Closing federal courthouse a possibility to save money
By Dennis Sherer, Times Daily
March 29, 2012
FLORENCE - The Federal Courthouse in Florence is one of 60 nationwide being considered for closure as part of a cost-cutting effort by the federal government.
Other federal courthouses in Alabama being considered for closure are in Gadsden, Selma and Opelika. Four courthouses in Tennessee, including Columbia and Winchester also are being considered.
Karen Redmond, a federal courts spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., said no decision has been made on which courthouses might be closed.
“It is extremely early in this process,” Redmond said. “A lot of people will be involved in deciding where the closures will take place and there will be multiple reviews to ensure that any closures that take place are warranted.”
The decisions will be based on the case load of the courthouses, the expense of operating them and their location.
Federal court officials for the Northern District of Alabama are opposed to closing the Florence courthouse at the Florence post office. The courthouse is in the midst of a major renovation.
Florence attorney Nick Gajewski said closing the courthouse would create a hardship on Shoals residents who file for bankruptcy. If the courthouse closes, the hearings would be held in Decatur.
“We now conduct the bankruptcy hearings here by teleconference with a judge in Decatur,” Gajewski said. “If the Florence courthouse closes, everyone involved would have to drive to Decatur for their hearings,” he said. “People in our area will have to do a lot more driving.”
The Florence courthouse is also used for criminal and civil trials in U.S. District Court.
Redmond said opposition from court officials in Alabama could play a major role in sparing the Florence courthouse from the closure list.
“We take a look at all of our courthouses almost every year to see if any should be closed as a way to save money. This is nothing new,” she said. “We’re still a long way from making any decisions. There’s no reason for people in Florence or any of the other communities where the courthouses being considered for closure are located to be alarmed at this time.”
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We should all care about court funding reduction – [Editorial]
March 22, 2012
Unless you are charged with a criminal offense, or become involved in a civil lawsuit, why should you care if Alabama’s court system grinds to a halt for lack of funding? The reasons may be more pressing than you think.
Gov. Robert Bentley invoked proration of 10.6 percent in the General Fund budget, an unavoidable move as tax revenues have not met expectations. Across state agencies, that will feel like a cut of more than 20 percent because the fiscal year is half over.
The state court system may not feel the full weight of proration because of a court ruling in the 1990s that limits how much can be cut through proration. But that won’t protect Alabama courts from cuts next fiscal year.
The governor’s proposed budget for state courts next year is $126 million — 15 percent less than Chief Justice Robert Malone requested. In the 2010-11 fiscal year, state courts received $152 million.
For those who are innocent of the offenses for which they have been charged, such delays are unjust. Whether they are held in jail or waiting trial on bail, they deserve their day in court as soon as possible.
Those who are guilty, of course, aren’t so eager. They know their best chance of avoiding justice is to delay it. Witnesses move away or their memories fade. Investigators take new jobs or evidence grows cold. But even more significant, there is no real threat of a jury trial.
The reality is that only a small minority of cases ever come to trial. Most are settled out of court. As a practical matter, it would be impossible to try all the charges brought by grand juries. As court dockets back up, prosecutors lose their best leverage — threat of a trial — to get a guilty plea from a guilty defendant.
Businesses, families, employers and employees — citizens in general — depend on our court system to establish civil rights and protections of all sorts.
Our courts also face a leadership challenge. Republican voters chose Roy Moore as their candidate for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. Democrats will have Harry Lyon. It isn’t clear that either possesses the wisdom, tact and demeanor to manage the impending crisis for state courts.
Alabama’s courts need adequate funding. With the time remaining in his job, we hope Malone can work with the Legislature to avert a crisis.
(This article originally appeared in The Tuscaloosa News)
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Georgia State Bar Assists In Statewide Food Drive
Metropolitan Corporate Counsel
March 22, 2012
The State Bar of Georgia and its Young Lawyers Division are partnering with attorney general Sam Olens and the Georgia Food Bank Association to organize the Georgia Legal Food Frenzy, a statewide food drive that will run from Monday, April 23 to Friday, May 4.
