Supreme Court chief justice race focuses on court system finances
By Brendan Kirby, Press-Register
February 26, 2012
Nearly all judicial candidates promise to be tough yet fair. The battle for the Republican nomination for Alabama Supreme Court chief justice may turn on who best can manage a court system hammered by budget cuts.
The three men seeking the post all claim to have the best administrative experience to accomplish the task.
Incumbent Chuck Malone twice was elected presiding judge of Tuscaloosa County Circuit Court and spent time as Gov. Robert Bentley’s chief of staff before Bentley appointed him to his current position last year.
Mobile County Presiding Circuit Judge Charles Graddick runs the state’s second-biggest court system and also served as attorney general.
And Roy Moore was chief justice until being ousted for failing to follow a federal court order to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments that he installed in the Alabama judicial building.
Republican voters will pick their nominee on March 13. The winner will run against Democrat Harry Lyon in the fall.
Looming large in the race is the issue of how to maintain basic court services amid declining budgets that forced layoffs last year.
Malone said that he has developed a comprehensive plan to persuade lawmakers to increase funding for the court system by $18 million. “I believe everything in my career has prepared me to be the chief justice,” he said. “I have a plan, and I think I’m the only one that has a sound, business-plan approach to our financial situation.”
Malone said that he is leading by example; he intends to sell the state-issued sport utility vehicle assigned to the chief justice.
His goal, he said, is to restore personnel in the circuit clerks’ offices to 70 percent of pre-layoff totals. Those offices have been operating on about 50 percent staffing.
Malone has tangled with Graddick and Moore over funding for the court system’s administrative division, the Administrative Office of Courts. Graddick and Moore both have vowed to impose cuts there.
Graddick said, “The entire system needs to be streamlined from top to bottom.”
He pointed to a proliferation of staff at the court’s central office, particularly high-income lawyers whose jobs may not be essential. He said that the AOC was set up to support the county courthouses.
“Now frankly, it is running the court systems to the point where the court systems are supporting AOC,” Graddick said. “They do nothing to help us in the trenches down here in terms of seeing that a case is moved quickly through the court system.”
Moore said that the AOC director makes about 50 percent more than the director did when he was chief justice a decade ago. “Salaries have gone up exorbitantly,” Moore said. “Definitely, we don’t need to be increasing salaries when we’re cutting positions in the circuit courts around the state.”
Malone said that the AOC has experienced layoffs, and that several top officials are wearing multiple hats. The director, for instance, also serves as chief counsel.
“We’re doubling up on doing those jobs. We’re starting to make it lean,” Malone said.
But Malone said that it’s still more efficient and cheaper to have the AOC function as one personnel department for all employees, for example, than to have separate departments in 67 counties. “There’s an economy of scale, and we have a great model,” he said.
Graddick and Malone disagree about taking advantage of lower interest rates to refinance $10 million in bonds issued years ago to support the court system.
Graddick said refinancing could free up hundreds of thousands of dollars for the court system. But Malone said interest rates have not fallen enough to justify the added debt that the state would incur.
In guiding the courts through the budget crisis, Graddick said he would draw on his experience as attorney general in the 1980s. “I did that and was able to turn that office around so much as to turn money back to the state general fund every year,” he said.
Moore, who became a political celebrity because of his Ten Commandments battle, said he is best-equipped to deal with state cuts because of something for which he is less well known — his experience handling budget struggles in 2001.
“I know the job. I’ve done the job. We need leadership in the judicial branch at a time when we’ve got a severe budget deficit,” he said. “I’ve handled these problems before.”
Moore said he converted the court system from paper to electronic files, bringing a substantial savings. Also, he said, the Legislature passed a bill on his recommendation that allowed for the seizure of income tax refunds to pay court fines and costs.
Moore said he enjoys good relationships with lawmakers and would draw on that to obtain funding that the system needs. “We’re not talking about an agency here. We’re talking about a branch,” he said.
The candidates agree that it’s not the responsibility of the Supreme Court to promote so-called sentencing reform. Democrat Sue Bell Cobb advocated unsuccessfully during her tenure for changes that would reduce sentences for some drug-related and nonviolent offenses. The idea was to relieve crowded conditions in state prisons.
