to do in life and go to college.
"What you do in high school will punch your ticket for what you do in college; what you do in college will punch your ticket for what you do in law school," he said.
Dunson said Black History Month, which is this month, is important to note but that black history is American history.
"It's year-round for me," he said. "I like to have knowledge all the time."
Dunson's goals as president include updating the association's website, www.mcbar.org, and getting wireless Internet installed at the Montgomery County Courthouse.
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The economic toll of slow justice – [Op-ed]
By S. Lester Tate III, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
February 11, 2011
What do “jobs” and “justice” have in common? According to an economic study released last week by the State Bar of Georgia, a lot. Increased caseloads in recent years, combined with reduced budgets for the court system, have cost Georgians thousands of jobs and our economy hundreds of millions of dollars.
As a trial lawyer who has spent 23 years of my life trying all types of cases in courtrooms across this state, I know the importance of “justice.”
But to folks like my father, who lost his job while I was in college when the mill where he worked shut down and who had never set foot in a courtroom except as a juror, “justice” probably seemed pretty far removed from daily economic life.
The state bar’s study, however, found the judicial system to be one of the state’s leading economic development foundations. Specifically, the study found that the efficient handling of “cases impacts both the business and social climate of Georgia.”
This is particularly true in the past decade, when a massive increase in the number of cases filed in our state’s courts was accompanied by an 8 percent overall decline in judicial funding.
When courts become less efficient because of more cases and fewer dollars, Georgia businesses and individuals bear the cost of delays. The slowdowns lead to higher costs, more business uncertainty and reduced productivity. Time and money that should be put to use making goods, providing services and creating jobs instead get spent waiting for justice.
Using a widely accepted statistical methodology, the Washington Economics Group estimated court slowdowns cost Georgia between 3,457 and 7,098 jobs throughout the state. That’s between $176 million and $375 million in annual wages for white-collar and blue-collar workers alike. Considering all factors, the total negative impact is between $337 million and $802 million on Georgia’s economy each year.
Such an economic loss has a profound effect on the lives of all citizens, from the single mother needing to collect child support to the corporate board of directors trying to decide whether Georgia or some other state is the best place to do business.
Business, community and political leaders cannot afford to ignore the courts as an important component of our economic recovery.
Certainly, elected officials at the state and local levels have struggled recently in trying to balance their budgets, particularly after three years of plummeting revenues.
But judicial budget cuts have in fact unwittingly contributed to the economic decline responsible for these budget deficits. Between 2008 and 2009 revenue from fines and fees in Georgia courts declined by $52 million because of slower courts, and the new study estimates annual lost income tax revenue caused by court delays at between $51 million and $115 million annually.
In other words, the cuts cost as much or more money than they saved, and that’s only the direct result.
The state bar’s study shows that there are even deeper, more far-ranging consequences. Somewhere a corporation is contemplating locating to Georgia, but it may not want to do business in a state where it can’t get a speedy resolution to disputes. Somewhere in Georgia a small-business owner may want to hire a new employee, but he can’t afford to until a court rules that the money he’s owed has to be paid.
This means that judicial funding and the speedy, efficient operation of the courts is no longer a cause for just lawyers and judges.
It’s also the cause of folks like my father, who started working in the mill at age 15 and lost his job at that same mill at age 54. A functional court system is a rising tide that lifts all boats.
S. Lester Tate III of Cartersville is president of the State Bar of Georgia.
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Ward elected Law Institute president
By Dana Byerle, Gadsden Times
February 7, 2011
State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, was elected president of the Alabama Law Institute during the institute's quarterly meeting last week.
The institute's governing body, the Council for the Law Institute, chose state Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, as vice-president.
The Alabama Law Institute works with the Legislative Reference Service to place and codify legislative acts. Membership is limited to a maximum of 150 members of the Alabama State Bar Association, judges of the Alabama Supreme Court, courts of appeals, circuit courts, federal judges in Alabama, full-time law faculty members of law schools at Cumberland and the University of Alabama, all members of the Institute Council and all lawyer members of the Legislature who are licensed to practice in Alabama, the institute said.
Bob McCurley is the law institute's executive director.
“I am honored to have this opportunity to work with my colleagues in the legal community to bring about fair and just changes needed to the Code of Alabama,” Ward said in a statement.
Other newly elected officers were Reps. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood; Demetrius Newton, D-Birmingham; and Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa; and Sens. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham; Roger Bedford, D-Russellville; and Arthur Orr, R-Decatur.
