Giving something back
Birmingham Business Journal, Ty West
March 23, 2007
Whether it is assisting a nonprofit agency with its legal needs or helping resolve a landlord-tenant dispute for an indigent client, Birmingham attorneys are no stranger to pro bono practice.
Often times, attorneys will take time out of their schedules or even use their "off time" to do pro bono work, but at one local firm, pro bono service is now a mandatory work requirement.
Beginning in 2007, Adams & Reese LLP, a regional firm with an office in Birmingham, began requiring all of its attorneys to work at least 10 pro bono hours per year.
Even though the requirement adds another chore on top of an already heavy schedule for many lawyers, it's a requirement that has been well-received, according to Wade Richardson, the partner-in-charge of Adams & Reese LLP's Birmingham office.
"I think most lawyers, we get too busy in our practice, so the pro bono work kind of falls to the wayside," Richardson said. "This kind of refocuses our efforts to make sure that we do it."
Richardson said his firm, like many in the Birmingham area, already had many attorneys who were very active doing pro bono work. Because of the new requirement, Richardson said the firm will log more than 5,000 hours of pro bono work in 2007 at its nine offices.
Even before the mandatory pro bono requirement went into effect, several Adams & Reese attorneys participated in the Birmingham Bar Association's volunteer lawyer program, which provides legal assistance to those who could likely not afford it otherwise.
Frances King Quick, who has been involved with the bar association's volunteer program for more than 15 years, said more than 600 Birmingham area lawyers are involved in the program, which provides assistance ranging from family law and tenant disputes to bankruptcy matters and several other areas.
Quick, a partner at Adams & Reese, said she believes making pro bono hours mandatory sends an important message to those in the legal profession.
"It sends the right message to all of the lawyers, particularly to young lawyers," he said.
One key aspect of the program, Quick said, is that the mandatory hours are part of a lawyer's billable hour goal, which means that lawyers are paid by the firm for their work, as opposed to having to do the work on their own time.
Ted Hosp, who is a shareholder at Maynard Cooper & Gale PC and a member of the firm's pro bono committee, said his firm has a similar policy regarding attorneys being compensated for pro bono hours.
"It doesn't impact negatively your compensation if you spend a good bit of time on a pro bono case," he said.
Hosp said his firm actively encourages attorneys to do pro bono work for the community, but pro bono hours are not mandatory at Maynard Cooper & Gale.
"It is something we discussed," he said. "But it is not appropriate for our firm."
Hosp said his firm does have several formal programs to encourage pro bono work, such as a pro bono clinic it participates in through the Alabama Bar Association and a death penalty appeals program.
"The obligation to the justice system is to do the best we can to make sure people have access to an attorney," Hosp said.
Quick said she believes pro bono hours help establish a good philosophy for the legal sector.
"It helps build a sense of responsibility for the community for lawyers to do this," he said.
Richardson said there are several ways that attorneys can accomplish their pro bono requirement - including getting involved with the Birmingham Bar Association's volunteer program, which can help match up pro bono clients with local attorneys that practice in a particular area of need.
The work has to involve helping someone with limited means - often someone below the poverty lines who could not afford an attorney.
It also could involve helping nonprofit agencies that have a mission to protect public rights or helping charities that would be threatened if they had to incur legal expenses.
So far, Richardson said his firm's partners and members are fulfilling the pro bono requirements in a number of ways.
The firm recently announced a partnership with Appleseed, which is a network of public interest law centers that allows attorneys to help clients with lingering legal issues after Hurricane Katrina.
Richardson said many attorneys have gotten involved in the volunteer program, while others, like Mark Gaines, are working with nonprofits to fulfill their pro bono requirements.
Gaines, a special counsel with the firm, is lobbying in Montgomery to secure funding for Kid One Transport, a program that provides transportation for children.
"They are in desperate need of a regular funding source," he said. "Every dollar you can get to help transport a child to the doctor or a mother for prenatal care is extremely beneficial."
Gaines said being able to give back to the community by working with a nonprofit is rewarding and has the potential to help strengthen the community by building strong support relationships between attorneys and nonprofits.
Other Adams & Reese attorneys, like Richard Carmody, have used their expertise to help individuals in need.
Through the association's volunteer program, Carmody, a partner in the firm's transactions and corporate advisory services practice, was paired with an elderly woman who was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and had to give up her in-home day care service she ran. He helped her file a bankruptcy case.
Carmody said one of the biggest benefits of the program is providing access to experienced attorneys. "I think it makes a statement when somebody who has 25 or 30 years of experience walks in the room," he said.
He said pro bono work also is encouraged by the Alabama Bar Association Code of Conduct, where rule 6.1 states that lawyers should render legal services benefiting the public interest.
After the successful first year of the mandatory pro bono requirement, Richardson said the firm plans to expand the requirement to 20 pro bono hours per year beginning in 2008.
He said his hope is that other local firms will follow suit to create an even greater culture of giving back among the metro area's legal community.
"What we are trying to do through adopting this policy is to encourage our lawyers to demonstrate that this is something that is important," he said.
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Pay soars for new hires at corporate law firms
By TAMMY JOYNER, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Starting pay at many Atlanta corporate law firms has soared in the past two months. In some cases, the pay hikes are putting newly-minted lawyers' base pay miles ahead of their more public service-minded peers and Gov. Sonny Perdue and the state's top attorney.
Since January, when Troutman & Sanders ignited metro Atlanta's pay war, more than a dozen Atlanta law firms have raised salaries for first-year attorneys from $115,000 to $130,000.
Heavyweights King & Spalding and Alston & Bird followed Troutman's lead. The list has since grown to include Kilpatrick Stockton, McKenna Long & Aldridge, Morris, Manning & Martin and others.
Hunton & Williams trumped the pack recently by sweetening the pot for its newbie associates to $145,000. That's more than Georgia attorney general Thurbert Baker or Gov. Sonny Perdue make.
Atlanta's largesse is part of a national trend that began in New York and has worked its way to law firms in California, Miami, Chicago, Houston and other major cities.
Competition for top law school grads and healthy balance sheets has helped push pay up on the corporate side of the legal profession nationally. Meanwhile, many of their first-year peers in the public sector — legal aid services, for instance — would be ecstatic to start their careers at $50,000.
Salaries at the largest Atlanta law firms generally hovered at $75,000 in the late 1990s. They rose to about $100,000 in 2000.
"Salaries were pretty flat during the strong parts of the economy," said Bob Saudek, managing partner with Morris, Manning & Martin in Atlanta. "They were poised to go up when the recession hit in 2002. The recession did impact law firms a lot. All of a sudden, it was more of a buyer's market for law firms.
"Law firms weren't hiring as fast in 2002 to 2004. There wasn't the pressure to move salaries up."
Atlanta salaries remained fairly stagnant until late 2005, when they went to $115,000. Then earlier this year, they jumped to $130,000. The pay increases come at a time when the legal profession nationwide is enjoying immense business and profits. The legal industry enjoyed healthy revenue growth in the first half of last year, due largely to rate increases and a rise in demand, measured in the form of gross hours, according to a study by wealth manager Citigroup Private Bank.