Malone described the sentencing issue as old news and said his priority will be restoring funding for the court system.
Moore said that some changes could have merit for the Legislature to consider, but that judges must retain sentencing discretion. “There certain crimes people should be punished for,” he said.
And Graddick said: “What costs more, keeping somebody in prison or letting them break into someone’s house?”
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Divorce-by-Form Riles Texas Bar
By NATHAN KOPPEL, The Wall Street Journal
February 25, 2012
AUSTIN, Texas—The Texas Supreme Court wants to help financially strapped couples by offering them fill-in-the-blank legal forms they can use in divorce cases instead of hiring lawyers.
Divorce lawyers—whose fees often exceed $100 an hour in Texas—are battling the plan.
The fight is a sign of what experts see as a trend around the country: a growing number of people who try to represent themselves when they go to court to dissolve their marriages. Though there are no comprehensive figures, surveys in some states and Texas counties indicate that a majority of parties in divorce cases do so, which can cause problems for the couples as well as the courts.
Thirty-six states already offer self-help forms for divorce filings. The Texas Supreme Court last month finished drafts of its versions, including a divorce petition that prompts people to check relevant boxes and fill in blanks, including the date they were married, whether they have a protective order against a spouse and details regarding personal property they own.
The State Bar of Texas has asked the court to suspend its initiative, citing insufficient data.
"You would expect the number of self-represented litigants to be increasing during times of economic distress, but we don't know that," said Robert Black, the president of the bar association. The bar has formed a committee to study the issue and suggest any solutions that might be needed, he said.
Thomas Ausley, chairman of the bar's family-law section, said one of the proposed Texas forms asks people whether they want to waive legal rights without adequately informing them what such a waiver might entail. "People need legal advice," he said.
Mr. Black said such forms are of no use if filled out incorrectly. "The client and the system are far better served by having a lawyer," he said.
Supporters of the move say there already is compelling data. In Travis County, which includes Austin, 56% of divorces involving couples with children were filed by self-represented parties in 2010-2011, according to the court clerk's office; 78% of divorces not involving children were filed by self-represented spouses. In Lubbock County, about 44% of divorces filed over the past two years involved at least one self-represented party.
"My impression is that the numbers of cases with self-represented parties are trending up," said Carl Reynolds, director of the Texas Office of Court Administration. "Many people are stressed economically and can't afford a lawyer."
Edith Herrera, a 30-year-old Austin resident, said she called several lawyers this year when she decided she wanted a divorce. But they all said they would charge her a consultation fee as well as a retainer.
"That's not an option for me because I have four children and raise them myself," she said. She turned to a legal-aid organization but it said it couldn't give her an appointment for six months. Eventually, Ms. Herrera said, she went to a law library in Austin, where a librarian helped her fill out a divorce petition, which she filed Jan. 30. "I'm hoping for the best," she said.
Divorce forms are readily available in libraries, bookstores and on the Internet, but people often use incorrect ones, such as those based on another state's laws, judges and lawyers said.
"Some forms are so poor people can't get their divorces granted," said Gordon Adams, a judge in Belton, Texas. In his county, which includes part of the Fort Hood military base, about 52% of divorce cases last year were filed by self-represented litigants, up from 49% in 2010, said Judge Adams, who favors the Supreme Court's plan.
So does Judge Judy Parker of Lubbock, who said self-represented couples need good fill-in-the-blank forms. Otherwise, she said, they can contribute to case backlogs since they tend to need much hand-holding. Judges often worry that if they offer guidance to a self-represented party they will violate their judicial duty to remain neutral in cases, she said. "I can't treat one litigant differently simply because they don't have a lawyer," Judge Parker said.
Nationally, court clerks' offices increasingly are trying to help litigants by offering routine information about the steps to take to file or respond to a divorce, said Andrew Schepard, a family-law professor at Hofstra University School of Law. Family lawyers also volunteer to help out indigent litigants, he said, but "there aren't enough pro-bono lawyers to go around."
In Texas, divorce lawyers contend that the divorce forms likely will be used by many people of means, who can afford a lawyer and would be better served by paying for one.
"You can't say, 'You can only use the forms if you are poor,' " said Mr. Ausley of the Texas bar's family-law section.