Businesses and firms may enter a competition for the “Attorney General's Cup” while assisting their local communities. Participants may go to the Georgia Legal Food Frenzy website at http://galegalfoodfrenzy.org/. The website provides links to the contest rules as well as city representatives to answer questions.
“In the current economic conditions with grinding unemployment, over half a million Georgia kids live in poverty and one out of six Georgians lacks access to adequate food,” said State Bar President Ken Shigley. “We in the legal profession have been blessed to be a blessing to others. I urge all members of the legal community in Georgia to help our less fortunate neighbors through the Legal Food Frenzy. Give until it feels good.”
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State Bar planning to build website connecting lawyers to rural areas of South Dakota
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
March 23, 2012
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The State Bar of South Dakota is planning to build a website that will connect lawyers and rural communities in need of legal representation.
The website is part of an initiative by the Bar called Project Rural Practice to recruit more lawyers to rural areas of South Dakota.
The site must first be approved by the Bar's commissioners, but Goetzinger says he hopes the site will be operational by the end of the summer or early fall.
Bar President Pat Goetzinger says members of the task force are currently creating a mockup of the site. The site must first be approved by the Bar's commissioners, but Goetzinger says he hopes the site will be operational by the end of the summer or early fall. Goetzinger says the website also will offer information and tips on starting and maintaining a rural practice.
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Feds consider closing some courtrooms
By JEANNIE NUSS, Associated Press
March 22, 2012
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- The federal government is considering closing dozens of courtrooms, many of which are located in small, rural communities, as part of an effort to cut costs.
Documents obtained by The Associated Press show 60 federal court facilities in 29 states could be on the chopping block. Most of the courtrooms are in buildings that house other federal agencies including post offices and many are located in remote areas. Critics say closing them could make it more difficult for people to get to court proceedings.
Six of the 60 court sites that could be closed are located in Arkansas. Texas and Georgia each have five sites on the list of possible closures. Officials are even considering shuttering the location where judges hold federal court in Alaska's capital city, Juneau.
There are 674 federal courthouses and facilities around the country, according to David Sellers, a federal courts spokesman. The 60 sites being considered for closure do not have a resident judge. Instead, judges based in larger cities travel to these smaller locations as needed.
In the documents obtained by the AP, the court facilities that could close were ranked based on a variety of categories including cost, usage and location. Of the 10 facilities that seem most likely to be eyed for closure, two are in Arkansas, two are in South Carolina, and the rest are spread out between West Virginia, North Carolina, Mississippi, Virginia, Georgia and Maryland. A facility in Beaufort, S.C., tops the list, followed by the federal court site in Parkersburg, W.V. and one in Harrison, Ark.
The court sites are not the only targets that the federal government is taking aim at in rural parts of the country. As pressure mounts to trim spending, the government has considered closing post offices and eliminating federal subsidies for carriers that serve airports in rural communities and small towns.
"The federal judiciary is going through an aggressive cost containment effort because the money Congress has provided for the operating expenses for the courts has been essentially frozen the last three years," Sellers said in an email. He said a significant portion of those funds are used to pay rent for federal court facilities.
The practice of reviewing court facilities that don't have a resident judge goes back to 1997, Sellers said.
A committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, a policy-making body for the federal courts, sent the latest list to the 13 circuit judicial councils for review in February, Sellers said. They're supposed to get back to the committee by mid-April.
The committee will then review the recommendations and forward its report to the Judicial Conference, which could decide whether to close any of the court sites at its September meeting, Sellers said.
Documents obtained by the AP show that annual operating costs and rent for the 60 facilities total more than $16 million each year, but other costs were not known. Sellers said it's too early to speculate how much could be saved or how many jobs could be lost by the possible closures.