As a result, productivity has picked up as attorneys put in more hours. This summer, many of the nation's top law firms plan to bring in more summer hires. And many law schools are reporting greater hiring for first-year associates, many of whom will join law firms in the fall.
Law firms compete for hires, raise the ante. Salaries historically go up every few years, but this time the competition has intensified.
"They're competing for a small group of talented associates," said Roy Sobelson, associate dean of the Georgia State University College of Law. "Once one does it, anyone else who wants to keep up has to do the same."
The first-year associates aren't the only ones enjoying more money. Increases have spread in ladderstep to other associates in the firm, experts say.
"When you have an increase in the base, it works its way through the entire associates ranks," said Ben Johnson III, managing partner at Alston & Bird, where about 40 new associates will start this fall.
Competition has become so steep that some top-drawer law firms nationally are awarding $200,000 signing bonuses to those who've clerked for the U.S. Supreme Court.
Those bonuses are on top of the $145,000 to $160,000 starting pay and equate to what Chief Justice John Roberts earns in a year. Roberts criticized the inadequacy of judicial salaries in a report to Congress earlier this year.
"It's a sign of just how out of whack the cost of legal services are in relation to the value of services provided," said Susan Hackett, general counsel for the Association of Corporate Counsel in Washington, D.C., a bar assocation for in-house counsel in private sector companies. "Do we really think someone who just graduated from law school and has very little practical experience has the same level of legal acumen as someone who is an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States?"
Paying for those salaries
Hackett noted that a lot of first-year associates in large firms tend to "focus on mundane, routine tasks" such as document discovery, contract review and other research.
"These are all tasks you can hire a non-law firm vendor to fulfill at a fraction of the cost," she said. Consequently, Hackett added, newly minted attorneys will pay a heavy price for the heftier paychecks.
"Associates have to drum up work. They're never going to see a free Saturday or Sunday," she said. "The partners in the firm aren't going to take the money out of their own pockets, but out of the associates' hides. They're going to make the associates bill more hours to pay for their keep."
Alston & Bird's Johnson disagrees. "There's no expectation necessarily that anybody will work more hours because you're paying them more money," he said. "That may or may not be the case. How many hours people work depends on how much work you've got."
Huge pay gap for legal aid lawyers
The latest wave of pay hikes points to another issue. Most of these increases are going to associates in corporate firms. Those in the public sector, such as district attorneys' and legal aid offices, aren't seeing much of the bounty.
A study released last November by the Chicago Bar Foundation and Illinois Coalition for Equal Justice found that four in 10 legal aid lawyers plan to leave their jobs due to low pay and high law school debt.
Median starting salary for an attorney at a civil legal services group is $36,000. An attorney with 11-15 years of legal aid experience makes about $55,000, according to the NALP, the Association for Legal Career Professionals.
Then consider: The average debt of new law school grads has skyrocketed. Many graduates are entering the job market with six-figure debt. Loans that used to take 10 years to pay off are now being extended to 30 years, according to Dina Merrell, associate director of the Chicago Bar Foundation and co-author of the study.
The debt may in fact justify the generous salaries.
"With debts to pay, lots of students are happy to take the jobs," said Emory University law professor Charles Shanor.
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A vote that should count – [Editorial]
The Birmingham News
March 25, 2007
THE ISSUE: A House committee approved a bill to take away judges' power to impose a death sentence when a jury recommends life. The full House and Senate need to follow suit.
One of the most frightening features of Alabama's death penalty laws is that elected judges have the power to impose the ultimate punishment even when a jury concludes otherwise.
If a jury unanimously recommends mercy - and in the case of capital crimes, that means a life prison sentence with no chance, ever, for parole - a judge can disregard jurors' wishes and sentence a defendant to death.
That is wrong whether you support capital punishment or not.
The wrong would be righted under a measure approved this past Wednesday by the House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee. The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Demetrius Newton, D-Birmingham, passed on a voice vote.
Now, the full House needs to consider and approve this bill, as does the Senate, where an identical bill has been introduced by state Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma.
The Birmingham News editorial board would like to see the death penalty abolished; it is carried out in an arbitrary, unfair way, and it conflicts with our core, pro-life beliefs.
But as long as death sentences can be imposed and carried out in Alabama, lawmakers must take steps to address the worst provisions regarding their application. Allowing judges to ignore jury recommendations regarding life and death is among the worst of the worst provisions.
Judges in Alabama face too much political pressure to have the power of life and death in these cases. While we're confident most judges strive to keep politics out of their decisions, the bottom line is that they are subject to the ballot just like legislators and town council members.
We would think judges would be relieved to have life-and-death decisions left in the hands of regular people who, whatever their shortcomings, don't have to worry about an upcoming election.
Keep in mind, too, that the jurors who hear capital cases are not soft on crime. They must support the death penalty and be willing, in theory, to inflict it. To reach the sentencing phase, they have already found a person guilty of a terrible crime.
When they say a death sentence isn't appropriate, that conclusion should count for something. The Legislature should make sure it does.
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Open courts more accountable – [Editorial]
The Birmingham News
March 23, 2007
THE ISSUE: Alabama should join a growing number of states that allow citizens access to juvenile court proceedings.
There are good reasons for confidentiality in the juvenile court system. Confidentiality laws prevent a child at Family Court from being stigmatized. Such laws help child victims avoid embarrassment and keep a juvenile offender from having a youthful indiscretion follow him into adulthood.
There are equally good reasons for Alabama's juvenile courts to be more open than they are. Too often, the state Department of Youth Services and the Department of Human Resources hide behind confidentiality laws to protect themselves when they make a grave error. And, obviously, it's difficult to hold any court accountable if all its decisions are made in secrecy.
Public oversight helps keep a court - any court - from abusing its substantial authority.
To that end, a Birmingham child advocacy group, the Society of Advocates for Family Empowerment, is pushing for legislation that would open Alabama's juvenile courts following the model of Oregon's juvenile court system.
In Oregon, the public has access to all juvenile court cases, though all court records remain closed. Still, the public can learn the name and birth date of the child, the basis for the court's jurisdiction over the child and the date, time and place of any juvenile court proceeding in which the child is involved. Oregon isn't alone, either. A number of other states, including Florida in the Southeast, have open juvenile courts.
There are examples where state agencies and the courts have abused confidentiality privileges. Sadly, it's not unusual for DHR to keep information from the public when a child is severely abused or killed, especially if the child has had previous involvement with DHR. The public might have a better idea of what was done to protect a child if courts were open.
Even in cases where a child under DHR supervision has been killed, the agency has pressed the courts to keep the public from knowing exactly what went wrong. In one example, 2-year-old Victoria Monette was murdered by her mother and her mother's boyfriend in 2003. DHR settled a civil lawsuit in that case for $550,000, then convinced a St. Clair County Court to keep the details of its involvement in the case under seal.
It's too easy for DHR, DYS and juvenile court judges to hide behind a legal veil of secrecy. It's time to begin lifting that veil so the courts and state agencies become more accountable for their decisions - and the lives they impact.
As other states have shown, juvenile courts operate just fine with the public having access to their crucial proceedings. Alabama should move in that direction as well.
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Laws need fortifying before next national disaster – [Op-ed]
By H. Thomas Wells, The Birmingham News
Sunday, March 11, 2007
More than 18 months after floodwaters swept over New Orleans and winds shattered the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Katrina continues to sear America's memory.
