Ala. House panel nixes nonpartisan judicial votes
By BOB JOHNSON, The Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A House committee voted Wednesday mostly along party lines to defeat two bills supporters said would take partisan politics out of Alabama's judicial elections, which have become among the nation's most costly.
Republicans, who currently hold 18 of 19 appellate court positions in Alabama, opposed the bills that would have created nonpartisan judicial elections and set limits on campaign contributions in those elections.
The House Constitution and Elections Committee defeated on a 6-5 vote the bill calling for nonpartisan judicial elections, while the bill limiting campaign contributions lost on a 5-5 vote. The votes mean that efforts to change the way judges are elected in Alabama are most likely dead for the current session.
The bills were supported by Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, the only Democrat on the appellate bench in Alabama.
"Poll after poll has shown that the people don't believe that politics should be involved in judges' races," Cobb told committee members.
A bill by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, would limit contributions to appellate judge candidates from individuals, businesses or political action committees to $500.
England said the limits are necessary and pointed to the millions of dollars spent on judicial candidates in recent Alabama elections. Republican Greg Shaw and Democrat Deborah Bell Paseur spent $5 million in last year's race for an open Supreme Court seat, won by Shaw in a tight race.
Republicans complained that Democrats did not try to change the system in past years when they controlled the state courts.
"The Democrats have been trying to change the process ever since they lost control of the court system. We are not going to let them do it," said Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur.
Hammon voted against the bill limiting contributions. Also voting "no" were Rep. Greg Canfield, R-Vestavia Hills; Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes; Rep. Barry Mask, R-Wetumpka, and one Democrat, Rep. Joseph Mitchell of Mobile. Voting in favor of the bill were Rep. Tommy Sherer, D-Jasper, Rep. James Gordon, D-Saraland; Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham; Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, and Rep. Jimmy Martin, D-Clanton.
On the bill seeking nonpartisan election of judges, voting "no" were Mitchell, Mask, Hammon, Fincher, Canfield and Rep. Jay Love, R-Montgomery. Voting in favor were Sherer, Gordon, Todd, Martin and Rep. Jack Page, D-Gadsden.
The sponsor of the nonpartisan elections bill, Rep. Jeff McLaughlin, D-Guntersville, said Alabama is one of only seven states that elects judges in partisan elections.
"I believe it would cause people to have greater faith in the judiciary," said McLaughlin. He said the high price of Alabama's judicial elections "gives people the sense that money talks and that those backing the right horse are going to get the justice they want."
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Alabama considers minimum experience law for judges – [Editorial]
The Birmingham News
March 24, 2009
THE ISSUE: Lawmakers are considering a measure that would require Alabama judges to have a certain level of legal experience. What a concept.
Job seekers scanning the paper's classified ads find they often fall into two categories: the ones that say "no experience necessary" and the ones that say "experience required."
If some state lawmakers have their way, Alabama judges will move from the first category to the second. That would be a very good thing.
Now, a person whose legal experience consists entirely of graduating from law school and passing the state bar exam can be appointed or elected as a judge at any level, including the state's highest court.
A judge making decisions in criminal cases may have never defended or prosecuted a single person. A judge making decisions in civil cases may have never once represented a plaintiff or a defendant. The judges who hear the appeal may have never taken part in a single trial.
The measure the Legislature is considering wouldn't be a guarantee that prospective judges would have relevant experience for the positions they seek. But they would at least be required to have some experience as a lawyer.
Those wanting to be district judges would need to have been a licensed lawyer for at least three years. For circuit judges, the minimum experience would be five years. For judges on the state Supreme Court, the Court of Civil Appeals and the Court of Criminal Appeals, at least 10 years legal experience would be required.
Since the legislation doesn't specify what kind of legal experience is required and since Alabama (to the dismay of this editorial page) elects judges, it still will be incumbent on voters to evaluate the background a judicial candidate brings to the table. That's because not all experience is equal, and not all judgeships are the same.
And voters still will need to look for the other qualifications - like integrity, restraint and wisdom - that experience doesn't ensure.
Still, there is value in requiring judges to have at least a certain amount of legal experience. It stands to reason that someone who has years of legal experience has more to offer in terms of judicial service than someone whose diploma still has to be handled gingerly because the ink might smudge. At least 30 states set some kind of minimum standard for judges.
The House of Representatives already has passed the minimum-experience bill sponsored by state Rep. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved the companion bill sponsored by state Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville. The full Senate should pass Bedford's bill now that it has returned from its spring break recess.
Those who sit in judgment on legal cases affecting the lives of all Alabamians should have adequate preparation to do the job. Those who aspire to be judges should look at state law and see this stipulation: experience required.
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Study Finds ABA Ratings Biased
Marcia Coyle, The National Law Journal
March 25, 2009
Controversy over the American Bar Association's ratings of potential judicial nominees is likely to continue with the announcement that the bar group will resume its role of evaluating candidates before their nominations.
In fact, a soon to be released study by three political scientists alleges what conservative groups have long charged: The ratings are biased against potential conservative nominees.
Political scientists Richard Vining of the University of Georgia, Amy Steigerwalt of Georgia State University and Susan Smelcer, an Emory University doctoral candidate, will present their findings next month at the Midwest Political Science Association's 67th Annual National Conference.
The three academics, all of whom specialize in studying the intersection of the courts and politics, examined every nominee to the federal courts of appeals from 1985 to 2008, regardless of whether the nominee was confirmed or had a confirmation hearing.
Their study examined two hypotheses: First, the ratings are biased and favor nominees nominated by Democratic presidents, and, second, key professional qualifications affect the ratings -- for example, whether the nominee has judicial experience, or is a practicing attorney or law professor. They looked at the party of the appointing president and constructed an ideology measure for the nominees and a model to explain the roles of experience, career path, education, race/gender and political affiliation in ABA evaluations.
"We do find evidence of at least some bias against Republican nominees," said Steigerwalt. "However, we also find that the ABA clearly bases its ratings on a nominee's professional qualifications -- those who have more previous experience as state or federal district court judges receive higher ratings, as do those who have more experience as a government attorney. Based on the totality of these findings, we conclude that the ABA plays an important role in rating the professional qualifications of potential nominees, but that it must also work to ensure that its ratings remain free from any type of ideological bias."
The ABA was not immediately available for comment on the study, but ABA President H. Thomas Wells Jr., in the recent announcement last week that the Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary would evaluate potential Obama administration judicial nominees, said that ideology plays no part in the evaluation process.
In 2001, the Bush administration announced it would no longer submit names to the committee in advance of nominations. The break with tradition was the result of increasing criticism by conservative groups and Republican senators, who claimed that the evaluations were infected with political bias.