"It would depend on what, if any, facilities are closed, when the closure would occur, the rent on the particular facility, staff located at the facility, other needs in the circuit, as well as many other factors that vary from facility to facility," Sellers said.
J. Leon Holmes, the chief federal judge of the Eastern District of Arkansas, argued that closing court facilities wouldn't make a significant reduction in the federal budget.
"If the federal courts close their facilities in these places, the money will quit going from one pocket of the federal government to another pocket of the federal government, but little or no savings to the taxpayers will be seen," Holmes wrote in a letter dated Feb. 23 and sent to local bar associations. "Instead, the taxpayers will be forced to travel longer distances to appear in court as parties, witnesses, or jurors."
Holmes, who is based in Little Rock, specifically spoke against closing the Batesville, Ark., court site, which ranked seventh on the possible closure list.
"Travel through the mountains in this region of Arkansas is exclusively on two-lane highways," he wrote. "Consequently, the actual driving time from one point to another is much greater than may appear in looking on a map or in calculating distances."
Batesville, a city of 10,000, is about 70 miles from the nearest federal court in Jonesboro, but that site is also on the list. It's about 100 miles from Batesville to Little Rock, which has the only federal courtrooms in the Eastern District of Arkansas that aren't on the chopping block.
Holmes also said he was concerned that the possible closures would affect a relatively poor region.
"Many of the persons in the poorer and more remote areas of our state cannot easily travel to Little Rock to attend bankruptcy court or any other proceeding," Holmes wrote.
Alaska Sen. Mark Begich also questioned the impact the possible closures in Fairbanks, Ketchikan and Juneau could have on residents who would have to drive hundreds of miles or buy a ticket to attend a court proceeding.
"It would be a disservice to Alaskans in these cities - to arbitrarily shut off their access to the federal courts," the Democrat said in a statement Thursday.
Fred Triem, an attorney who works in Juneau and Petersburg, Alaska, said while he applauds the idea of saving money, the closures could mean hardship for people who have federal court business and no federal court.
"If you're a poor person in Juneau, Alaska, and there's no federal court building, then how are you going to have your bankruptcy hearing?" he asked Thursday. "Are you going to have to pay your travel to go to Anchorage when you don't even have enough money to pay your electric bill?"
Funding cuts to courts endanger freedom, ABA President says
By Roxana Orellana, The Salt Lake Tribune
March 16, 2012
Cuts in judiciary funding in New York have meant courts close at 4:30 p.m.
If a jury is just about to complete a verdict, but it’s not ready by closing time, they’ll have to return the next day. In the San Francisco area, 29 of 63 courts were closed in the fall and 40 percent of the staff were laid off.
"It’s axiomatic but true that ‘justice delayed, is justice denied,’ " said Bill Robinson, American Bar Association president and keynote speaker for Utah State Bar’s 2012 Spring Convention, which convenes Saturday in St. George.
Robinson said his upcoming speech to local attorneys attending the conference, "No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom," is a theme the ABA is focusing on throughout the year because of the funding cuts state courts are facing across the country.
Utah courts have not gone untouched. Rod Snow, Utah State’s Bar president, said courts are 20 percent down from staffing levels a decade ago. On the upside, no courts have been closed and they remain open for regular hours.
To address funding locally, members of Utah Bar Association meet annually with the governor and emphasize the business-friendly orientation the state enjoys.
"If you slow down the courts down, you slow business down," said Snow. "If businesses cannot resolve their disputes or it takes longer because of lack of funding, you have millions maybe even hundreds of millions of dollars tied up in court."
That money belongs on somebody’s financial statement, so it can be used to hire employees or make capital investments, Snow added.
In contrast to Utah’s situation, Robinson said, last year 42 of the 50 states cut court funding. He said there is no state in the country that funds its judiciary branch on an annual basis with more than 4 percent of its operating budget.
"An independent judiciary is required for a constitutional democracy, which is the key to freedom," Robinson said. "This is our time, our responsibility, and our privilege to stand up and speak out for the courts so we can assure adequate funding and continued access to the court for the citizenry."