The worst natural disaster in our nation's modern history involved more than a failure of a city's levee system. It also revealed deep failures in our system of laws designed to protect the victims of natural and man-made tragedy.
Laws that prohibit lawyers and health professionals from practicing without proper licenses inadvertently prevented storm victims from receiving desperately needed pro bono legal and medical assistance.
At its two most recent meetings, the American Bar Association has taken positive steps in trying to correct these problems. But much more needs to be done by individuals and at the state level, starting here in Alabama.
In the hours after Katrina hit land, medical professionals from around the country were eager and willing to come to the affected areas and offer their service. And as the number of forced evacuations, lost homes and personal bankruptcies mounted, thousands of lawyers from around the nation also volunteered to help address personal legal crises.
In both cases, their efforts were stymied by the lack of licenses to practice in the affected states. Even New Orleans lawyers who were forced to flee to other states often could not assist fellow evacuees because they had no license to practice law in their new home states.
Last August, working with the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, the ABA endorsed the Uniform Emergency Volunteer Healthcare Practitioners Act, a model law that allows state governments to honor out-of-state licenses for health practitioners during a declared disaster.
And in February, the ABA approved a model court rule, which allows similar reciprocity for out-of-state lawyers during emergencies to enable them to provide pro bono legal services following disasters.
The model rule, if invoked by a state's highest court, would allow out-of-state lawyers to come to affected areas and practice in local courts, or to provide volunteer legal services by telephone. (Our Alabama Supreme Court was at the forefront in this area after Katrina, adopting a rule allowing displaced attorneys from other disaster-affected states to practice in Alabama on a temporary basis.)
It is important that Alabama, which is no stranger to natural disasters like Katrina and, more recently and tragically, deadly tornadoes, lead the way in enacting this uniform legislation and promulgating this model court rule, to help create a seamless national response system.
Alabamians can also help in another way by better preparing themselves individually. In addition to homes, Katrina ripped up wills, contracts, insurance policies and house deeds. It is much easier to get legal help, and to undertake the long process of reconstruction, when these documents are kept in safe-deposit boxes.
Quite simply, a massive disaster is no time for red tape. As the immediacy of Katrina recedes, we must absorb its many lessons and act on them. Whether as individuals or as governments, we cannot afford to be caught unprepared again.
H. Thomas Wells Jr., a lawyer in the Birmingham office of Maynard Cooper & Gale PC, is president-elect nominee of the American Bar Association. He also is co-chair of the ABA's Special Committee on Disaster Response.
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U.S. judges slow to disclose travel
By MARK SHERMAN, Associated Press Writer
March 21, 2007
WASHINGTON - A new requirement that federal judges promptly tell the public about their expense-paid trips has so far produced no disclosures, a judicial ethics watchdog group said Wednesday.
The change took effect Jan. 1, requiring sponsors of trips to report in advance who is paying for judges' travel and lodging at private seminars. The information is supposed to be made available quickly to the public.
Then, within 30 days of the end of each trip, judges must file a report about it. Local court Web sites will have the information. Until this year, judges didn't have to report their expense-paid travel until their annual financial disclosures.
Doug Kendall, executive director of the Community Rights Counsel, the judicial ethics watchdog group, said he scoured nearly 200 federal court Web sites without finding any reports of travel. Every year since 1992, judges have attended private seminars in the first two months of the year — the period for which reports would already have been filed — Kendall said.
The lack of disclosures could be the result of a decision by the courts to exempt trips for which invitations were issued before Jan. 1. The policy does not mention any exemption, but Richard Carelli, a spokesman for the courts, said, "It is a matter of getting to the real-world implementation of the policy that was passed in September 2006."
Carelli said fewer than 30 courts lack the computer software necessary to post information on judges' trips on their Web sites.
Kendall also found the judicial branch is not posting on its Web site information provided by trip sponsors despite language adopted by the Judicial Conference of the United States, a 27-judge body led by Chief Justice John Roberts.
"Upon receipt, the Administrative Office shall promptly post the information on the Judiciary's Web site (http://www.uscourts.gov) so that it is publicly available and available to judges," reads the policy.
After initially defending the withholding of the information, the courts' administrative office said it had erred and it was changing its reporting system to make the sponsors' reports public soon after they are received. The information has been available only to judges before the trips.
The administrative office released information on 20 private seminars to which sponsors have invited federal judges. The judges' names are not included in the data, except where a judge is an invited speaker.
Judge Danny Boggs of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is a director of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment in Bozeman, Mont., and is on the program for a seminar in July on economics, energy and the law.
The new reporting requirements were intended to increase public confidence in judges' integrity and ward off proposals in Congress to clamp down on judicial ethics through a travel ban or creation of an ethics watchdog for the court.
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Dothan Eagle - Announcements
March 8, 2007
Volunteer lawyers from the Alabama State Bar's Young Lawyers Section are providing free legal information to victims and families in the aftermath of the recent tornado that struck Enterprise and surrounding areas. A Disaster Legal Helpline (1-800-354-6154) has been created to aid the residents of Coffee and Wilcox counties.
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Bills offer hope for constitutional rewrite – [Editorial]
Monday, March 19, 2007
IF THE Alabama constitution were a truck, it would be a 1901 wooden wagon pulled by big mules, because no one made a pickup before 1902. The mules would be old and skinny, hardly capable of pulling the bloated constitution that has acquired so many amendments (more than 700) that it has become the longest constitution in the nation.
The wood slats and bottom of the 1901 wagon would be rotted, mildewed and broken. The wheels would be rusted and bent, the harness decayed and patched together.
It wouldn't serve the needs of 21st century Alabamians any better than the real constitution does.
Folks have been debating trading the old wagon in on a new truck for years. The Legislature has largely left the vitals of the document untouched despite calls by the public for a new constitution.
But major change often comes slowly. As a matter of practice, it usually takes several years for good ideas to wend their way through the Legislature. But this should be the year that legislators let Alabama voters decide whether to call a constitutional convention to rewrite the state's guiding document.
To that end, two bills with bipartisan support have been introduced in the Legislature. They are House bill 98 and Senate bill 99.
Well-reasoned, the bills would allow voters to vote "yes" or "no" on whether to call a constitutional convention. The election would be held during Alabama's presidential primary in February 2008.
If voters approve, an election would be set to choose delegates. And, yes, the legislation would prohibit undue influence by big-moneyed lobbyists. No delegate would be allowed to take a campaign donation of more than $100 from any one donor. Two delegates would be elected from each House of Representatives district.
Once elected, the 210 delegates would meet the first Monday in October 2008, and would have to conclude by July 1, 2009. The new constitution would be submitted to an election. If voters rejected it, the old constitution would stay in effect.
But what a shame it would be for Alabama to remain burdened by a dysfunctional constitution that makes home rule for counties nearly impossible, contains racist language, works against economic development, and enforces an unfair and inadequate tax system.
The 1901 constitution doesn't serve the people of Alabama. Indeed, it was written to serve the interests of the 19th century planter class, which no longer exists.
Legislators can let Alabama progress and do the public's bidding by allowing a vote for a constitution convention. Opinion polls have shown that more than 50 percent of voters in both political parties favor rewriting the state constitution.