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The Economy: Let's Blame the Lawyers
by David Champion, Editor’s Blog, Harvard Business Review
March 25, 2009
On the face of it, lawyers must be feeling good right now. Long perched atop the public's list as most despised professionals, they're suddenly second to bankers with MBAs and large bonuses. Many lawyers are no doubt salivating at the prospect of prosecuting or defending said financial managers. I read a story about a German banker taking his Canadian employer to court on the grounds that he was fired for not being Canadian. There will be more of this.
Alright, so lawyers may profit from the economic mess, but that doesn't explain why we might blame them for it. They didn't trade derivatives, dole out dumb mortgages, or fire risk managers who tried to blow a whistle.
True. But then again, maybe lawyers are partly to blame for that behavior, for the way managers have come to manage in such selfish, cynical ways.
Think about the classic management saw that "No one ever got fired for buying IBM." That sentence sums up the trend in management. It testifies to a world in which people are more concerned about being punished for mistakes than about being rewarded for hard work and good ideas.
Because everyone agreed in advance that IBM was the gold standard, it was easy to abdicate your responsibility for IT decisions. If it worked, you were applauded. And if IBM products or services turned out to be a bad fit with your business, IBM took the heat: they were the experts, you relied on their expertise, and you were deceived.
You assume none of the risk while still getting a chance at all of the reward.
When others set standards, management becomes more about ticking off check boxes than exercising judgment. Think about the mortgage officers who doled out all those sub-prime loans. As long as they could complete a standard checklist with borrower (Are you employed? Check. Do you make car payments? Check.), they could literally ignore any suspicion they had about the borrower's creditworthiness, knowing that if the loan went sour, well, it wasn't their fault. They checked off all the boxes!
Back to the lawyers. A small army of them reinforces (and how) the natural instinct to avoid blame and preserve face. We know they're there, willing to go to extreme lengths to punish anyone who dares to assign us blame or expose our errors.
The defense is to be able to say that decisions were made in accordance with due process. In other words, we bought IBM and we ticked the boxes. We did this because we knew the lawyers would be coming. We managed to not be punished.
Now, we can pillory the lawyers for that or we can take a cold, hard look at our own fears of failure and inadequacies as leaders and managers.
I'm guessing we'll blame the lawyers. What do you think?
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American Bar Association President Tommy Wells of Birmingham advocates ending elections for judges
By Russell Hubbard, The Birmingham News
March 19, 2009
Birmingham lawyer and American Bar Association President Tommy Wells blasted judicial elections Wednesday, saying they amount to little more than attempts at influence peddling.
Wells, a partner at Maynard Cooper & Gale, said free-for-all Alabama judicial elections should be abolished and replaced with publicly funded, nonpartisan races or appointment via a governor's executive panel.
Wells told the Downtown Rotary Club the November election for the vacant Alabama Supreme Court seat cost $5 million in all.
"It was the most expensive supreme court election in the country," Wells said. "The amount of money that was spent was obscene, and amounted to more than is spent in the whole state for legal services for the poor."
Wells took office in August and said leading the 410,000 members of the bar requires a lot of travel. He said he has been on the road 47 of the 77 days so far this year.
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Experience wanted for judge jobs - Bills call for longer wait to serve on bench
DAVID WHITE, The Birmingham News
March 16, 2009
MONTGOMERY - A recent law school graduate could pass the state bar exam and within a few weeks be appointed to fill a vacancy on a state appeals court, circuit court or district court.
Or a new lawyer could run for a seat on one of those courts, win and take office, even though he or she had less than a year's experience practicing law.
That's because there's no minimum legal experience required under current state law to be a judge in Alabama.
But that soon could change.
Bills sponsored by Rep. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood, and Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, would set minimum periods, ranging from three years to 10 years, that someone would have to be a licensed attorney before becoming a judge in the state judicial system. Both bills have cleared some major hurdles toward becoming law.
"We need to ensure that we have the most qualified individuals on the bench. This legislation moves us in that direction," DeMarco said. He said more than 30 states have similar experience requirements.
"You'll give the public more confidence and more faith in the judicial system by having judges with legal experience," DeMarco said.
Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb would have been disqualified from becoming a judge when she did in 1981 if either DeMarco's or Bedford's bill had been law at the time. But Cobb said she's a big supporter of their proposals. "Everybody should want judges to have more experience before they make life-and-death decisions," she said.
Just three weeks after she had become a member of the Alabama State Bar, Gov. Fob James appointed her to be a district judge in Conecuh County.
"I'd like to think that I have shown there are times when you could go to the bench without that experience and still do a good job," Cobb said.
But she said judges hear many more cases now than when she first was a judge. "Things are so complicated now," Cobb said. "It's just much more demanding now than when I came on the bench in 1981."
DeMarco, who is a lawyer, has tried for several years to pass similar bills to set minimum levels of legal experience for judges. He said some people a few years ago feared such a bill would have made it hard to recruit candidates for judgeships in some of Alabama's smaller judicial circuits.
But now, he said, "I haven't had anybody fighting the bill."
His House Bill 66 passed the House of Representatives on a vote of 99-0 last month and cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month. It could win final legislative approval in the full Senate after this week's spring legislative break.
Bedford's Senate Bill 28 passed the Senate on a vote of 32-0 last week and faces review by the House Judiciary Committee and then the full House.
"I think that it will be a great improvement to the quality of justice to have experienced attorneys appointed or elected to the bench," said Bedford, who also is a lawyer.
Both Bedford and DeMarco said they think chances are good one of their bills will become law this year.
J. Mark White, a Birmingham lawyer who is president of the Alabama State Bar, said he doesn't know of a lawyer in Alabama who opposes the idea behind both bills.
"It's something that improves the system of justice and benefits the citizens of Alabama," White said. "The more experience a judge has, both in learning the law and in a variety of legal matters, the more likely you are to have a great judge."
Each of the proposals would:
Require anyone elected to the Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals or Court of Civil Appeals, or anyone appointed by the governor to fill a vacancy on those courts, to have been licensed by the Alabama State Bar or another state bar association for a combined total of at least 10 years before taking office.
Require anyone elected to a circuit court judgeship, or appointed by the governor to fill a vacant circuit judgeship, to have been licensed by a state bar for at least five years before taking office.
Require anyone elected to a district court judgeship, or appointed by the governor to fill a vacant district judgeship, to have been licensed by a state bar for at least three years before taking office.
One difference between the bills is that Bedford's would take effect immediately upon becoming law. DeMarco's would affect people elected or appointed to a judgeship after Jan. 1.
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Answers are overdue about former judge – [Editorial]
March 13, 2009
If the allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse of prisoners made against former Mobile County Circuit Judge Herman Thomas aren't being investigated by someone, they should be.
If criminal charges are warranted, then charges should be filed as quickly as possible. If not, then whoever is or isn't investigating should clear Mr. Thomas officially.
In any event, the public is owed an explanation of what is going on here.