The economic downturn has been a factor in the funding crisis to courts. But there is also a lack of civic education in most parts of the country, Robinson said, that leads to a widespread lack of understanding about the role of the courts.
Robinson pointed to a poll in which a large percentage of the population could name each of the judges on "American Idol" but none of those on the U. S. Supreme Court.
Another high percentage of the population, when asked to name the three branches of government, responded with Democrat, Republican and Independent.
"It explains, in part, why the vital role played by the courts, provided by our judges in administering justice, is simply not understood or misunderstood. Therefore, the citizenry doesn’t put as high a value on what the courts provide to our constitutional democracy," he said.
Unlike many other states, civics is taught in Utah high schools. The Utah State Bar is also in the process of rolling out a new civics education program in which an attorney would go to high school and teach a course, stressing the importance of the constitutional form of government, checks and balances, and having an independent judiciary system. The group hopes to get into every high school in the state.
"We have to reawaken the respect and appreciation of the public at large for their courts, their need for justice," Robinson said. "This is in large part an educational challenge for us."
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No Way to Choose a Judge – [Editorial]
The New York Times
March 15, 2012
In a serious setback for justice in Alabama, primary voters chose Roy Moore to be their candidate for chief justice of the State Supreme Court in November. He is now the odds-on favorite to win. You may remember that Mr. Moore lost that job in 2003 when a special ethics court removed him from the bench after he defied a court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the lobby of the state judicial building in Montgomery.
Mr. Moore plainly benefited from his name recognition — as disturbing as that thought is — and strong support from many of the same evangelical voters who backed Rick Santorum in the presidential primary. His victory is yet one more reminder that choosing judges in partisan elections, rather than through a system of merit selection, can create a serious problem of quality control.
In all, 31 states are holding elections for their top court this year — multicandidate races and “retention” votes for a total of 73 judgeships nationwide. Requiring would-be judges to cozy up to party leaders and raise large sums from special interests eager to influence their decisions seriously damages the efficacy and credibility of the judiciary. It discourages many highly qualified lawyers from aspiring to the bench. Bitter campaigns — replete with nasty attack ads — make it much harder for judges to work together on the bench and much harder for citizens to trust the impartiality of the system.
The taint from all the special interest money has been especially strong in Alabama. The judicial candidates in Tuesday’s decisive primary contests raised roughly $2 million. In 2006, candidates for five Supreme Court seats spent a total of $13.4 million in both the primary and general election. While the numbers will certainly end up lower this year, it may be because all but one current member of the State Supreme Court was elected with strong business backing and the plaintiff’s bar and other opposing interests with their own deep pockets decided it was not worth competing.
Alabama isn’t the only state to draw the wrong sort of candidates and indulge in the wrong sort of campaigning. In Pennsylvania, Jane Orie, a Republican member of the State Senate, is now standing trial on charges she used her government staff to help her sister Joan Orie Melvin in her successful run for the State Supreme Court in 2009.
Janine Orie, another sister, who worked for the judge, also faces charges for the misuse of government resources. And The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that a grand jury is looking into Justice Melvin’s possible involvement.
These seamy doings have helped spark a promising effort by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a nonprofit advocacy group, to persuade the State Legislature to approve a constitutional amendment that would scrap competitive partisan judicial elections. Instead the state would adopt a new system of initial merit appointment and nonpartisan retention elections.
While it would not be a perfect fix — retention votes still require fund-raising and politicking — it would be a start toward ridding the state’s courtrooms of politics and campaign cash. Fortunately, a proposal to repeal Florida’s merit appointment system isn’t going anywhere, at least for now. The country certainly does not need any more bad examples of justice for sale.
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For 2nd Year, a Sharp Drop in Law School Entrance Tests
By DAVID SEGAL, The New York Times
March 19, 2012
The organization behind the Law School Admission Test reported that the number of tests it administered this year dropped by more than 16 percent, the largest decline in more than a decade.