It's time to put the mules out to pasture and get a new motorized vehicle of a constitution that can drive Alabama into the 21st century.
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DIY legal stores walk fine line - They can't offer advice, lest they slide from law helpers to outlaws
By CARRIE WEIMAR, The St. Petersburg Times
March 19, 2007
ST. PETERSBURG - The big blue sign in the storefront window reads "Legal Documents for Less." Inside, franchise owner Janet Brooks is waiting to help customers with their problems, such as bankruptcies and divorces.
The prices for her services are alluring: $99 for a will. Divorces for $399. Name changes for $199. Far less than the average cost of visiting an attorney.
This is We the People USA, a franchise of do-it-yourself legal centers that hope to do to the legal profession what H&R Block did to tax accountants.
Three stores have opened in the Tampa Bay area in the past few months, in St. Petersburg, Brandon and Tampa. So far, business is growing steadily, said Brooks, who opened the St. Petersburg store in December.
"It's starting to take off," said Brooks, 50, a former real estate agent. "There are so many things you don't need an attorney for." But over the years, many customers found the company's bargain-basement prices weren't worth the accompanying problems.
The company has been the target of multiple lawsuits by lawyers, state bar associations and disgruntled customers who said its documents didn't pass legal muster. In Sarasota, a store was forced to close after the Florida Bar accused its managers of practicing law without a license.
But representatives from We the People said those days are over.
The business was acquired by Dollar Financial Corp. in December, and the company immediately created strict new standards of training and compliance to avoid the pitfalls of the past, said Roy Hibbard, senior vice president.
"Our franchise owners like our new focus," he said. "No one wants to be involved with a problem."
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We the People strives to take the mystery out of complicated legal documents by giving customers a simple worksheet to complete for the service they want. Once the customer fills in the information, the form is faxed to the company's central office in Berwyn, Pa., where it is transformed into a legal document.
But store employees must walk a very fine line. If they advise customers in any way, that's practicing law without a license, said Lori Holcomb, a Florida Bar official.
Accusations of unlicensed practice of law sparked most of the lawsuits We the People has battled over the years. In 2004, the Florida Bar filed a complaint against a Cape Coral We the People store, accusing the store's manager of giving legal advice to several customers. The Florida Supreme Court agreed and the store was fined $2,000.
Last year, Tennessee announced a $90,000 settlement against We the People after accusing the company of unauthorized practice of law and violating consumer protection laws.
In the Tennessee case, several customers complained that their divorce petitions were denied because they weren't completed properly. Others who used the service to file for bankruptcy reported similar complaints.
The Federal Trade Commission intervened in 2004, charging the company with violating federal law by failing to inform prospective franchisees about pending lawsuits. The company was forced to pay a $286,000 civil penalty.
Joseph Morgese, 76, was one of several Sarasota residents who reported receiving faulty legal advice from a Sarasota We the People.
Morgese went to the store for help filing a malpractice suit. After writing his complaint, the manager, Julie Marie Jefferson, told him it was insufficient. So she rewrote it on her computer, accidentally giving the wrong address for the insurance company.
After the complaint was filed in court, a judge found it defective because of the incorrect address and threw out the complaint.
"I would have been better off going to a lawyer and doing it right," Morgese said. "It cost me more to fix the problem than I had coming to me."
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Those looking to save money can already find a variety of resources, said Bruce Lamb, chairman of the Bar's committee on the unlicensed practice of law.
Organizations such as Legal Aid can provide low-cost advice from an attorney, Lamb said. Those who want to represent themselves can get most of the documents offered by We the People at local courthouses or through the Florida Bar for free, he said.
"The value of these places, when you look at it, is pretty low," Lamb said.
St. Petersburg attorney Richard Georges, who contributes to a self-help law blog, also suggested negotiating with attorneys for their services. Some may charge a reduced rate if clients are willing to do most of the work themselves, he said.
But We the People is not without its supporters, many of them enthusiastic.
Richard Brady, 68, a St. Petersburg resident, wanted to create a living trust for years. But he was put off by the hassle and expense.
This month, his financial planner suggested using We the People. So Brady and his wife, Dorothy, tried it. "It was really great," he said. "There was no problem. Everything was explained to us." Brady said he was so pleased with the service, he's recommended it to his sister.
Brooks, the St. Petersburg franchise owner, said she's very up-front with customers about the limitations of her service.
If they need resolution of a simple problem, then her store can help. Anything more complex warrants a trip to a lawyer, she said. "I'm not an attorney. I don't want to be an attorney. We are very careful not to cross that line."
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Courts to Release Trial Tapes Online
By Matt Apuzzo, Associated Press Writer
March 17, 2007
Pilot Program to Make Free Audio Recordings of Court Proceedings Available Online
WASHINGTON (AP) -- A computer and an Internet connection may soon be all that are needed for anyone to hear closing arguments in a corruption trial or listen to the testimony of a mob turncoat.
The federal judiciary approved a pilot program this week to make free audio recordings of court proceedings available online. Although a court's participation in the program is voluntary, U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan, the executive committee chairman of the policy-making Judicial Conference, said he expects the system ultimately will be widely used.
"I do hope the Judicial Conference efforts will be looked at as an attempt to see if we can make court proceedings more inclusive and transparent to people," Hogan said in an interview.
News organizations and open-government groups applauded the decision, which will allow the files to be played on television and radio and posted on Internet news sites and blogs.
At present, recording devices and cameras are prohibited in all federal courtrooms. However, in some high-profile cases the Supreme Court releases audio recordings of oral arguments. Some federal trial courts, such as the one in Philadelphia, sell daily audio recordings of hearings.
The pilot program, set to launch in the next few months, would put those recordings on the court's electronic records database for download.
"It gets the judges accustomed to the idea that electronic coverage can be beneficial," said Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio and Television News Directors Association. "It makes storytelling more accurate and more compelling."
Cochran's organization supports allowing cameras in federal courts, something some Supreme Court justices have adamantly opposed. All states have laws allowing some camera access to courts but, in practice, the policies vary. States such as Florida, for instance, routinely allow them while others such as Minnesota allow them only if all parties consent.
Hogan said the audio pilot program is not a step toward allowing cameras. Although that will be the normal practice someday, Hogan said the movement to open courts to cameras was hurt by the recent Florida case over custody of former Playboy playmate Anna Nicole Smith's corpse.
In that case, Judge Larry Seidlin was accused of showboating for the camera. On live, national television, he discussed everything from his wife to his morning swim, then sobbed as he issued his ruling.
"It was not the dignified judicial proceeding you'd expect in a courtroom," Hogan said.
He described the pilot program as a compromise between allowing no recording and turning the court into a set for a TV show. Attorney Nathan Siegel, who represented more than a dozen news organizations last month and won the release of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's grand jury tapes, agreed.
"As technology becomes more pervasive and access to recorded material becomes more a part of daily life, the courts are moving with the times," Siegel said.
Hogan, the chief judge in the Washington, D.C., federal court, made news in the Libby case by creating a media room with a closed-circuit video feed for the trial. He said the response was positive and he received no complaints about the broadcast of the Libby tapes.