Here's the background. Mr. Thomas resigned from the bench in disgrace in late 2007, facing 30 ethics charges before the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission. Since then, allegations of spanking prisoners and sexual misconduct have festered while Mr. Thomas continues to practice law and remains uncharged with any crime.
Circuit Judge Joseph "Rusty" Johnston has now taken the extraordinary step of barring Mr. Thomas from practicing law in his courtroom. In his written order, Judge Johnston says that Mr. Thomas misused his position as a judge to coerce defendants to "engage in sexual acts with him."
Judge Johnston says he is relying on affidavits from inmates. We hope he has turned over any evidence he has to all appropriate local, state and federal authorities, as well as to the state bar association. The Press-Register editorial board also calls on Judge Johnston to follow up with those authorities and insist that some action be taken.
The judge knows very well that, with his order, he in essence has declared Herman Thomas to be guilty of sexual misconduct and unfit to practice law. If the evidence backs him up, then the public has a right to know why law enforcement officials and other judges haven't acted before now.
The Press-Register previously has reported on allegations that, while Mr. Thomas was a judge, young men with criminal records received help from him in exchange for sexual favors. Also reported were allegations that Mr. Thomas regularly checked inmates out of the Metro Jail and paddled them in a small room near his chambers in Government Plaza.
Yet Mr. Thomas has not been charged with a crime and he is allowed to practice law everywhere but in front of Judge Johnston.
Until the allegations are either refuted or backed up with formal criminal proceedings, Herman Thomas will continue to cloud the Mobile County justice system.
Indeed, all of the criminal cases he handled as a circuit judge and a district judge dating back to 1990 could be called into question. Were defendants coerced or abused, and if so, were their pleas, convictions and sentences compromised to the point that their cases should be reviewed?
The longer the Thomas case goes unresolved, the greater the damage to the credibility and reputation of the local justice system. People who appear in Mobile County Circuit Court and who pay taxes to support the judicial system understandably may question whether they can trust the system to dispose of criminal cases fairly and impartially.
So let's hear about the status of any investigation or investigations. Either file criminal charges, or make public whether the case is being heard by any grand jury, or clear the former judge of criminal wrongdoing.
Silence on the part of everyone but Judge Johnston has only made the suspicions surrounding Herman Thomas grow.
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Study Offers a New Test of Potential Lawyers
By JONATHAN D. GLATER, The New York Times
March 11, 2009
Just what makes a good lawyer?
In trying to answer that question, professors at the University of California, Berkeley, have come up with a test that they say is better at predicting success in the field than the widely used Law School Admission Test.
The LSAT, as the half-day exam is known, does not claim to predict much beyond a student’s performance in law school. But critics contend that it does not evaluate how good a lawyer someone will be and tests for the wrong things. They also say it keeps many black and Hispanic students — who tend to have lower scores — out of the legal profession.
Marjorie M. Shultz, a law professor who retired last year from Berkeley and is one of the study’s authors, said she began to examine the issue after California voters approved Proposition 209, which banned consideration of race in admissions.
“Proposition 209 and the reduced numbers of minority admits prompted me to think hard about what constitutes merit for purposes of law school admission, and to decide LSAT was much too narrow, as well as having big adverse impact,” Professor Shultz said.
The Law School Admissions Council, which administers the LSAT, helped finance Professor Shultz’s research, which has not appeared in any scholarly journals. Nonetheless, Wendy Margolis, a council spokeswoman, defended the LSAT, saying that how a student does in law school “has a great deal to do with ultimate success as a lawyer.”
Ms. Margolis added, “We think it would be difficult to predict success as a lawyer prior to law school.”
But that is exactly what Professor Shultz and Prof. Sheldon Zedeck, a colleague in the university’s psychology department, wanted to do.
To find out what applicant traits should figure in admissions decisions at law schools, they coordinated individual interviews, focus groups and ultimately a survey of judges, law school professors, law firm clients and hundreds of graduates of Berkeley’s law school.
They asked, among other things, “If you were looking for a lawyer for an important matter for yourself, what qualities would you most look for? What kind of lawyer do you want to teach or be?”
The survey produced a list of 26 characteristics, or “effectiveness factors,” like the ability to write, manage stress, listen, research the law and solve problems. The professors then collected examples from the Berkeley alumni of specific behavior by lawyers that were considered more or less effective.
Using the examples, Professor Shultz and Professor Zedeck developed a test that could be administered to law school applicants to measure their raw lawyerly talent.
Instead of focusing on analytic ability, the new test includes questions about how to respond to hypothetical situations. For example, it might describe a company with a policy requiring immediate firing of any employee who lied on an application, then ask what a test taker would do upon discovering that a top-performing employee had omitted something on an application.
More than 1,100 lawyers took the test and agreed to let the researchers see their original LSAT scores, as well as grades from college and law school.
The study concluded that while LSAT scores, for example, “were not particularly useful” in predicting lawyer effectiveness, the new, alternative test results were — although the new test was no better at predicting how well participants would do in law school. Unlike the LSAT, the new test did not produce a gap in scores among different racial or ethnic groups.
But participants might have performed differently on it, had they taken the test when they were applying to law school. Professor Shultz said this was one reason the next step in the research should include tracking test takers over time, from when they apply to law school through their careers.
David E. Van Zandt, dean of the law school at Northwestern, said he would welcome a supplement to the LSAT to evaluate applicants, a sentiment echoed by other law school deans.
John H. Garvey, dean of Boston College Law School and past president of the Association of American Law Schools, said, “It would be good for us and for other schools to have other measures that complement the LSAT and that would help us identify promising candidates.”
While his school’s admissions decisions involved much more than just LSAT scores — grades, work experience, recommendations and the like — Mr. Garvey said that more and possibly better predictive information would be helpful.
“Everybody would be happy for that,” he said. “There is not that much magic in the LSAT that we wouldn’t be willing to add to it to accomplish our more important goals.”
Both Professor Shultz and Ms. Margolis, the Law School Admission Council spokeswoman, said the next step was to survey lawyers nationwide, not just alumni of Berkeley, to test the measures of lawyer quality in a bigger pool.
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Best Defense? Seeking a Haven in Law School
By NATHAN KOPPEL, The Wall Street Journal
March 19, 2009
The job market for lawyers, hit hard by the recession, seems to reach new lows every day. But that has not done much to discourage the thousands who are lining up to become the next generation of attorneys.
In seeming defiance of logic, many law schools are surging in popularity. At Washington and Lee University in Virginia, for example, law-school applications are up 29% this year over 2008, while Yale Law School and the University of Texas School of Law both enjoyed an 8% increase in applications. Nationwide, the total number of applicants is up by 2% over last year, with the deadline to submit applications having passed at most schools.
College graduates, educators say, are seeking refuge from the economy in the relative tranquility of higher education, hoping that the job market will improve by the time they graduate. Law schools also have been aided by the long-held belief that the legal business is relatively immune from recessions.