The supreme court, however, has declined to halt its work on divorce forms and has informed lawyers that it plans to take a final vote this spring on whether to approve the new method. In a letter to the bar association, Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson wrote that the court has a duty to establish "a judicial climate in which people who lack money to hire a lawyer have a reasonable chance to vindicate their rights."
Chuck Malone says state should provide an additional $17 million to the court system
By Wayne Grayson, Tuscaloosa News
February 19, 2012
TUSCALOOSA | Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Chuck Malone told members of the Alabama Press Association that he wants an additional $17 million in appropriations for the state court system.
“This is the third branch of government. It’s a priority issue,” Malone said during a visit to Tuscaloosa on Saturday. “Judges are the gatekeepers of the constitution. We are the one country that has a constitution for everyone. The day we lose that (interpretation of the law) is the day we begin going in the wrong direction.”
Courts across the state are struggling to keep up with caseloads as government appropriations continue to drop. In fiscal year 2011, the court system received $152 million in government appropriations. For the current fiscal year that number fell to $139 million, 8.6 percent of the state’s General Fund.
“Is that adequate funding for the courts? For the third branch of government in this state?” Malone asked.
“It’s not when you’re equipped with five-year-old equipment and computers and 50 percent manpower.”
Malone said adequate funding for the court system is his No. 1 goal, noting he has made several personal decisions to save the system money, such as driving his car rather than one provided by the state and choosing not to have a state-paid security guard.
He said he has been working to make the court system’s budget more transparent in order to make lawmakers’ jobs easier when figuring the court system’s portion of the General Fund.
Malone’s predecessor as chief, justice, Sue Bell Cobb, was vocal about the need for increased funding as well. Before she resigned from the position, Cobb told The Tuscaloosa News in May 2011 that the court system was not ruling out suing the Legislature to prevent more budget cuts.
Gov. Robert Bentley appointed Malone, a former circuit judge and Bentley’s former chief of staff, to the chief justice job in August 2011.
In his proposed budget for the next fiscal year, Bentley plans to cut the General Fund and earmarked appropriations to the court system by 14.2 percent.
Malone said Saturday that he’s against a lawsuit as Cobb suggested. But he said that thanks to his former position as Bentley’s chief of staff, he has seen first-hand how the court system isn’t prioritized by legislators when deciding the budget.
“I didn’t know the judges and our judicial system were being pulled down to this extent,” he said.
Malone said inadequate funding is a challenge faced by court systems across the nation. He added that combining the heavy case volumes courts are seeing with such a low funding level can have a negative effect on the economy.
“When businesses are thinking of coming to Alabama, they want to know three things. They want to know about the integrity of the infrastructure and education, but they also want to know whether or not the court system is working,” he said.
“They want to be sure that there is stability and predictability to how the law is interpreted.”
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Lawyers offer services to assist first responders
Written by, Marty Roney
February 17, 2012
PRATTVILLE -- Members of the Prattville Fire Department received some free legal help Thursday as part of a national program that serves first responders.
The Wills For Heroes Foundation draws up wills, power of attorney documents and advance directives for health care, better known as "living wills," free of charge for public safety workers. Members of the Alabama State Bar provided the legal know-how in Prattville, and the Fire Department provided the space at its training facility on Echlin Drive.
"When they leave here they have three printed out documents that will be certified and probated," said Linda Lund, director of the Volunteer Lawyers Program at the state bar. "It usually takes about an hour per person to complete the process."
For Sgt. Stephen Stewart, a veteran member of the Fire Department, it took about half that time.
"I had all my information, so we were done in about 30 minutes," he said. "It gives you peace of mind to know these type things are handled. We didn't settle who gets Paw-Paw's shotgun. We can handle that differently. But the important things are taken care of."
Getting the documents drawn up typically would cost $300 to $500, said Louis Colley, a local attorney who volunteered his services Thursday. Colley also serves as Prattville municipal court judge.
"Lawyers can use all the help we can get to improve our image," he said. "Doing this lets me help out our firemen, people I see on a regular basis."
The process ran smoothly Thursday, but it took some behind-the-scenes work to pull it off. Fire Department Lt. Ricky Roberts contacted the bar in November about the possibility of the program visiting Prattville.