With so many high-profile cases, the Washington courthouse is a good testing ground for the audio program, Hogan said. He said he does not yet know how many judges will sign up here or nationwide.
He said judges will have discretion over when to turn the recorder off, such as during an FBI informant's testimony or when a rape victim takes the stand. Ronald Collins, a scholar at the First Amendment Center, said lawyers will haggle over when that's appropriate.
"Inevitably there's going to be a U.S. attorney who objects on secrecy grounds, a defense counsel who objects on prejudicial grounds or invasion of privacy. There's going to be a victim who objects," Collins said. "Those determinations will be made on a case-by-case basis but the default position is open."
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Ga. House pushes to end unanimity requirement for death penalty cases
GREG BLUESTEIN, The Associated Press
March 20, 2007
ATLANTA - The Georgia House adopted a measure Tuesday designed to stop death penalty opponents from "sabotaging" capital punishment cases by allowing judges to consider a death sentence even if two jurors vote against it.
The plan, which now moves to the Senate, would soften Georgia's capital punishment rules by erasing the requirement that a unanimous verdict is needed to secure a death penalty.
It was prompted by at least 16 cases where holdout jurors prevented prosecutors from getting a capital punishment verdict, said House Majority Whip Barry Fleming, the bill's sponsor.
"It will remain the hardest verdict to get," said Fleming, R-Harlem. "But it should not be impossible."
The measure drew criticism from Democrats as well as several Republican prosecutors who worried that the proposal will lead to a flurry of legal challenges and would put a life-or-death decision in the hands of a government official instead of a jury.
"The jury represents the people of the state of Georgia," said state Rep. Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross, a former prosecutor. "We don't put the faith in representatives of the government to make those sorts of decisions for us - and we never have. This bill is about whether we're going to trust the government to put citizens to death or whether we're going to trust people to make that decision."
State Rep. Robert Mumford, a former prosecutor, was even more blunt. The Conyers Republican said adopting the bill would be a "defamation" of centuries of American law.
"Unanimous juries are a cornerstone of this republic," he said. "I implore this House to tread lightly on this fundamental principle."
The rank-and-file Republican legislators didn't seem swayed, and the House voted 106-65 to approve the bill. The changes would significantly change Georgia's capital punishment process.
State law now requires jurors in death penalty cases to first unanimously determine whether the suspect is guilty and answer a second, separate question unanimously to decide whether the crime is worthy of capital punishment.
Before jurors can answer, though, they must testify whether they are morally opposed to the death penalty and, if so, a judge must excuse them. Fleming said that's the point where some capital punishment opponents manage to sneak through.
"I believe the law in the state of Georgia is being maligned in that we allow one or two jurors to say that they would vote for the death penalty in a heinous case - and then they don't vote for it," he said.
He showed lawmakers photos of murder victims and the grisly video of the shooting of a police officer to emphasize his point.
He and supporters also cited the case of William Kenny Stephens, who was found guilty by two juries of murdering a Richmond County investigator and unanimously sentenced by both to death row. But after legal miscues prompted a third trial, a sole juror voted against capital punishment and Stephens was sentenced instead to life without parole.
"Over the years, I got pretty disgusted about hearing the rights of the offender. What about the rights of the victim?" asked state Rep. Tim Bearden, R-Villa Rica, who is a former police officer. "Folks, some people deserve to die. And if they do these types of crimes, they deserve to die."
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More dignity at a lower cost – [Editorial]
The Birmingham News
March 10, 2007
THE ISSUE: Alabama judges shouldn't have to go through partisan, degrading, expensive elections. More important, Alabamians shouldn't be stuck with the justice system that sprouts from this spectacle.
There is more than one way to select judges. But Alabama surely settled on one of the worst - a spectacle whose flaws become more evident the bigger its price tag gets.
Candidates reported spending almost $15 million on Alabama appeals court races last year. More than half of that was spent just on the dispiriting campaign to elect the Supreme Court's chief justice.
This is money that doesn't come, for the most part, from people without any financial stake in who sits on our appeals courts. It comes from lawyers, businesses and other interests that can prosper or suffer depending on the courts' opinions.
While judges resist suggestions they rule based on who gives them money, even they acknowledge the perception is otherwise.
"I would be nervous if I had a case and knew the other party had contributed to the judge when I had not," said former Supreme Court Justice Gorman Houston. "If I lost, I would think the judge was bought and paid for. And if I'd have that feeling, I know how the general public would feel."
Houston is leading the latest effort by the Alabama State Bar for legislation to change the way Alabama selects judges. If legislators and voters approve the measure, judges would be chosen through a merit-selection process - first culled by a nominating committee, then picked by the governor. Judges would still be accountable to voters through elections in which they could be retained or removed from office.
Sue Bell Cobb, who emerged the victor in last year's bruising battle for chief justice, is advocating three similar ideas.
One would simply remove party labels in appeals court races. Another would require judges to be elected in nonpartisan contests followed by the kind of retention elections advocated by the state bar. Another would require all judicial vacancies to be filled through a merit-selection process similar to the one the bar advocates.
The hope is that Cobb, the State Bar and others interested in fixing judicial elections will seek middle ground and settle on a measure that is capable of both winning broad-based support and yielding meaningful results. This should be done not out of pity for the judges who have to endure these contests, but for the Alabamians who have to live with the results.
In our view, shifting to nonpartisan elections would not be much of an improvement. The real battle to control the courts hasn't been so much Democrats vs. Republicans, but business interests vs. plaintiffs. Remove parties from the equation, and the same bloody battle will be fought, just under different labels.
But it's clear something must be done. Judicial races today are corroding the public's trust in the courts. Most of us don't spend that kind of money unless we think we are getting something in return.
Alabamians need judges in whom they can have confidence whether they are filing suit or being sued, whether they are charged with a crime or the victim of one.
Under the current system, that's too often not the perception and sometimes not the reality. The justice system and everyone affected by it - and that includes all of us - must try another way.
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State bar seeking judicial opinion on DuBose case
By Jim Cox Co-Publisher, Thomasville Times
March 9, 2007
The Alabama Supreme Court may likely determine if the Alabama Bar Association has authority to discipline an attorney who is now a sitting circuit judge.
A hearing on the Stuart DuBose case was held Monday at the bar association's Montgomery office Monday where the hearing board agreed to seek a judicial opinion on its jurisdiction in the matter, explained the bar's general counsel Tony McLain.
DuBose is apparently claiming that the bar association, the professional organization that oversees attorneys in the state, no longer has jurisdiction because he is now a judge.
DuBose and his attorney requested a summary judgment in his favor- a dismissal- from the disciplinary commission but the commission denied that, and seeks to retain jurisdiction in the case, McLain said Tuesday.
The outcome of the case could very well determine whether DuBose continues to serve as a circuit judge. He took office Jan. 15 after being elected in 2006.
DuBose is accused of inappropriate actions regarding his preparation of a will and the subsequent handling of the estate while he was a practicing attorney in Jackson. He reportedly never met the man he prepared a will for and he later became an executor of the estate.
The bar accepted a "conditional guilty plea" from DuBose in October and imposed a 45-day law license suspension that would have started the day after the Nov. 7 general election when DuBose was formally elected to a First Judicial Circuit judgeship. The suspension would have ended in late December, weeks before his judicial term started.