"In up and down times, economies as complex as ours need a lot of legal services," says Rodney Smolla, dean of the Washington and Lee University School of Law.
In the past, the legal profession has been relatively immune to economic downturns. When times are bad, after all, companies still need lawyers for such tasks as bankruptcy filings.
But the legal industry now is feeling the pain every bit as much as the rest of the economy. Some legal specialties, to be sure, remain relatively robust, including bankruptcy and litigation, but those practices have not made up for substantial declines in mergers, corporate finance and other staples of the business. Firms across the country are firing lawyers by the hundreds, slashing salaries and even rescinding job offers to law-school graduates. Last month, Latham & Watkins, a marquee firm with large New York and Los Angeles offices, laid off 190 lawyers.
In short, it is the worst job market in modern memory at large corporate law firms, which have long been the employers of choice for top graduates.
Public-sector law jobs also are harder to come by these days, according to James Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement, a Washington-based nonprofit that researches the legal job market. The Philadelphia District Attorney's office, for example, recently rescinded about a dozen job offers to law-school graduates due to start in the fall.
"Law school is not as safe a bet" as it once was, says William Henderson, a professor at Indiana University's Maurer School of Law, where applications so far are up 8%.
Some large corporate firms may never rebound to their prior size, due partly to contraction in the investment-banking industry and the fact that corporate clients increasingly are fed up by the lofty legal rates charged by elite law firms, says Mr. Henderson, who specializes in the economics of the legal profession.
"There are very few schools that can guarantee students that they'll find a high-paying corporate job," he says. Those considering law school who don't consider law a calling, he adds, need to ask: "Is it really worth going $120,000 or $140,000 more into debt?"
A Place to Hide Out
Still, law school may be a place to hide out. In light of the economy, "there are a lot of people who have decided they will not test the job market as a graduating senior from college," says Richard Geiger, the associate dean of enrollment at Cornell University Law School, where applications are up 8%. Graduate-school applications typically shoot up during a recession.
Claire Arnett, a senior at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, says she had planned to move to New York City after graduation, but she put those plans on hold when the economy went south. "The way things are, I thought that even if I could find a job, I would not make enough for it to be worth it," she says.
Instead, she applied to law school, because she says she thinks law degrees are useful in a variety of fields, not just the law. "Whether I end up practicing, I feel like it's a good degree to have," says Ms. Arnett, who has so far gotten into four schools, including her top choice, the University of Tennessee College of Law.
School administrators seize on the versatility of a law degree in asserting that it is still a sound investment. Lawyers, they say, will play a central role in navigating a variety of issues, such as the use of natural resources, cross-border trade and government stimulus spending, which likely will play a central role in the economy for years to come.
"As compared to other graduate programs, [law school] is more analytically rigorous and touches more areas of society," says Paul Berman, dean of Arizona State University's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, where applications this year are down.
But even those bullish on law school stress that students should take steps to ensure that their investment pays off. For starters, students should aim to get into an elite law school. (There are many lists ranking law schools; the best-known is U.S. News & World Report's, which can be found at grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/grad/law.) In a buyer's market for jobs, lawyers note, employers can afford to be choosy and hire only the most pedigreed applicants.
That said, all hope is not lost for students who do not gain admission to a top-tier school -- if they work hard once there and gain a place on the school's law review. Students who graduate "at the top of their class from almost any school will find work in almost any economy," says the National Association for Law Placement's Mr. Leipold.
Choosing a Specialty
Once in school, law students should take classes in legal specialties that are poised for growth, such as intellectual-property law and international arbitration, which often is used to resolve cross-border business disputes. Students should also reach out to lawyers practicing in such growth practices, using their school's alumni directory as a source of professional contacts.
"It's never too early to start making contacts in your field and learn about what the practice entails," says Amy Berenson Mallow, a managing director at Shannon & Manch LLP, a Washington-based consulting firm that provides career counseling to lawyers.
If students know where they want to live after graduation, it may help to attend a law school in that region. "Homegrown kids always have an advantage," says Bruce MacEwen, a New York-based law-firm consultant.
Those committed to taking the plunge into law school can at least take heart in the fact that the job market, come graduation, probably won't look much worse than it does now. "Hopefully by then there will be a turnaround," Ms. Berenson Mallow says. "Economic cycles can change."
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Free legal advice hot line available for Birmingham area homeowners facing foreclosure - State bar connecting homeowners, lawyers
ERIC VELASCO, The Birmingham News
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Homeowners facing foreclosure in the Birmingham area can get free legal advice starting today under a hot line set up by the Alabama State Bar and Legal Services Alabama.
The toll-free hot line (1-877-393-2333) will connect homeowners to a legal aid lawyer.
The lawyer will interview the homeowner, discuss the foreclosure process in Alabama and offer legal advice, according to a release from the two legal organizations.
If the caller meets income requirements, the lawyer also could negotiate on the resident's behalf with the mortgage holder, or represent the resident in mortgage proceedings or mediation.
"Homeowners need to know there are options but the key to a successful outcome is early intervention and I can't stress that enough," Thomas J. Methvin, president-elect of the state bar, said in the news release. "If you are having a problem making your monthly payments and believe foreclosure is imminent you must act now."
Legal Services Alabama is a nonprofit organization that provides free legal help on civil-court matters to low-income people.
The legal advice and aid campaign already is under way in Huntsville, Montgomery and Mobile.
The participating lawyers are being paid under a grant by the Alabama Civil Justice Foundation and the Access to Justice Commission.
The state bar also offers a pamphlet with commonly asked questions about foreclosures. It can be obtained on the bar association's Web site, www.alabar.org, after clicking on the "foreclosure resources" icon.
"We are committed to assisting consumers who are facing the difficult prospect of losing their home or filing for bankruptcy," said Methvin, chairman of the state bar's Mortgage Foreclosure Task Force.
"We also are concerned about the related effects of foreclosure such as reducing property values, diminishing the tax base (that) often supports important services, and straining our court dockets," Methvin said.
A recent report by the Birmingham-based Alabama Title Co. found that an average of 69 homeowners in Jefferson County lost their homes each week to foreclosures last fall.
Meanwhile, California researcher First American Core Logic said last week that nearly 10 percent of the mortgages in the Birmingham-Hoover metropolitan area are "underwater," meaning the borrowers owe more on their loans than their property is worth.
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As interest rates sink, so do the fortunes of embattled, IOLTA-funded legal services
By Lynne Marek, National Law Journal
March 11, 2009
Organizations across the country that provide legal services to the poor face potentially dire drops in funding as a result of the cut in bank interest rates over the past four months.