The Law School Admission Council reported that the LSAT was given 129,925 times in the 2011-12 academic year. That was well off the 155,050 of the year before and far from the peak of 171,514 in the year before that. In all, the number of test takers has fallen by nearly 25 percent in the last two years.
The decline reflects a spreading view that the legal market in the United States is in terrible shape and will have a hard time absorbing the roughly 45,000 students who are expected to graduate from law school in each of the next three years. And the problem may be deep and systemic.
Many lawyers and law professors have argued in recent years that the legal market will either stagnate or shrink as technology allows more low-end legal work to be handled overseas, and as corporations demand more cost-efficient fee arrangements from their firms.
That argument, and news that so many new lawyers are struggling with immense debt, is changing the way law school is perceived by undergrads. Word is getting through that law school is no longer a safe place to sit out an economic downturn — an article of faith for years — and that strong grades at an above-average school no longer guarantees a six-figure law firm job.
“For a long time there has been this culturally embedded perception that if you go to law school, it will be worth the money,” said Kyle McEntee of Law School Transparency, a legal education policy organization. “The idea that law school is an easy ticket to financial security is finally breaking down.”
Law schools have also suffered through some withering press in the last couple of years. Some blogs, most of them written by unemployed or underemployed graduates, have accused law schools of enticing students with shady data. Attention has focused on a crucial statistic: the percentage of graduates who are employed nine months after graduation.
In recent months, class-action lawsuits have been filed against more than a dozen law schools, charging that students were snookered into enrolling by postgraduate employment figures that were vastly, and fraudulently, inflated. Even if law schools are able to defeat these lawsuits — and many legal scholars anticipate they will — the media attention has been bruising. Steve Schwartz, an LSAT tutor, said the new LSAT figures were not a surprise, given the steady decline in the number of students seeking one-on-one tutoring.
“This is a major turn of events,” he wrote of the newly reported test numbers on his LSAT Blog, “The tide is turning, folks.”
For some law schools, the dwindling number of test-takers represents a serious long-term challenge.
“What I’d anticipate is that you’ll see the biggest falloff in applications in the bottom end of the law school food chain,” said Andrew Morriss of the University of Alabama School of Law. “Those schools are going to have significant difficulty because they are dependent on tuition to fund themselves and they’ll either have to cut class size to maintain standards, or accept students with lower credentials.”
If they take the second course, Mr. Morriss said, it would hurt the school three years later because there is a strong correlation between poor performance on the LSAT and poor performance on the bar exam. If students start failing the bar, then the prestige of the school will drop, which would mean lowering standards even more. “At that point,” Mr. Morriss said, “the school is risking a death spiral.”
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Is Facebook Part of Your Estate? New Laws Debated
By ASSOCIATED PRESS
March 16, 2012
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — When Karen Williams’ son died in a motorcycle crash, the Oregon woman turned to his Facebook account in hopes of learning more about the young man she had lost.
Williams found his password and emailed the company, asking administrators to maintain 22-year-old Loren Williams’ account so she could pore through his posts and comments by his friends. But within two hours, she said, Facebook changed the password, blocking her efforts.
“I wanted full and unobstructed access, and they balked at that,” said Williams, recalling her son’s death in 2005. “It was heartbreaking. I was a parent grasping at straws to get anything I could get.”
Now lawmakers and attorneys in at least two states are considering proposals that would require Facebook and other social networks to grant access to loved ones when a family member dies, essentially making the site contents part of a person’s digital estate. The issue is growing increasingly important as people record more thoughts and experiences online and more disputes break out over that material.
Williams, a second-grade teacher from the Portland suburbs, ultimately got back into her son’s account, but it took a lawsuit and a two-year legal battle that ended with Facebook granting her 10 months of access before her son’s page was removed.
Nebraska is reviewing legislation modeled after a law in Oklahoma, which last year became the first state to take action.