"We send estate planning packets out ahead of time," Lund said. "Drawing up a will is a serious matter. It's not something you can properly take care of in an hour or so of just talking with an attorney. From there, it's just a process of coordinating a time when everyone's schedule works out."
The methods used worked, said Brad Ekdahl, another Prattville attorney who volunteered his services. Work stations were set up with laptop computers and printers.
"I finished five wills very quickly," he said. "Then they sent me a pre-law student who could type, and we really started churning them out."
Plans are being made for a future session to serve members of the Prattville Police Department.
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Lawyers costing Jefferson County $250,000 per week
By Barnett Wright, The Birmingham News
February 19, 2012
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- Jefferson County has paid an average of about $250,000 per week to lawyers representing its Chapter 9 bankruptcy petition so far, and legal experts say that amount could escalate as the case progresses.
According to documents reviewed by The Birmingham News, two Birmingham-based law firms and one in Los Angeles have been paid $2,226,258 since November, when the county filed for the largest Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, citing $4.23 billion in total debt.
An additional $450,000 to $470,000 in legal bills from January are expected, bringing the total to nearly $2.7 million.
But legal experts say the county's bankruptcy costs could soar well beyond the current average of about $1 million a month because of the unprecedented magnitude of the county's financial collapse and the volume of filings that continue to pour in from some of its 4,161 creditors.
In addition to the costs of lawyers, the county will have to pay professional fees for expert witnesses, rate consultants, financial advisers and accountants who will try to help make its case.
And the president of the Alabama State Bar said the county's legal tab in bankruptcy will climb even higher if the case drags on without a new source of revenue from state lawmakers.
According to attorney lists and court filings, 15 lawyers represent Jefferson County from the Bradley Arant Boult Cummings and Balch & Bingham law firms in Birmingham, and the Los Angeles-based firm of Klee, Tuchin, Bogdanoff and Stern. The highest-paid attorney for the county is Kenneth Klee, who is making $975 an hour; his partner, Lee Bogdanoff, is paid $875 an hour.
"We knew it was going to be an expensive endeavor and we've had to bite that bullet and forge ahead because I think it was the right thing to do," said County Commissioner Joe Knight. "We went out to try to get the very best, and we think we have."
"We are paying too much," Commissioner George Bowman said. "Lawyers are the only ones getting any money out of this deal. Their solutions are always additional appeals and additional legal solutions, which keeps us in court."
Fees paid by Jefferson County for bankruptcy lawyers
Bradley Arant: $476,342
Klee Tuchin: $443,101
Balch & Bingham: $102,099
Bradley Arant: $442,706
Klee Tuchin: $376,576
Balch & Bingham: $55,374
*Bradley Arant: $400,000
Klee Tuchin: $330,059
*Balch & Bingham: $50,000-$70,000
Total: approx. $780,000-$800,000
Source: Jefferson County
But legal experts say high costs are inevitable.
"You are dealing with a large number of entities and you're dealing with the kind of bankruptcy that rarely occurs, a municipal bankruptcy, so the people that have any expertise in this area all are lawyers who are going to be high-priced," said John L. Carroll, dean of the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University.
And Jefferson County's case could be more expensive than most for several reasons, experts say. Those include the number of lawyers possibly needed to represent the county before the Alabama Supreme Court relating to bankruptcy issues and those needed for appeals to U.S. District Court and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta of rulings rendered by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Bennett.
Also, the case is so massive that it lacks legal precedent.
"The legal issues are subtle and complex, and they matter a lot," said Michael Floyd, a Samford law professor who has closely followed the county's sewer debt crisis. "There are big dollars at stake. When we're talking about three or four billion dollars in debt, it is important to pay careful attention to all the possibilities.
"Anything that could have a significant effect on the outcome is going to be looked at very carefully, and it should be."
Anthony Michael Sabino, business professor at St. John's University, said bankruptcy can be a "feast for lawyers," who are the first to be paid.
"As the local residents pay school taxes, real estate taxes, they can rest assured that a chunk of that money will go off the top to pay the attorneys' fees," he said.
Sabino, who has handled legal matters in federal, bankruptcy and state courts for more than 25 years, said the county also must pay "any outside accounting firm that has come to review the books, any consultants who come in, anybody and everybody who is right now rendering services on behalf of the debtor known as Jefferson County."