From New York to Illinois to Texas, organizations that depend partly or completely on income from interest earned on accounts in which lawyers hold clients' money for short periods of time are seeing that income dwindle. The legal service groups receive the funds through grants from what are typically called interest on lawyers' trust accounts (IOLTA) organizations created by state court systems to collect and distribute the funds [NLJ, 10-27-08].
"It's a time of real catastrophe for our programs," said Lorna Blake, who is executive director of Iola Fund of the State of New York. "Iola never truly has a stable source of income, but this fall has been so steep and precipitous that it's really having a very dramatic effect."
A graph on the home page of the New York fund's Web site with a jagged line downward shows that the organization had $4.5 million in interest income in February 2008, and just $500,000 last month. The New York organization, which is completely dependent on the interest for income, distributed $32 million in grants last December and provided them in 15-month periods, as opposed to the usual 12 months, to buy some time before the impact of the lower rates.
"The programs will really feel the cut in the second quarter of 2010, when we're expecting we may have as little $3 million for grants," Blake said.
What makes matters worse is that state and local governments are cutting back on such funding for such legal services organizations too at a time when there's likely to be an increase in people whose economic situations require them to seek the free or discounted legal services, the IOLTA executives said.
Betty Balli Torres, who is executive director for the IOLTA organization Texas Access to Justice Foundation, remembers the moment on Dec. 16, 2008, when her Google alert told her the Federal Reserve had cut interest rates to between zero and 0.25%, she said. She called her team together immediately to start revising their projections of the amounts the organization would be able to provide to 40 Texas legal service groups.
The foundation, which in the past derived 60% of funding from income interest, provided $12.2 million in grants last year, down from $20 million in 2007 and hopes to have $10 million to give later this year, Torres said.
"The reality is that we will have a significant decrease in services available to low-income people," Torres said. The Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois hopes to have $7.5 million to provide in grants this year for the fiscal year that starts in July, down from the $13.2 million it offered for the fiscal year that runs through June, said Ruth Ann Schmitt, who is executive director of the fund.
"The reason we can't continue to meet the level of last year's grant is if this economic situation holds on for the next 18 to 24 months, our reserves cannot bridge fiscal 2011," Schmitt said.
While IOLTA executives are hopeful that the federal government's stimulus plan may provide some funding, it hasn't arrived yet. In the meantime, the executives are brain-storming across state lines about other possible sources of funding, the executives said. Some are begging the banks at which the accounts reside to boost interest rates to help the cause. In other cases, the organizations are seeking first-time appropriations from their state legislatures.
As soon as rates dropped in December, Torres said her organization started calling banks to ask whether they would be willing to provide interest rates that were higher than the new lowered rate to help support the legal services for the poor. So far, 75 of their 550 banks have said they will provide higher rates of 1% or more, she said. "As banks sign up, we really believe we could double our projected revenue," of $1.5 million for this year, Torres said.
The organization would still have a significant shortfall in revenue and has for the first time worked with the Texas Supreme Court to help it seek a special legislative special outlay of $37 million for the next two years.
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Stimulus falls short on court projects
Amanda Bronstad, National Law Journal
March 09, 2009
When President Obama began talking about his economic stimulus plan, he stressed the importance of funding projects that were "shovel-ready," or ready to begin construction immediately in order to create jobs.
Yet courthouses don't appear to be a big part of that plan.
The stimulus package, which was passed on Feb. 17 as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, allocates about $750 million toward the construction of U.S. courthouses and federal buildings. Of that, more than half is anticipated to go toward a new headquarters building for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
That leaves about $300 million for new courthouse projects — a far cry from the nearly $1.5 billion in appropriations proposed by the Judicial Conference of the United States.
"That's a big drop," said U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Austin of the Western District of Texas, the point person for the planned construction of a new courthouse in Austin. "We were not very happy. We were, in fact, very disappointed."
In addition to Austin, the highest priority projects are new courthouse buildings in San Diego; Los Angeles; Salt Lake City; Savannah, Ga.; Mobile, Ala.; and Nashville, Tenn. Many of the existing courthouse buildings in those cities have a long list of problems, such as poor heating and cooling systems, inadequate security and a lack of space for judges.
In a Dec. 5 letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., James C. Duff, director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and secretary to the Judicial Conference, which is the policy-making arm of the federal judiciary, outlined seven new construction projects that could be funded through the economic stimulus package.
At that time, the projects were estimated to cost nearly $1.5 billion and create more than 7,000 jobs in the next three years. Many of the existing courthouses in those cities were built in the 1930s as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the largest agency created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal during the Great Depression to stimulate the economy.
Now faced with $300 million, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), which operates U.S. courthouses, has 45 days to pick the new projects that could be built. Under the stimulus package, another $4.5 billion is available for smaller renovations, such as converting existing buildings, including courthouses, into more energy-efficient structures.
"We have 45 days to put together a project list, and we're still putting it together," said MaryAnne Beatty, a spokeswoman for the GSA. She declined to comment further, other than to state that the agency was "almost finished."
In a Feb. 23 letter to GSA Acting Administrator Paul F. Prouty, Duff reiterated the Judicial Conference's top priority projects, particularly courthouses in San Diego and Los Angeles, which are facing space emergencies. The San Diego courthouse, however, is anticipated to be funded through the $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill for 2009 that is now pending before the U.S. Senate.
That leaves Los Angeles as the No. 1 priority, "if more than the $300 million for new construction . . . becomes available," Duff wrote in the letter. If not, projects in some of the five other cities could begin immediately. "These projects are 'shovel-ready' in that construction documents are ready to be included in solicitations for offers, and contracts can be awarded without delay," he wrote.
As to renovation work, he identified several existing courthouses that could begin repairs immediately, the most prominent being the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse in New York City. Courthouse projects in Washington, Honolulu and Bangor, Maine, also could be ready for renovation work, he added.
The biggest problem with the proposed Los Angeles courthouse, judges say, is the cost.
"I'm neither optimistic nor pessimistic," said U.S. District Judge Margaret Morrow of the Central District of California. "I realize that it would be easier to fund some other projects because they're smaller, and the amount of money is not as much as we need."
In December, the new Los Angeles courthouse was estimated to cost $530 million. But last fall, an audit released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the planned building, originally with 41 courtrooms, had escalated to an estimated $1.1 billion and is no longer economically feasible. The audit provided two smaller alternatives, ranging in cost from $282 million to $733 million in additional funds, for a new courthouse.
But Morrow said a scaled-down version, with 36 courtrooms, would not be big enough to replace the two existing courthouses that house about 45 judges — leaving courthouse operations in downtown Los Angeles divided among three buildings, one of which was a WPA project.
A smaller prominent project on the table for economic stimulus funds is in Austin, where $116.1 million would complete construction of a new courthouse that would have eight courtrooms.