“Mementos, shoeboxes with photos. That, we knew how to distribute once someone passed away,” said Ryan Kiesel, a former legislator who wrote the Oklahoma law. “We wanted to get state law and attorneys to begin thinking about the digital estate.”
Under Facebook’s current policy, deaths can be reported in an online form. When the site learns of a death, it puts that person’s account in a memorialized state. Certain information is removed, and privacy is restricted to friends only. The profile and wall are left up so friends and loved ones can make posts in remembrance.
Facebook will provide the estate of the deceased with a download of the account data “if prior consent is obtained from or decreed by the deceased or mandated by law.”
If a close relative asks that a profile be removed, Facebook will honor that request, too.
Like the Oklahoma law, the Nebraska bill would allow friends or relatives to take control of social media accounts if the deceased person lived in the state. The measure would treat Facebook, Twitter and email accounts as digital assets that could be closed or continued by an appointed representative.
Omaha lawyer William Lindsay, who specializes in estate planning, said his professional experience has taught him that the issue should be addressed in the law. But he also has a personal interest because of a cousin who died while serving in the Navy.
“We wanted to be able to get the email records, but we couldn’t because nobody knew the password,” Lindsay said. “We wanted to let her friends know she had died, but we didn’t know all of them.”
Sen. John Wightman, who sponsored the measure at the urging of the state bar association, said he expects the Judiciary Committee to approve the bill, sending it to the full Legislature.
Facebook spokesman Tucker Bounds said the company was surprised by the Oklahoma law and was working closely with Nebraska legislators on the latest proposal. The company declined to say how many people had requested access to accounts held by Oklahomans, but Bounds said it was relatively rare.
“I can tell you there aren’t people pouring out into the streets asking for access,” Bounds said.
Oregon could be the next state to take up the issue. The Oregon State Bar Association has formed a group to work on the matter and hopes to propose legislation next year.
Portland lawyer Victoria Blachly said the plan will mirror the Oklahoma law, but it will also include a “virtual asset instruction letter” that lists online information and passwords, along with instructions for when someone dies or becomes incapacitated.
“That’s the part that social media providers have been wrestling with,” Blachly said.
Like others, Blachly said she began studying the issue after a young relative died and left social media accounts in limbo.
Her top concern is the emotional value of social media accounts.
“Some people say `Well, if I get hit by a bus, what do I care?’” she said. “The people who love you care very much about it.
Alabama State Bar's student law day to focus on funds, cutbacks
By Eric Velasco, The Birmingham News
March 12, 2012
The Alabama State Bar has come up with a timely theme this year for its annual Law Day contest for students: How the state funding crisis and court cutbacks affect justice.
"This year's Law Day theme reflects the somber truth that the current funding crisis experienced by the court system ... exerts a disproportionate impact on the wheels of justice," Brad Carr, the state bar director of communications, said in a news release.
Court officials are bracing this year for another potential cutback in state funding, the latest in a series of budget reductions that already have decimated staffing in court clerk's offices, left judges with minimum support workers and eliminated pay for court bailiffs.
"Courts are not just another state agency," said Jim Pratt III, president of the state bar.
"Courts must administer justice regardless of how many people walk through the courthouse door. Without access to the courts, the rule of law is threatened."
This year's Law Day contest theme is "No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom."
Students in grades K-3, and 4-6 will compete using posters reflecting the theme. Students in grades 7-9 and grades 10-12 will compete using essays and social media based on the theme. A total of $2,400 in U.S. Savings Bonds will be awarded to winners.
For more information and entry forms, visit the state bar Web site,
www.alabar.org/lawday or telephone 800-354-6154, extension 2126. Deadline is
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Summary Judgment – [Legal Blog]
Thompson-Reuters News & Insight
Alabama judicial elections always make for a good story. Though the state is on the low-end for per-capita income, over the past decade, it spent more on high-court judicial elections than any of the other states, according to a report by Washington-based Justice at Stake, a group that tracks fundraising in judicial races.