The county has been looking for a firm to perform a sewer-rate study, and Knight said he also would like an expert to determine the worth of the sewer system. "The value of the sewer is going to be a key piece of evidence in all of this," Knight said.
Lack of funds
Jim Pratt, the State Bar president, said without additional cash for its general fund, the county's attempts to exit bankruptcy will be delayed, if not bogged down, and its costs will soar.
"The creditors are not going to reach some voluntary settlement with the county unless they believe whatever they agree to can be funded," said Pratt, who has worked as facilitator between county officials and state lawmakers on a possible solution to the cash crisis.
"Why would creditors settle with the county if the county is not going to pay the money?" Pratt said. "When you're underwater and it's getting nothing but worse, how can you convince either the creditors or the court that you can come up with some plan to move forward in a financially sound way? I just don't know how you do it without additional money."
The county's legal costs have long concerned some county commissioners.
According to county records, attorneys for Bradley Arant have collected $9,618,160 in legal fees from the county since October 2006. Bradley Arant has been the lead Birmingham firm on the county's sewer debt crisis but also has done work on lawsuits over the county's job tax.
Balch & Bingham has collected $4.1 million since October 2006, and in addition to providing legal advice on the sewer crisis has done work for the Jefferson County Personnel Board, according to records.
Bowman said he's concerned because the county "can't pay employees, but we can pay lawyers."
Good legal advice is expensive, said Floyd, the Samford law professor, "but bad legal advice can be even more expensive."
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More TN tort reform may make the 'loser pay' - Group follows landmark law with plan to weed out frivolous lawsuits By Brandon Gee, The Tennesean (Nashville)
Feb. 20, 2012
Unsatisfied with landmark tort reform legislation that Gov. Bill Haslam and Republican lawmakers successfully enacted last year, business, insurance and health-care interests continue to push for laws that will reduce their exposure to civil lawsuits.
Proponents of the laws say they will help prevent the filing of junk lawsuits and improve Tennessee’s business climate. Opponents say they would improperly shield wrongdoers and close the courthouse doors to all but the very wealthy.
Last year’s legislation capped non-economic damages such as pain and sufferring at $750,000 and punitive damages at $500,000, with some exceptions for cases involving “catastrophic” losses or intentional misconduct, records destruction, or conduct under influence of drugs or alcohol. It also restricted claims that can be brought under the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act.
The Tennessee Civil Justice Act of 2011, as it was called, was enacted over the objection of trial lawyers and consumer advocates.
This year, the same coalition of businesspeople that helped sell the governor’s tort reform package, Tennesseans for Economic Growth, wants more limitations imposed in civil lawsuits, including a handful of bills targeting the losing side in civil cases and litigants who refuse to settle lawsuits.
One bill would require a party who loses a motion to dismiss to pay the litigation costs of the opposing party.
“Loser pays on motions to dismiss is designed to prevent frivolous lawsuits,” said Lee Barfield, a lawyer at Bass, Berry & Sims and lobbyist for the business coalition.
Another bill would require a plaintiff to pay the litigation costs of a defendant if the plaintiff refused a settlement offer from the defendant only to win less than 75 percent of the settlement offer at trial. The law would similarly punish defendants who refuse a settlement offer if the plaintiff wins more than 125 percent of their settlement offer at trial.
“It’s a two-way street,” Barfield said. “This is designed to get everybody to negotiate in good faith.”
Other lawyers disagree. While Barfield notes that the laws apply to all litigants, Lebanon trial attorney Keith Williams argued that, in practice, the laws will favor deep-pocketed corporations and insurance companies that can afford the risk.
Daniel Clayton, a medical malpractice lawyer in Nashville, said working-class Tennesseans and small businesses, on the other hand, might be too scared to file a lawsuit that has merit because the outcome of litigation is uncertain and they could get stuck paying the litigation fees of a company with an army of lawyers.
“If loser pays passes, it gives incredible power to insurance companies and big business because they can intimidate people and bankrupt people to make it very difficult for a family or small business to hold a corporation or insurance company accountable for wrongdoing,” Clayton said. “It would be the equivalent of the New England Patriots having to pay all the expenses of the New York Giants because they lost the Super Bowl. No one would claim that the New England Patriots shouldn’t have played in the Super Bowl.