Austin's courts currently are split between two buildings, one of which, built as a WPA project, has mold infestation, leaks and inadequate heating and cooling, Judge Austin said. That building has four courtrooms for four judges and one judge on senior status, while another building houses two judges on senior status who share one courtroom.
The new courthouse, which began design work in 2001, would solve security problems in the main building, which is about 20 feet from the street and shares a common alleyway for judges to park, Austin said. Prisoners move through the same hallways and elevators as do judges.
"It's not the security they would like to see," Austin said.
Still, Austin wasn't certain that his courthouse would get funding from the stimulus package.
"Before the bill was first passed, I would say I was cautiously optimistic," he said. "I'm anxious right now because we have not gotten any assurances from the GSA about what they're thinking. I've not had any interaction with them to meet with us to tell us what they want to do with the money. Until I have more information from what the GSA is thinking, it's hard to be optimistic."
The next courthouse on the priority list is in Salt Lake City, where Tena Campbell, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah, expressed similar reservations about getting funds for the new courthouse.
"If there's only $300 million, I don't know if GSA wants to spend $211 million with us," she said.
The new Salt Lake City courthouse would replace a structure that was built about 100 years ago and has six courtrooms for five active judges and three judges on senior status. She said judges in that district have been asking for funds to build the courthouse for 14 years.
Judges often share the same elevator as prisoners — one of the "very, very worrisome security issues" in the building, Campbell said. And the building doesn't have room for two more judges who are expected to be added in the next two years.
"It's a beautiful building, but it's woefully inadequate for space and for security," Campbell said.
Near the bottom of the priority list is a proposed new courthouse in Mobile. Another New Deal project, the courthouse has a basement that was flooded during the two most recent hurricanes, including Katrina, and that doesn't cool properly in the region's humid climate, said Callie Granade, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama. As to security, judges run into prisoners in the parking garage and in halls and elevators.
But the project's cost has ballooned from an initial $89 million to about $190 million, Granade said. "We know that there are needs that are really in front of ours in terms of where courthouses needed to be built because of overcrowding and case load," she said.
Better odds in San Diego
Unlike the other proposed courthouses, which depend on the stimulus package, the San Diego building's additional $110.4 million funding request was approved as part of this year's budget bill, which is pending before the U.S. Senate.
If the funds are approved, construction on the project could begin in May, said Irma E. Gonzalez, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.
The San Diego courthouse, which already has cost more than $200 million, was halted in 2007 after the costs of construction skyrocketed in Southern California, she said. Security enhancements would be a critical element of the new building, located across the street from the existing courthouse, where magistrate judges are located on the first floor and no concrete barriers surround the perimeter of the facility. Last year, a bomb exploded at the front entrance of the building, breaking glass doors and windows.
The new building also would provide 14 additional courtrooms to the district's existing 24.
"We've run out of space," Gonzalez said. By the time the building gets finished, in 2012, the district, which has the third largest criminal case load in the nation, could have another three judges, she said.
San Diego also benefits from being near the U.S. border with Mexico, she said. Other recent courthouse projects that have broken ground include those in El Paso, Texas, and Las Cruces, N.M.
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Web Directory Of Attorneys Upsets D.C. Bar
By Kim Hart, The Washington Post
Monday, March 9, 2009; D01
Washington is teeming with lawyers, with about 90,000 of them licensed to practice in the District, hundreds of law firms and thousands of soon-to-be lawyers enrolled in the area's law schools. But if the District of Columbia Bar has its way, finding one of those lawyers online may not be so easy.
The association wants an online directory that compiles profiles of lawyers -- from the bar's own Web site, no less -- to cease and desist, arguing that posting information about Washington lawyers for commercial purposes violates copyright laws and privacy rights.
It's not too fond of the feature that allows consumers to rate a lawyer, either.
"This has nothing to do with obstructing access to information," said the bar's spokeswoman, Cynthia Kuhn. "It has to do with a commercial company taking this information without authorization and in some cases perpetuating misinformation" by not updating the data frequently enough.
Avvo.com, the site posting the profiles, says it's simply using public data to help consumers find lawyers and their track records.
"There's no reason why lawyer-licensing records should be treated any differently than records for any other profession," said Joshua King, general counsel for the Seattle start-up. "The bar doesn't like the fact that the information is out of its control."
The dispute is the latest in an escalating debate over how private Web sites can use public information. It also underscores the tension around a growing number of sites that allow clients to publicly critique any professional, from doctors to plumbers.
For example, a dentist and a chiropractor in California recently sued patients who posted negative reviews of them on Yelp.com, a consumer review site. In separate suits, they said the reviews were false.
Some school systems have blocked the site RateMyTeachers.com from campus computers in response to less-than-positive notes posted by students, and law enforcement groups have voiced concern about RateACop.com, a year-old site on which users can leave comments about police officers.
Days after its 2007 debut, two Seattle lawyers sued Avvo, saying that the ranking system was flawed and that it allowed accomplished lawyers to score lower than those with disciplinary sanctions. The suit was dismissed by a federal judge, citing First Amendment rights.
Review sites often skew toward negative ratings, said Michael Fertik, chief executive of Reputation Defender, an group that advocates for online privacy.
"Some of the sites that began as restaurant review sites are becoming repositories for professional reviews, as well," he said. "Now five negative reviews are reducing their client growth by half, even though there's not enough data on these review sites to get good results."
Avvo lists lawyers licensed in the District, including the number of years in practice, disciplinary history, and ratings on a scale of one to 10. The site also lists lawyers in 22 other states, including Maryland. Virginia lawyers are not yet on the site.
Making public information available on the Internet has been a key element of President Obama's push for increased transparency in the government. But in the nation's lawyer capital, many lawyers do not want details about suspensions and other reprimands to be published on the Web without their permission.
Kuhn said the bar's members alerted it to Avvo's directory last year. In a Jan. 27 letter, the association demanded that Avvo "immediately remove the improperly acquired information regarding members." If Avvo does not comply, the letter said the bar would "pursue any and all available remedies."
Avvo founder Mark Britton, who is licensed to practice law in the District, said the site does not remove profiles, although lawyers can modify or add information and appeal reviews they consider unfair or untrue. Avvo will delete personal information, such as home addresses, upon request.
But some local lawyers say Avvo's profiles and ratings can be misleading. And Avvo profiles often appear high in the list of search results as consumers increasingly turn to the Web to find bankruptcy, foreclosure and divorce lawyers.
"I'm not trying to hide from anyone, but if people want to find me, they can look me up through the bar," said Bruce Familant, who is licensed in the District and Michigan, but not in Virginia, where he owns a home. He was upset that he was listed on the site.
"That's a privacy issue," Familant said. "I don't want people soliciting me."
Joseph Cerroni of Annandale said he is considering filing a suit against Avvo unless it corrects information on his profile, which says he has been cited for professional misconduct.
"That was resolved years ago, but the site makes no reference of that," he said. "Either put in all the information, or take it out completely."