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New Group in Congress Pushes to Change Legal System
By David Ingram, The National Law Journal
February 10, 2011
Conservative lawmakers are organizing in a more formal way to promote an array of changes to the civil justice system, including proposals related to medical malpractice reform, venue and federal pleading standards.
Six members of the U.S. House of Representatives said today they’re starting a Congressional Civil Justice Caucus. Like other alliances formed on specific issues, the caucus won’t have specific authority, but its members hope it will be a vehicle for organizing and debate.
The formation comes as Republicans have put changes to medical malpractice liability at the top of their agenda. On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee debated but did not vote on a bill that would cap non-economic damages. Plaintiff-side lawyers and consumer groups are opposing the bill.
“Excessive and frivolous litigation and inefficient rules and procedures drain U.S. companies of desperately-needed resources and hinder job growth and innovation,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the co-chairman of the new caucus, in a written statement.
The other co-chairman is Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.), who is among the most conservative Democrats in the House. Two other conservative Democrats, Reps. Jim Matheson (Utah) and Collin Peterson (Minn.), are founding members, along with Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Trent Franks (R-Ariz.).
A statement from the group argues that “American businesses are being forced to devote more and more of their vital resources to defending frivolous lawsuits.” They say they want to promote understanding of “how civil justice issues affect the free enterprise system.”
Opponents of the Republican-led legislation say the caucus sounds like its real goal is to protect corporations from liability. “I’m not sure they’re interested in civil justice. I think they may just be interested in shielding corporations from the only place they can be held accountable, the courts,” said Christine Hines, consumer and civil justice counsel at Public Citizen.
Lisa Rickard, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform, released a statement supporting the caucus as a “welcome new voice” on Capitol Hill.
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New York to Assure Legal Aid in Foreclosure Cases
By DAVID STREITFELD, The New York Times
February 15, 2011
New York court officials outlined procedures Tuesday aimed at assuring that all homeowners facing foreclosure were represented by a lawyer, a significant shift that could give thousands of families a chance to strike a better deal with lenders.
Criminal defendants are guaranteed a lawyer, but New York will be the first state to try to extend that pledge to foreclosures, which are civil matters. There are about 80,000 active foreclosure cases in New York courts.
Under the procedures, which will be put in place in Queens and Orange Counties in the next few weeks and then across the entire state, any homeowner in foreclosure who does not have a lawyer will be supplied one by legal aid groups or other volunteer groups.
New York has been successful in getting foreclosure defendants to show up at settlement meetings overseen by a judge and attended by the lender, but most are unassisted and have little idea how to proceed. The cases are overwhelming the courts.
The state’s chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, said the current system was “such an uneven playing field.”
“Banks wind up with the property and the homeowner winds up over the cliff, on the street,” Judge Lippman said. “It doesn’t serve anyone’s interest, including the bank’s.”
Legal aid groups will find the task of representing foreclosure defendants easier if the state legislature agrees to Judge Lippman’s request for a $100 million increase in legal services programs spread over the next four years. Current funding for legal services in the state is about $200 million a year drawn from a variety of public and private sources.
New York, which is one of the 23 states where foreclosures must be overseen by a judge, has been more aggressive than most in trying to reshape the housing cases flooding its courts. Lawyers in New York are now personally liable for the accuracy of the documents they represent in foreclosure cases, a requirement that some find onerous.
Legal aid organizations in the 23 states say that they do not have enough money or lawyers to help everyone who wants to be helped. New Mexico has started classes to help train people to represent themselves in court. Legal aid groups in other states are forced to choose among families, helping some but not others.
The Legal Aid Society, which assists families and individuals in New York City, will be working with the courts to supply the necessary lawyers in Queens, a foreclosure hotbed.
“There’s a huge demand,” said Steven Banks, the society’s attorney in chief. “The new model is focused on redeploying resources to attempt to take more of an early intervention in the case rather than at the 11th hour when the sheriff is on the way.”
Judge Lippman said he hoped that the lawyers would reach out to defendants before they even appeared in court.
Citing the 1963 ruling by the United States Supreme Court that state courts are required by the Constitution to provide counsel in criminal cases to defendants who cannot afford their own, Mr. Lippman said in an interview this was the right moment to extend that provision.
“Today it is an equally obvious truth that people in civil cases dealing with the necessities of life can’t get a fair day in court without a lawyer,” he said.