“What we are dealing with is much more serious than a football game because it’s lives that have been catastrophically injured.”
Another reform supported by Tennesseans for Economic Growth would shield employers from having to pay punitive damages “when employees or agents cause injuries to others through intentional, reckless, fraudulent or malicious acts committed without the knowledge or complicity of the employer.”
Both Barfield and Clayton used the same example — whether a trucking company should be subject to punitive damages when one of its drivers injures or kills somebody while under the influence of drugs or alcohol — to make their points.
“It’s unfair to hold someone who is innocent liable for punitive damages when the punitive damages are designed to punish the wrongdoer,” Barfield said.
Clayton, however, said holding employers accountable for their workers promotes safety.
“If I know I’m responsible for my employees while they work for me, I’m going to have proper training, oversight and supervision,” he said.
Gary Zelizer, director of governmental affairs at the Tennessee Medical Association, said his organization will continue to push for a bill that would prevent emergency room patients from suing hospitals and doctors for negligence unless they can show “gross negligence.” When mistakes occur, Zelizer said it’s unfair to hold emergency room physicians to the same standard as doctors who know, and have a history with, a patient.
The ER difference
Clayton, however, said the current standard for medical negligence already affords protection to emergency room doctors because negligence is defined as care that is unreasonable or not consistent with standards set by their peers. In other words, Clayton argues that emergency room physicians already are held to a different standard because what is reasonable in an emergency setting is not the same as what would be reasonable in other situations.
“It allows doctors to commit malpractice and not be held accountable,” Clayton said of the proposed law, noting the difficult in proving gross negligence, defined as an act done with reckless disregard or utter unconcern for safety.
The emergency room, loser pays and innocent employer bills all are pending before the judiciary committees in the House and Senate.
Another proposal, which has not been formally presented but is being discussed at the statehouse, would see a constitutional amendment placed on the 2014 ballot. If approved, it would protect the Civil Justice Act from being overturned by the courts by amending the state constitution to specifically allow the General Assembly to cap damages in civil lawsuits.
Zelizer said medical malpractice insurers still don’t want to lower their premiums to hospitals and doctors, even though damage caps are now in place, because similar caps have been overturned by courts in other states.
Williams said that the fact that damage-cap proponents think a constitutional amendment might be necessary proves that the Civil Justice Act was an unconstitutional infringement on Tennesseans’ right to a trial by jury.
David Smith, a spokesman for Haslam, said the governor does not support a constitutional amendment. Smith said that last year’s legislation “was significant in making Tennessee more competitive for new jobs by bringing predictability and certainty to businesses,” but that this year’s proposals are still under review by Haslam.
Alabama Bar Association wants more funding for courts
by Antrenise Cole, Birmingham Business Journal
February 6, 2012
The primary focus of the Alabama State Bar’s 2012 legislative agenda is obtaining adequate court funding, according to a news release.
According to the group, the current funding crisis in the state has had a disproportionate impact on the legal system.
“An underfunded court system chills investment, slows job creation and reduces tax revenue in our state,” the group said.
Additionally, the state bar has been asked to facilitate legislative discussion concerning the Alabama Children’s Family Act, the public adjusters’ bill and the taxpayer’s bill of rights/Alabama Tax Appeals Commission Act.
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Alabama State Bar calls on Legislature to fully fund courts
By Eric Velasco, The Birmingham News
February 6, 2012
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- The Alabama State Bar today called on state lawmakers to fully fund the court system in the budget expected to be approved during the legislative session that begins Tuesday, according to a release.
The court system is one of several areas of state government bracing for potential cuts in a state General Fund that is projected to be $360 million short on revenue.
Court officials have said a series of state funding cuts over the last decade has left the court system understaffed statewide, limiting its ability to perform its duties under the state Constitution.
"An underfunded court system chills investment, slows job creation and reduces tax revenue in our state," the release by the Alabama State Bar said.
Particularly affected are "high-volume" courts that hear family and juvenile cases, misdemeanors and small-claims disputes, the release said.