DuBose won the Democratic nomination to the office in June, defeating a challenger by about 100 votes.
Some people were critical of the reprimand, saying it accommodated DuBose so as to not infringe upon his eligibility to be judge. He reportedly has to be a licensed attorney in order to serve as judge.
The Alabama Supreme Court reviews all disciplinary actions of the bar association and ruled not long after the reprimand was imposed that DuBose was not penalized severely enough. The penalty was denied for "insufficiency of discipline based on the record before the court."
Although the high court's ruling was dated Oct. 20, the bar's disciplinary commission did not immediately reschedule a hearing and DuBose, who had no general election opposition, was elected Nov. 7 and then took office Jan. 15.
The case has drawn a lot of interest among judges and lawyers. If DuBose's license is revoked, either permanently or for a limited time, he apparently won't be eligible to continue to hold the office of judge.
The bar's McLain said that an appellant court may likely hear the jurisdiction question first but the Supreme Court will likely ultimately be called upon to rule in the matter. He said he did not know how long that would take.
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Al Vreeland, lawyer and social activist, dead at 78
The Tuscaloosa News
By Stephanie Taylor
TUSCALOOSA | Al Vreeland, a retired Tuscaloosa lawyer known for compassion and activism, died Tuesday, just two months after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was 78.
Vreeland was known in Tuscaloosa for promoting better legal representation for the underprivileged.
But before he began his law career at age 47, Vreeland was a Presbyterian minister at churches in Enterprise and Chattahoochee, Fla.
He worked with various social programs dealing with alcohol abuse, prison reform and training for disadvantaged children and people with mental retardation.
“It’s hard, usually, for someone to apply their spiritual belief in the practice of law, but I think he did it very well," said Tuscaloosa attorney Jim Standridge. “He was always very concerned for other people, especially those who were less fortunate."
Al Vreeland II said that his father was diagnosed with cancer in January. Friends and family flew to Tuscaloosa from all over the country to say their goodbyes during the last two weeks, he said.
The younger Vreeland related a story about a trip to Mobile in the late 1950s told by his older sister while the six siblings were reminiscing about their father.
Vreeland was a guest pastor at a church there, and he gave a sermon encouraging racial equality.
“She remembers being yanked out of someone’s front yard and told they had to get out of there because the Klan was after them," he said.
“He preached it when it was controversial and unpopular in some places," Al Vreeland II said. “That was the beginning of his social activism."
His father decided to attend law school after he became frustrated with red tape and bureaucracy while organizing a neighborhood group to improve the family’s inner-city Washington, D.C., neighborhood. Joining “the system" would give him a better opportunity to make a bigger impact, his son said.
The family first moved to Tuscaloosa when Vreeland was offered a job as the Assistant Dean of Men at the University of Alabama. They moved to Washington for a few years and returned to Tuscaloosa in 1972 when Vreeland enrolled in the UA School of Law.
After graduating, he worked in the Tuscaloosa County District Attorney’s Office before entering private practice. Throughout his career, he supported the Alabama State Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project and provided pro bono services for clients.
“He cared about his clients. He was easy to work with, and you knew that he was always going to be prepared," Tuscaloosa County Circuit Judge John England said. “He was an all-around good guy, and a good lawyer."
Vreeland was involved in many community organizations, including the Brookwood Lions Club and Challenge 21. He was the first male president of the League of Women Voters, and he headed a race-relations committee.
Toward the end of his life, Vreeland would meet with a group of men at Cafe Venice downtown, where the group would “really go at it," his son said.
“He always wanted to make people think. He didn’t care what you thought, he just wanted to provoke people to think and examine why they do things," Al Vreeland II said. “He took that approach with everything in his life -- reexamining his thoughts and positions. He continually evolved because of that."
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GAO Report Rehashes Dispute Over Bar-Association Accreditor's Diversity Standard
The Chronicle of Higher Education
March 9, 2007
A report out today from the Government Accountability office rehashes the debate over whether a branch of the American Bar Association should continue to be the accreditor of the nation’s law schools. The bar association’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar was reauthorized in December to be the accreditor for the next 18 months. Typically, accrediting bodies are reauthorized for five years.
The report, “Higher Education: Issues Related to Law School Accreditation,” is an overview of the controversy and makes no recommendations. It does again raise concerns among some staff members at the Department of Education that the bar association’s standards for judging diversity in hiring and in the recruiting of students are inconsistent, and could lead to the violation of state laws.
However, the department’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity decided in December not to impose more-punitive actions against the bar association, finding that the staff “had not identified any instances in which ABA inconsistently applied the diversity standard or provided evidence that law schools had been compelled to violate existing state laws,” the report says.
There is one piece of compelling news: In its response to the report, officials at the ABA note that minority enrollment in law schools showed gains, according to figures released in February. The statistics show that 6.8 percent of students in law schools accredited by the ABA in 2006-7 are African-American, up from 6.2 percent the previous year. Among first-year students, 7.2 percent are African-American.
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Furthermore (Business Section)
The Birmingham News
March 13, 2007
Participants in the Alabama State Bar's 2007 leadership forum class are Reed R. Bates of Starnes & Atchison LLP; David L. Brown Jr. of Huie, Fernambucq & Stewart LLP; Joel E. Brown and Nicholas C. Glenos of Bradley Arant Rose & White LLP; Laura S. Gibson of Redden, Mills & Clark; Leatha Kay Gilbert and Bentley H. Patrick, sole practitioners.
Carol P. Goldman of Energen Corp.; Wilson F. Green of Battle Fleenor Green Winn & Clemmer LLP; Elizabeth S. Hornsby of University of Alabama law school; Edward Andrew Hosp and William B. Wahlheim Jr. of Maynard, Cooper & Gale PC; Robert B. Irby of McCallum, Hoaglund, Cook & Irby LLP; Kimberly T. Powell of Balch and Bingham LLP; Sandra B. Reiss and Christopher A. Mixon of Ogletree Deakins.
Paige H. Sykes of Rogers and Associates; Melton C. Tindol of University of Alabama counsel's office in Birmingham; Lane H. Woodke of U.S. attorney's office; Derek F. Meek of Burr and Foreman LLP; and Tamula R. Yelling of Constangy, Brooks and Smith LLC.
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Supreme Court's Scalia Says Future Nominees Will Face Bitter Fights
John Seewer, The Associated Press
March 14, 2007
Future Supreme Court nominees will face bitter and partisan confirmation battles, Justice Antonin Scalia said Tuesday. Selecting a nominee is no longer about finding someone who is fair, Scalia said. It's about finding someone who agrees with those making the choice, he said at the University of Toledo.
"It's crazy," he said. "It's like having a mini-constitutional convention every time you pick a Supreme Court justice." Scalia, who noted he was he confirmed 98-0 by the Senate in 1986, said he wouldn't get 60 votes today.
Speaking to students, lawyers and law professors, Scalia spent most of his time on his belief that the Constitution should be interpreted as it was written by the Founding Fathers.
He said it was not a living document that has evolved over time with society. "You need a rock, you need an anchor," he said. "That's what the Constitution is."
Answering questions from the audience, Scalia was asked whether the Constitution allowed the court to regulate marriage.