The Client Protection Fund of the Bar of Maryland, the state's legal licensing body, provides Avvo with information for 34,000 lawyers, including the name, address and date of admittance to practice in the state. Avvo pays a standard fee for the agency to produce the list. So far, none of Maryland's members have complained, according to the bar's administrator.
Some District lawyers have spruced up their online profiles by adding a photo and practice details. Other lawyer directories, including the well-known Martindale-Hubbell directory, are also moving online.
"I think it's a positive trend," said Gregory Beck, a lawyer at the Public Citizen Litigation Group who has added details to his Avvo profile. "The profession needs something on the Internet to enable people to basically shop for lawyers."
Rebecca Tushnet, law professor at Georgetown University Law Center, said the bar association's restrictions on use are "ridiculously overreaching."
"The D.C. Bar, when putting public information up that should be available to a lot of people, it's a mistake to stand in the way of that," she said. "The basic question is, can that little notice at the bottom of every Web site actually be a binding contract?"
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Hands off legal ads - The state's high court rightly declines to limit lawyer TV
The Huntsville Times
March 04, 2009
Perhaps you've seen William Shatner do his pit-bull-with-an-attitude television advertisement act.
The erstwhile Captain Kirk and "Boston Legal" eccentric lawyer glares at the camera, almost foaming at the mouth, and urges anyone with a legal problem to call an Auburn lawyer who, Shatner implies, is the take-no-prisoners advocate you need to beat down the system and anyone else who gets in your way.
To say the ad is tacky, if not inflammatory, is to say that newspaper editorials offer opinions. No news there.
But the Alabama Supreme Court earlier this week ruled that such ads were legal. And told the Alabama Board of Bar Commissioners, a group of lawyers, that tackiness was not a reason to keep the ads off the air waves.
The lawyers board had wanted the court, which has final authority in such matters, to ban paid actors and testimonials, along with vivid footage of auto wrecks and disasters and snappy jingles, from lawyers' TV advertising.
Instead, the board asked the court to restrict such TV solicitations to bland presentations of lawyers sitting in their offices with no one else present, touting their wares personally.
The state's high court rejected the ban - and rightly so.
For starters, with the proposal, as Bar Commissioner Thomas Ryan Jr. of Huntsville noted, the court was being asked to stifle free speech, and the restrictions were overly broad.
Paid TV ads aren't exactly "free" speech, but then Supreme Court justices shouldn't be placed in the role of cinematographers determining what is permissible video-wise and what isn't, either.
Furthermore, nothing in either the succinct U.S. Constitution or the even the voluminous Alabama one prohibits tacky ads. If lawyers don't want to do them, they don't have to. And people who need lawyers certainly don't have to patronize those who use spokesmen like the slobbering Shatner to try to make the sale.
This is obviously a marketplace issue, not a legal one, and the court was correct in declining to get involved.
Another good ruling
In a companion matter, the court did intervene correctly by placing restrictions on mailing solicitations from lawyers to folks who have been named in lawsuits, divorce papers and warrants.
Under the new rules, "ambulance chasers" have to wait seven days before sending out letters touting legal services to folks named in court filings.
One reason this is such a good idea is that, the Associated Press reports, some people were getting the solicitations before the legal papers were served.
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Ala. court won't restrain lawyer ads
By PHILLIP RAWLS, The Associated Press
March 2, 2009
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The Alabama Supreme Court has declined to place more restrictions on lawyers' broadcast ads, which means attorneys statewide can keep using Hollywood stars, snappy jingles and vivid wreck videos to attract clients.
But the court did order a seven-day waiting period before lawyers can mail solicitations for legal business to people who have just filed divorce and other legal papers.
The governing board of the Alabama State Board had proposed rules restricting radio and TV advertising and had asked the Supreme Court to enact the rules. Tony McLain, general counsel for the Alabama State Bar, said Monday the court had notified the legal association that it was declining to adopt the proposed rules. The court did not give an explanation.
The Board of Bar Commissioners had proposed banning paid actors and testimonials. Ads would have been limited to the voice or image of a member of the law firm doing the advertising, with the lawyer speaking in front of a plain background or in an office setting with no other people shown.
The proposal also would have prohibited videos of car crashes and other emotional scenes and the use of jingles.
McLain said the proposals were an effort to make lawyers' ads appear more professional and dignified.
"The Supreme Court has the ultimate rule-making authority," State Bar President Mark White of Birmingham said Monday.
Only a small percentage of Alabama's lawyers advertise on radio and TV. But some have found it an effective way to attract clients, particularly people having problems with auto accidents, Social Security disability determinations, bankruptcy, divorce and some criminal charges.
One bar commissioner who opposed the proposed rules, Thomas Ryan Jr. of Huntsville, said he was pleased by the Supreme Court's decision because he was concerned the proposed rules violated free speech rights and were overly broad.
Ryan, who uses only print ads, said it was the second time in recent years that the state's highest court has declined the State Bar's efforts to restrict radio and TV ads.
When the Board of Bar Commissioners proposed the rules last year, William Shatner, who plays an attorney on "Boston Legal," was doing an ad for Auburn lawyer Mike Slocumb.
Slocumb declined comment Monday on the Supreme Court's decision.
When the rule changes were proposed, other professional actors had appeared in ads for Alabama lawyers. Lawyers had also used various visual aids that would have been barred by the proposed rules.
Birmingham attorney Dan Goldberg did a TV ad last year while riding a horse named "Chance." He did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
The state Board of Bar Commissioners had also asked the Supreme Court to place restrictions on mail solicitations for legal business, and the court agreed to do that.
In the past, attorneys could check court filings to see when lawsuits, divorce papers and warrants had been filed, and then they could immediately send a letter to a defendant about legal services. Because of that, some people were getting contacted by lawyers before court officials had served them with court papers.
Now, attorneys can't use mail solicitations until seven days after the defendant has been served with the court papers. A check of court records will show when the court papers were served, McLain said.
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U.S. Supreme Court's decision involving a West Virginia judicial election should interest Alabama – [Editorial]
The Birmingham News
March 04, 2009
THE ISSUE: A controversy over a West Virginia judicial election went Tuesday before the U.S. Supreme Court and should be watched closely in Alabama.
Maybe the most surprising thing about a U.S. Supreme Court case over a smelly judicial election is that it wasn't birthed in Alabama.
Instead, the case argued Tuesday at the country's highest court came from West Virginia. It involves a coal executive who spent at least $3 million to help elect a state Supreme Court candidate who later voted to overturn a huge judgment against his benefactor's company.
The question is whether the judge, Brent Benjamin, should have stepped aside from hearing the case. Some hope the Supreme Court's answer will make it clear, for the first time, when judges everywhere must sit out cases involving their campaign donors.