2012 will not disappoint. Sure, fundraising appeared to be down - way down -- in the 2012 primary season, as Summary Judgments reported last month, via the Mobile Press-Register. In fact, a 3-way Republican primary for the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court looked like a yawner.
Until Tuesday night. Remember Roy Moore, the former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice who was kicked off the court in 2003 after refusing to remove a Ten Commandments display from the courthouse? In the late hours of the evening, it looked like Moore had eked out a victory against his two opponents, current Supreme Court Chief Justice incumbent Chuck Malone and Charles Graddick, a former Alabama attorney general, according to the Press-Register. To avoid a run-off, a candidate needed more than 50 percent of the votes; Moore clocked in at 51 percent, according to the Press-Register, and rode a horse into the polling station on Tuesday, the newspaper reported.
For a little context on the win, Summary Judgments caught up with Mark White, a partner at Birmingham law firm White Arnold & Dowd and a former president of the Alabama State Bar who follows judicial politics closely. White chalked Moore's win up to a combination of the dynamic between his two opponents - who ran negative ads beating up on each other -- and his ability to ride the coattails of GOP presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. The two campaigned mightily in the state and brought conservative voters to the polls, the sweet spot of Moore's support base.
Graddick and Malone, both sitting judges "spent a lot of energy trying to keep the other from winning, and they both succeeded. As a result Chief Justice Moore, who stayed outside their campaign and above the fray, won without a run-off," says White.
In the general election, says White, the issue for Moore becomes "who winds up being the Republican nominee and does that core base of support accentuate or not accentuate Moore's core base?"
Moore will face Alabama attorney Harry Lyon in the general election.
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Alabama Supreme Court races see decline in campaign contributions
By Eric Velasco, The Birmingham News
March 11, 2012
The 2012 election may signal that change is coming to Alabama's reputation as the most expensive state in the nation to run for Supreme Court.
Cash contributions have been scarce enough in the 2012 election cycle, each of the three candidates for Alabama chief justice loaned money to their campaigns recently to pay for television advertising, campaign disclosures show.
"Part of it is just the economy," said Larry Vinson, chairman of one of the main sources of Republican court candidate cash, the Alabama Civil Justice Reform Committee political action committee. "All sides involved are struggling. Also, there are not as many contested races this year."
With five of the nine court seats on the ballot, including chief justice, 2012 had the potential to be an expensive election year.
In 2006, the last time these seats were open, candidates spent $13.4 million total on the primary and general elections, making it the most-expensive set of state judicial races in U.S. history.
The $7.7 million chief justice contest in 2006 involving Drayton Nabers, Tom Parker and Sue Bell Cobb also was the nation's second most-expensive single judicial election, according to the judicial watchdog group Justice at Stake.
But with only two state high court seats contested Tuesday, total spending has barely passed $2.1 million.
By contrast, Nabers spent $2.4 million alone in his 2006 chief justice primary. Total spending on the 2006 high court primary was roughly $5 million.
"Clearly something major is shifting, and it has been in Alabama for two elections now," said Charles Hall, spokesman for Justice at Stake, which tracks the influence of campaign donations on justice.
For decades, Alabama has been a key battleground for control of appellate courts. Republicans have been backed financially by business, insurance, medical, banking and similar interests, while Democrats were underwritten mostly by plaintiff trial lawyers, the state teacher's union and gambling interests.
Democrats dominated the court in the early 1990s. But it was all-Republican by 2006 when Cobb, a Democrat, upset Nabers, a Republican, for a six-year term as chief justice.
In 2008, Democratic backers poured $2.5 million into Deborah Bell Paseur's campaign with hopes to win a second high court seat, but she narrowly lost. In 2010, three Democratic candidates for state Supreme Court had $750,000 combined to spend on their losing bids.