"No, I don't see anything in there," he said. "I don't see any authorization of the federal government to do that."
Scalia then said another question is whether the Constitution allows other states to acknowledge same-sex marriages from Massachusetts. He did not give an opinion.
Scalia also said that salaries for federal judges should be increased if the country wants to attract the best-qualified lawyers. He said a judge in Manhattan would have a tough time providing for a family while making $160,000.
"It's hurting the judiciary," he said. "A lot of people are leaving who we'd like to keep."
Increasingly, he said, there are more federal judges who have risen up through the court system and fewer coming from private practice.
He said there need to be more judges who haven't spent their careers "eating from the government trough."
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Judges asking Congress for bigger federal bench - Judiciary must grow to cover caseload, conference says
The Associated Press
March 14, 2007
WASHINGTON (AP) — The federal judiciary will ask Congress to create 67 new judgeships to help cope with heavier caseloads, the policymaking arm of the U.S. courts decided yesterday.
The Judicial Conference also took a step toward greater access to federal court proceedings, endorsing a six- to 12-month pilot project making digital audio recordings available online.
The recordings could be obtained through the Web site of the electronic-records system of the federal judiciary.
Thomas Hogan, chief judge of the District of Columbia District Court and chairman of the conference’s executive committee, said a number of federal courts would volunteer for the effort.
The conference voted to ask Congress for 15 new judgeships for federal courts of appeals and 52 for district courts.
District court case filings have risen by 29 percent since 1990.
During that time, district judgeships have increased 4.5 percent, from 645 to 674, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts said in a news release.
Congress has not increased the number of appeals court judges — now 179 — since 1990, even though filings have shot up 55 percent over the same period.
The chairmen and ranking Republicans of the Senate and House judiciary committees attended the session, as did two other Republican members of the panels.
On a separate matter, the conference strongly urged all federal district courts with electronic dockets to indicate clearly when cases are sealed by using computer notices that state "case under seal" rather than "case does not exist."
"We expect every court" to comply, Hogan said after the meeting.
The conference was responding to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a story by the Associated Press a year ago.
The reporters committee found the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., had 469 criminal cases from 2001 to 2005 listed in its electronic docket as "no such case."
An AP survey over a shorter period found similar numbers and got verbal acknowledgment from the clerk’s office that the missing electronic docket numbers correspond to sealed cases.
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Cobb wants to see change and prove justice is not for sale – [Editorial]
March 5, 2007
Alabama’s new chief justice, Sue Bell Cobb, is making a bold move toward judicial reform with three proposals for the legislative session that begins this week. She hopes to get the Legislature to approve nonpartisan elections of judges for top appeals court positions.
Cobb believes the switch could help change the public perception of the judiciary and reduce the staggering cost of appellate court elections in Alabama. Unfortunately, it may be a quixotic effort this year.
Cobb, the only Democrat on the state Supreme Court, is concerned that Alabama has come to symbolize all this is wrong with judicial elections. Though this is not a rich state, spending by candidates for top appellate court positions ranks as some of the nation’s highest.
Last year, those candidates spent some $14.8 million. Another million was spent on the races by political parties and outside groups.
The tally for the three-person race of chief justice alone was $7.7 million -- the second most expensive court race in United States history.
Cobb takes no pride in that fact or in the widespread perception that justice is for sale in Alabama.
Ideally, she says, appellate justices would be appointed on the basis of merit instead of campaigning for the job. Realistically, however, merit appointments don’t have a chance in Alabama, she adds.
Cobb has prepared three alternatives for the lawmakers to consider. One, a simple change to nonpartisan elections in all appellate court races, could be approved by the Legislature without a constitutional amendment.
The other two options require both the Legislature’s approval and voter ratification.
One would see the judges selected initially in nonpartisan elections; then each judge would run alone for retention in the next general election.
The other would see trial and appellate judgeships filled by an appointment process similar to the ones already in use in six Alabama counties. The appointed judges would run for retention in the next general election.
National studies show partisan judicial elections cost three to four times as much as nonpartisan races. Candidates in retention races rarely raise money.
The Alabama State Bar is pushing for an appointment/retention system. A judicial nominating commission would interview candidates and send three names to the governor for a final selection. The appointed judge would face a retention election every six years. If voters rejected that judge, the process would begin again.
These are sensible proposals, but that doesn’t mean they will be an easy sell. David Lanoue, chairman of the political science department at the University of Alabama, says he’d be surprised if legislators or voters approved the proposed reforms.
Special-interest groups -- the ones that bankroll expensive judicial elections and control much of the action in the Legislature -- have too much invested in the status quo.
The best-case scenario is that the proposals from Cobb and the State Bar will help raise consciousness and pave the way for reform in the future.
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State bar to push judicial option - Appointment plan bucks special interests
ERIC VELASCO, The Birmingham News
March 02, 2007
In 1916, Alabama State Bar president Charles McDowell predicted the outcome if the state kept electing judges. "Our judges in time will be our most skillful politicians, rather than our most learned lawyers," he said.
The state bar believes today's appellate judges have become far too skilled as politicians. Million-dollar Supreme Court campaigns are common, including those of four candidates last year who raised $1.6 million or more.
"We've got a real problem," said Gorman Houston, a former Alabama Supreme Court justice.
When the legislative session begins Wednesday, the state bar will push for a constitutional amendment designed to remove the taint of campaign money, said Houston, who is heading the bar's reform effort.
Under the bar's plan:
A judicial nominating commission would interview candidates and send three names to the governor to choose one.
Each judge would face voters every six years for retention. An official evaluation commission would rate the judge's work.
If voters rejected a judge, the process would start over.
Appointment/retention systems are the best way to moderate special interest influence on the courts, said Seth Andersen, executive vice president of the American Judicature Society.
"It lets judges do their jobs: base their decisions on the facts and law without looking ahead to the next election," he said.
Candidates in retention races nationwide raised an average of $15,000 in 2002, according to a study by the watchdog groups Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice. The average in partisan elections was $471,000, and $131,000 in nonpartisan races.
But retention races can get expensive. In 1986, interest groups spent $7 million to oust three incumbent California Supreme Court justices, who spent $4 million. Those fights are rare, said the AJS's Andersen.
Proponents say the bar's plan would produce better judges. Nominating commissions extensively research candidates, while voters generally don't, they said.
People should be able to choose judges, said Mike DeBow, a professor at the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University. Voters often overlook retention races because they can't choose between candidates.
Less than 2 percent of judges have lost retention races since 1940, statistics show.
Some critics also wonder if the system would hurt diversity.
"I'm not sure that women or blacks would have been as successful as we are now," said Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Kelli Wise, one six women among the 19 appellate judges. "I don't know if we would have had a seat at the table."
Having a mix of lawyers and nonlawyers, and limiting the ability of politicians to control the nominating commission, are keys to success, Andersen said.
Under the Alabama bar plan, various committee members would be chosen by the governor, lieutenant governor, House speaker, the state bar's executive committee and the Alabama Lawyers' Association, which represents black lawyers.
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State considers new way to pick judges - Options have little chance, professor says
ERIC VELASCO, The Birmingham News
March 02, 2007
Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb says she has millions of reasons the state should change the way it picks top judges:
$14.8 million was spent by candidates in partisan elections in appeals court races last year. Outside groups and political parties spent at least $1 million more.