Nobody can say how the court will rule or how far its ruling will go. Regardless, the outcome should be of great interest in Alabama, a state that has made a bad name for itself in judicial elections.
Thirty-nine states elect some of their judges, but only a half-dozen do so through partisan elections. Alabama is one of the latter, and our court races have consistently led the country in both savagery and expense. In recent years, Alabama court races have been the most costly in the nation.
The problem in Alabama, as in West Virginia, is the perception about why people bankroll these campaigns - that is, the political donors are buying something, and the judges must be delivering.
In West Virginia, the judge argued there was no connection between the millions he received from Don Blankenship and the decision he made in favor of Blankenship's Massey Energy Co. In fact, the judge said he had ruled against Massey in other cases.
But in the case in question, the judge was part of a narrow majority (a 3-2 vote) that tossed out a $50 million judgment against Massey. Having been lavished with so much campaign money from the company's chairman, Benjamin could hardly participate in the case without raising questions of bias.
It just doesn't look good. And appearances do matter, at least if citizens are to have confidence in their courts.
Ask the people in Alabama, who have seen business groups and plaintiff lawyers wage all-out war for ownership of courts that are supposed to belong to all of us. As a result, too many Alabamians have come to view justice as something that is less "for all" and more "for those who fork out the most."
Alabama shouldn't wait for a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court to do something about that perception. Bills pending in the state Legislature would stop state judges from running under party banners, which would be an improvement if not a cure. Those putting up the cash for judges, in truth, aren't nearly as hung up on party labels as they are on their own bottom lines.
Rather than electing judges in any process that leaves them beholden to the special interests, Alabama should appoint judges based on qualifications and experience. Judges appointed to the bench could still be accountable to voters through retention elections. But they would stand alone for re-election instead of clawing their way through vicious political contests that require huge sums of money and foster the perception that justice is for sale.
Unfortunately, the outlook for that kind of change is so dim that even supporters aren't really pushing for it.
Instead, all eyes are on the U.S. Supreme Court - and what it will say about big-money court races that have come to be seen as little more than a sale on robes every few years.
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House approves $40M increase for legal services
Marcia Coyle, The National Law Journal
February 27, 2009
WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives has approved a $40 million-budget increase for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) as part of the fiscal 2009 omnibus appropriations bill.
The 11 percent increase would bring funding for the LSC to a total of $390 million. The agency said most of the funding, $365.8 million, would be awarded as competitive grants to 137 nonprofit legal aid programs across the nation.
In endorsing the increase, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan, D-W.Va., chairman of the House Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees LSC, said, "We know that the poor are hit hard during economic downturns, and this funding will help more low-income Americans faced with unlawful evictions, domestic violence and other serious legal problems."
LSC President Helaine M. Barnett said the additional $40 million would allow legal aid programs throughout the country to serve the most vulnerable at a time when they are at risk of losing their jobs, health care and shelter. The additional funding, she added, also would strengthen oversight of grants.
The House budget bill includes funding for technology grants that expand access to legal information, for a loan repayment program that helps new lawyers burdened with education-related debt, and for increased oversight of legal assistance grants.
The omnibus bill bundles appropriations for nine out of 12 spending bills set to expire on March 6. The Senate is expected to pick up the legislation the first week of March.
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Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb Makes Announcement
March 4, 2009
Montgomery, AL - Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb will announce on Friday, March 6th the selection of four jurisdictions as pilot sites to establish models systems of community punishment in Alabama.
The jurisdictions selected are Lawrence County, Montgomery County, Jefferson County and Marshall County. These jurisdictions will each receive more than $200,000 in technical assistance to evaluate existing community supervision programs and to design the best program possible for each jurisdiction.
The project, the Cooperative Community Alternative Sentencing Project (CCASP), is sponsored by the Chief Justice and the Alabama Sentencing Commission and is funded by the Pew Foundation Charitable Trusts.
In addition, technical assistance will be provided to the pilot sites through the Vera Institute of Justice and The Crime and Justice Institute. The purpose of the project is to create model community supervision programs in four pilot jurisdictions in Alabama.
The model jurisdictions will then serve as mentors for other jurisdictions in Alabama to implement programs and provide services that work and are proven to work.
CCASP is co-chaired by Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb and Chief Assistant Attorney General Rosa Davis as the Alabama Sentencing Commission representative. The Project grew out of the recognition by Chief Justice Cobb, the Sentencing Commission, and others, that Alabama's community punishment system needs to play a more structured and involved role in the punishment of non-violent felony offenders.
Community supervision is currently provided or administered by four different governmental agencies: The Administrative Office of Courts (the Court Referral Program and Drug Courts), the State Department of Corrections (work release and Community Corrections Programs), Pardons and Paroles, District Attorneys (through District Attorney pre-trial diversion programs).
Chief Justice Cobb states that "Community supervision is an essential and integral part of the public safety system, providing the most effective punishment alternative for a majority of our non-violent offenders.
Effective community supervision not only is more efficient and less costly than incarceration for appropriate offenders but also has been shown to reduce recidivism".
Todd Strange, Chairman of the Montgomery County Commission, who will also be attending the press conference, echoed the Chief Justice's sentiments stating, "With combined efforts from the local and state level, Alabama can establish model community alternative sentencing programs that punish, supervise and treat nonviolent offenders who can return to their communities to be law abiding citizens."
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Federal Judges Might Get Pay Bump This Year, but Not Next Year
David Ingram, Law.com
The prospects have improved for a small increase in federal judges' paychecks -- in the near term, at least.
House members voted Wednesday for a $410 billion spending plan to keep the federal government running through September, and the plan includes a cost-of-living adjustment for the federal judiciary for the 2009 calendar year. According to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the proposal would give judges a 2.8 percent increase retroactive to January.
Though it wouldn't bring judges close to the salaries of their friends in private practice or in deanships at top law schools, it would end their status as the only federal employees who did not get a cost-of-living adjustment this year. They have gone without such an increase in seven of the last 14 years, and Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. has made the issue a priority.
The spending plan now heads to the Senate, which has been less receptive to arguments for higher judicial pay and could amend the plan. In October, senators removed plans for the judiciary's 2009 cost-of-living adjustment from auto-bailout legislation passed by the House.
Whatever the outcome for this year, judges probably shouldn't expect much next year. Citing the recession and increasing unemployment, House members voted Wednesday in the same legislation to turn down their own cost-of-living adjustment scheduled for January 2010. Because judicial pay is linked to congressional pay, the chances for a judicial adjustment are looking grim.
President Barack Obama's proposed budget for the federal government's 2010 fiscal year, which the White House released this morning, does not include a cost-of-living adjustment or pay raise for the federal judiciary.
That doesn't mean the judiciary will give up.
"We remain hopeful that Congress will give judges a cost-of-living adjustment for 2010, even though they have denied themselves one," says Karen Redmond, a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
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