"Battered women unable to receive protection orders against abusive partners; children in foster care unable to have timely adoption hearings; abused and neglected children unable to have their interests protected; and vandalism, petty theft and drug offenses going unheard -- all threaten the rule of law and safety and well-being of our communities," the statement said.
State bar officials said they also will help facilitate discussion among legislators and stakeholders about the Alabama Children's Family Act, the taxpayers' bill of rights/Alabama Tax Appeals Commission Act and other bills during the session, the release said.
State bar officials continue to work with Jefferson County's legislative delegation, county commissioners and others to address the county's financial crisis, which also has affected operations of courts in the county.
Commissioners say they need to replace all or most of the $66 million generated by an occupational tax that a judge struck down in 2010, or face further cuts on top of the massive layoffs, closure of satellite offices and delays in providing public services from prior budget cuts since the loss of the tax.
"The state bar will work to protect the independence of the judiciary, enhance access to the courts, promote affirmative legislative proposals that improve the administration of justice and oppose those proposals that burden it," Jim Pratt III, a Birmingham law and president of the state bar, said in the statement.
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Alabama Attorneys: Now Pay Your Annual Client Security Fund Assessment Online
February 5, 2012
MONTGOMERY, Ala., Feb 05, 2012 Attorneys practicing in the state of Alabama can now go online to pay their annual client security fund assessments with the Alabama State Bar. The Client Security Fund provides a remedy for clients who have lost money or other property as a result of the dishonest conduct of practicing attorneys. This new application gives attorneys a fast, easy and reliable way to pay the mandatory assessment online by March 31st every year.
"By placing the [Client Security Fund] CSF assessment online we're making the payment process easy and efficient," said Keith B. Norman, Alabama State Bar Executive Director. "You don't have to spend time writing checks, going to the mailbox, or standing in line at the post office."
The Client Security Fund Mandatory Assessment online application joins a list of several online services created for the Alabama State Bar through its partnership with Alabama Interactive, LLC, which began in 2003. Other online services include Annual Meeting Registration, Exam Registration, Individual and Firm Renewals, Section Membership Renewals, and the ALABAR Shopping Cart.
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Why brag about a partisan court? – [Editorial]
By: Patrick Johnston, Eufaula Tribune
January 27, 2012
We recently received a campaign email from Chief Justice Chuck Malone.
Malone, who was appointed chief justice last August by Gov. Robert Bentley, was offering an upbeat message to his friends and supporters.
“For the first time, we have a completely Republican Supreme Court and I am honored to be able to serve the people of Alabama as Chief Justice of that court and to ensure that the rule of law is upheld in our state,” he states in the first line.
In Alabama, all nine Supreme Court justices are Republican. That likely won’t change after this year’s elections. The Supreme Court of Alabama is as red as Tuscaloosa on a football Saturday. What does that say about the scales of justice?
Such a partisan court is troublesome, and not because all nine justices are Republican. We’d say the same thing if they were all Democrats.
In actuality, our Supreme Court is more skewed than the oft-liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The words “court” and “skewed” should never be used together.
There’s much about Alabama politics that is broken. How we choose Supreme Court justices is one example. According to the American Bar Association, Alabama is one of only seven states to have partisan elections. Fourteen states, including Georgia, have non-partisan elections - though in Ohio and Michigan political parties are involved with the nomination of candidates. Seventeen states have uncontested retention elections after initial appointment. Twelve states grant life tenure or use reappointment of some type for their highest courts.
In Alabama, it takes money – a lot of money- to become a Supreme Court justice in Alabama. According to www.al.com, Malone reportedly raised $163,000 for his campaign last month. If he does that from now until November, he could raise close to $2 million.
The website also stated that the candidates in the three Supreme Court races in 2010 spent nearly $3.2 million combined, according to the study, The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2009-2010. That put Alabama No. 2 in candidate fundraising – even though Democrats only put up a token effort.
“Since 1993, special interest groups vying for control of the court have contributed more than $54 million - nearly twice the amount in any other state - to candidates for the Alabama Supreme Court,” www.al.com reports. “In that period, the once Democrat-controlled nine-member court has become all-Republican.”