$7.7 million was spent in the three-way contest for chief justice. It was the second most expensive court race in United States history.
Alabama is one of 13 states looking into changing how their judges are chosen.
"Our election, in my opinion, required an indecent and obscene amount of money," Cobb said of her race alone. "That's harmful to our court system and to our state."
" Alabama has become the national symbol of everything that is wrong with judicial elections," said Jesse Rutledge, spokesman for Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan Washington group that tracks judicial campaigns.
Since 1993, Alabama Supreme Court candidates have raked in $53 million, tops in the nation. Most has come from groups with an economic stake in how judges rule in Alabama, including trial lawyers, businesses and gambling interests.
In 2006, two-thirds of court campaign cash went through political action committees.
Thirty-five states cap PAC contributions at $80,000, but Alabama has no limit. Cobb, for example, got a single $500,000 PAC donation last year; incumbent Drayton Nabers Jr., whom Bell defeated, received $890,000 from another PAC.
Each state has its own system, but generally judges are elected or appointed. Some use a hybrid system: initially appointing judges who later run solo in retention elections for voters to say "yes" or "no" to a new term.
Cobb will call for nonpartisan appellate court races with retention elections every six years. The Alabama State Bar wants a hybrid appointment/retention system for appellate judges.
Neither plan has much chance with legislators or voters, said David Lanoue, chairman of the political science department at the University of Alabama.
"Quite frankly, even if this went on a ballot, there's a good chance it would lose," he said.
Proponents say change is needed to combat the perception that big-buck campaign contributions tip the scales of justice in favor of the donors.
Judges in last year's elections denied any influence.
"Never has any group come up to me and said, `In exchange for us supporting you financially, we request you to rule in our favor,'" said new Court of Civil Appeals Judge Terry Moore. "It has not even been implied."
But perception is reality, researchers and some judges said.
"I would be nervous if I had a case and knew the other party had contributed to the judge when I had not," said Gorman Houston, a former state Supreme Court justice who now is heading the bar's reform effort. "If I lost, I would think the judge was bought and paid for. And if I'd have that feeling, I know how the general public would feel," Gorman said.
Partisan judicial elections draw three to four times more money than nonpartisan races. Retention candidates rarely raise any money, studies show.
"We call partisan elections money magnets," Rutledge said.
But partisan elections also provide voters the best way to control judges, said Mike DeBow, a professor at the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University.
"They can vote for judges with judicial philosophies closer to their own, lowering the chances that state judges will engage in judicial activism," he said.
Partisan races allowed a voter revolt in the 1990s, DeBow said.
"In the 1994, 1996 and 1998 elections, Alabama voters expressed their disapproval of the Supreme Court's contribution to Alabama's reputation as `tort hell,'" DeBow said. His reference was to the state's reputation for generous verdicts against corporations.
Republicans dominated the court for the first time, holding all nine seats by 2004. Cobb now is the court's lone Democrat.
"There is no perfect system," said Rutledge of Justice at Stake, which takes no position on selection methods. "Each has some element of politics, including fundraising."
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Faulkner University law school students win spot in competition
March 1, 2007
Faulkner University's Jones School of Law won the St. Louis regional competition with an undefeated 5-0 record at the American Bar Association’s National Appellate Advocacy Competition.
Outperforming teams from law schools such as Baylor, University of Georgia, University of Florida, University of Arizona and Ave Maria, the regional champions will participate in the national finals of the competition in Chicago March 29 through 31.
Participation in the ABA's NAAC is limited to ABA-approved law schools. Faulkner, enjoying its first year of provisional ABA approval, made its inaugural appearance in the event this year. 178 moot court teams from more than 100 ABA approved law schools from around the country are competing in this year's tournament.
Moot Court competitions simulate appellate arguments. Student competitors prepare 40-page appellate briefs and participate in appellate arguments. Students are judged on the basis of the combined quality of their written and oral advocacy.
The Jones Law School's 2007 National Appellate Advocacy Team consists of third year law student John Craft from Montgomery, and second year law students Christy Olinger from Selma, and Matt Bell from Broken Arrow, Okla. Craft earned his bachelors degree from Auburn University. Olinger is a graduate of the University of Alabama. Bell graduated from Oklahoma Christian University.
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Women leaders still scarce in legal field - Many leaving jobs to raise families
RICK BRUNDRETT, The State ( Columbia, South Carolina)
March 5, 2007
Nancy Gertner says she was in her office one day when a young cleaning woman asked her if she cleaned toilets in the building. “No, I don’t clean toilets in this building,” Gertner, a U.S. District judge in Massachusetts since 1994, recalled saying. “I’m the judge.”
Gertner, who spoke last week at the 20th-annual conference of the Women’s Studies Program at the University of South Carolina, joked with the audience that she “couldn’t imagine any one of my male colleagues being asked what they used on the toilets.”
Gertner, a Yale law school graduate and married mother of three, said she is concerned about the recent trend of young women — including lawyers — leaving the workplace to raise families. Over time, that likely will result in fewer women in leadership positions, she said.
In South Carolina’s legal community, women continue to be underrepresented in top positions — both in the public and private sectors.
Of 140 judges on the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, administrative law, circuit, master-in-equity and family courts, 24 — or 17 percent — are women, state judicial department records show. By comparison, about 29 percent of the 9,579 in-state lawyers are women, according to the S.C. Bar, the professional organization for the state’s lawyers.
“It’s not disputable that the percentage of women in leadership positions is proportionately lower,” said Rosalyn Frierson, president of the S.C. Women Lawyers Association and director of the state Office of Court Administration.
Neither the state nor S.C. Bar keeps statistics on the number of women in top management positions in the private legal sector.
But Vickie Eslinger, an owner-partner in the Columbia-based Nexsen Pruet law firm of more than 170 attorneys, suspects the number of women in large law firms who are managing partners or on management teams is low, noting she could think of only one female managing partner at any large S.C. firm.
“It could make sense long ago, when I got out of law school, when you had a three percent (female) enrollment,” she said. But not today.
Of 225 students enrolled in the USC School of Law in 2006, 45 percent were women, university records show. Nationally, the percentage is slightly higher.
In the United States, women make up about 17 percent of managing partners at private law firms or general counsels at Fortune 500 corporations, according to the American Bar Association. In comparison, about 30 percent of the nation’s 1.1 million lawyers are women.
Eslinger said the number of women lawyers who have left the profession in recent years to raise families is “significant.” Charleston attorney Alice Paylor, immediate past president of the S.C. Women Lawyers Association, said women like herself who had children later in life typically keep their careers.
“I think most of the women who leave the profession are young mothers,” said Paylor, who has two teenagers and is the managing partner of the 13-attorney firm of Rosen, Rosen & Hagood. “Women who have practices for 10-plus years, they usually stay.”
In her speech last week, Gertner, who has practiced law for more than 30 years, including handling high-profile criminal and civil rights cases, said women lawyers shouldn’t have to choose between work and career.
She said reforms are needed in the workplace, such as “meaningful” day care or allowing male employees to stay home with their children.
“We will be able to choose when that choice is not loaded,” she said. “In short, when the revolutionary potential of the women’s movement is finally fulfilled.”
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