No wonder so many Alabamians believe we have the best judges money can buy. Consider this national data from the Justice at Stake Campaign, National Surveys of American Voters and State Judges (2001-02):
» Seventy-six percent of voters, and 26 percent of state judges, believe that campaign contributions made to judges have at least some influence on their decisions.
» Sixty-two percent of voters—including nearly 90 percent of African-American voters—feel that “there are two systems of justice in the U.S.—one for the rich and powerful and one for everyone else.”
» Nine-in-10 voters, and 8-in-10 state judges, say they are quite concerned about special interest groups buying advertising to influence the outcomes of judicial elections.
Many Republicans and Democrats in our state would join us in sharing those concerns. They certainly wouldn’t like to see our chief justice brag about the partisanship of our state’s highest court.
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A Reform for Fair Courts – [Editorial]
The New York Times
January 29, 2012
With rising special-interest spending in state judicial elections, there is an urgent need to protect judicial integrity from the flood of campaign cash. Tennessee is leading the way with a new rule prohibiting judges from hearing cases when campaign spending by lawyers or litigants raises a reasonable question of their impartiality.
Adopted earlier this month by the Tennessee Supreme Court, the recusal rule applies to both direct contributions and independent expenditures favoring a judge’s election. It requires judges to step aside when the level of campaign support raises a reasonable concern about his or her ability to be fair. Judges who deny a recusal request will need to provide their reasons in writing, and the final word on recusal will not be left to the challenged judge. The litigants will have a chance to appeal recusal decisions to the court’s other judges.
The United States Supreme Court in a 2009 case recognized the potential threat to public trust in the justice system posed by outsized campaign spending in judicial elections. But few of the 38 states that elect their top judges have tried to combat the problem with more rigorous recusal rules. If special interests knew their campaign spending would be likely to trigger recusal, they might not try as hard to buy up judges.
Tennessee’s good model should help prod court leaders in other jurisdictions to follow suit. Campaign spending problems have plagued judicial races in states like Illinois, Alabama and Pennsylvania. A sensible rule on recusal would significantly increase public confidence in judicial integrity.
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A Dozen Law Schools Hit with Lawsuits over Jobs Data
By Joe Palazzolo, The Wall Street Journal
February 1, 2012
The number of lawsuits accusing law schools of “legerdemain” in their claims about post-graduate employment has quintupled.
Three complaints — against Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Michigan, New York Law School and Thomas Jefferson School of Law — were already out there. The schools have moved to dismiss the lawsuits, arguing that they strictly followed American Bar Association rules on job-placement data.
David Anziska, who filed the lawsuits in Michigan and New York, teamed with lawyers from seven other law firms to file a dozen more on Wednesday.
The list of schools includes Albany Law, Brooklyn Law, Hofstra Law, Widener Law, Florida Coastal, Chicago-Kent, DePaul Law, John Marshall Law School, California Western, Southwestern, USF Law and Golden Gate. The lawsuits seek tuition refunds.
“Our goal is to sue 20 to 25 more schools every few months,” said Anziska.
The core allegations are generally the same in each lawsuit: the schools misled plaintiffs by advertising that a high percentage of their graduates were employed. What they didn’t advertise is that a chunk of those graduates were stuck in jobs that don’t require the pricey degree for which they paid.
Anziska said the lawsuits Wednesday showed the original cases were more than a mere “curiosity.”
“We’ve put in place the architecture to sue,” he said.
Anziska said the schools were selected in part because of their location in large cities “with a massive oversupply of lawyers,” where graduates are less likely to be competitive in the job market. Some schools were targeted for their size.
The first concern, however, was finding multiple graduates from any given school to serve as plaintiffs, he said.
Anziska said he drew some inspiration from lawsuits targeting trade schools for similar practices. Last year, Career Education Corp., the parent company of San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy, offered $40 million to settle a class action by former students who claim the cooking school misrepresented its 98% job placement rate.
We’ve reached out to the schools, as well as the ABA, for comment.
A spokeswoman for Widener said the school “stands by its employment statistics and has provided the American Bar Association, our accrediting body, with truthful and accurate post-graduate employment data.”
In a statement, Albany Law School Dean Connie Mayer said students are “well aware of the realities of today’s economy and we believe the information we provide during the admission process does not mislead our applicants, nor differ in standards of reporting from any other law school the applicant may have considered.”