After Cobb suddenly resigned in August, the state Supreme Court once again was all-Republican. The state Democratic Party was unable to recruit any court candidates with judicial experience, leaving only Pelham lawyer Harry Lyon running in November for chief justice.
"A Paseur victory might have signaled a comeback by the Democrats," Hall said. "But it's hard to find candidates when their traditional source of money is drying up and they have no reasonable path to victory."
Tuesday's Republican chief justice primary pits Charlie Graddick, Charles Malone and Roy Moore.
The other contested race, for an open court seat, is between Tommy Bryan and Debra Jones.
Republican incumbent justices Lyn Stuart, Glenn Murdock and Jim Main have no primary or general election opposition.
Bryan has spent $362,000, versus $13,000 by Jones. The three unopposed justices have spent less than $79,000 combined, disclosures show.
Through Friday, Graddick had more than $637,000 in cash contributions and $250,000 in loans. He made one of those loans, $100,000, on Feb. 24, days before spending $128,000 on ads, disclosures show. Graddick's total spending is nearly $825,000.
Malone raised $527,000 in cash and loaned his campaign $150,000, disclosures show. After spending some $270,000 on ads a week earlier, Malone loaned his campaign $50,000 on March 5.
That day his campaign shelled out $60,000 more on advertising, leaving it then with less than $20,000 in the bank, reports show. He has spent nearly $648,000 in total.
Moore has raised about $194,000 and spent nearly $219,000. On March 1, Moore loaned his campaign $50,000, the same day the campaign spent $115,000 on ads, disclosures show.
Another example of how the cash flow has diminished in 2012 is reflected in contributions by the primary funding sources for Republican high court candidates.
Through Friday, the ACJRC PAC donated only $68,000 combined to four high court candidates, disclosure forms show. By contrast, ACJRC PAC made a single donation of $475,000 to Nabers in his 2006 chief justice battle, one of several six-figure contributions it made that year.
The Business Council of Alabama's Progress PAC has given $4.6 million to state high court campaigns since 2000, ranking third nationally among all court donors nationwide during that period, according to Justice at Stake.
This year, Progress PAC has stayed out of the chief justice race. It mainly has supported Bryan, now a judge on the Court of Civil Appeals, with $50,000 of the $65,000 total that Progress PAC has donated to current state high court candidates.
Other states still have a long way to go to catch up with spending in Alabama on high court races.
From 2000-2011, Alabama candidates spent some $44 million, according to Justice at Stake. Candidates in the No. 2 state, Ohio, spent $25 million.
"Alabama has customarily outspent every other state, with room to spare," Hall said. "The question now is, has one side in Alabama won the war?"
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Law firms get into the social media game
By Catherine Ho, The Washington Post
March 11, 2012
After years of avoiding the Twittersphere, Big Law is warming up to the advertising power of social networking. Leaders at several top 100 firms are for the first time hiring full-time social media specialists to manage firms’ LinkedIn, YouTube and Twitter accounts, and many more are making a concerted effort to prioritize social media outreach in marketing campaigns.
It is a marked shift for the risk-adverse legal industry, which — as retailers and restaurants jumped on Twitter and Facebook to hawk discounts and promote products — largely stayed away from social media as a way to pursue new business.
But now, 20 percent of law firms have a full-time social media specialist on staff, and about 40 percent said blogging and social networking initiatives have helped the firm land new work, according to an ALM Legal Intelligence report released in February that surveyed 179 attorneys, managing partners and marketing directors.
Nixon Peabody is in the final stages of hiring its first social media manager, who is expected to start in April. Last August, Latham & Watkins hired Dimitra Kessenides, a former journalist at The American Lawyer who founded the legal publication’s Web site, to oversee the firm’s use of social media platforms. And Dechert last summer promoted public relations specialist Peggy Heffner to a newly created position that focuses primarily on growing the firm’s presence on social networks.
Firms “no longer think it’s a fad, and are trying to embrace it and utilize it in the way other businesses are,” said Sabrina McGowan, public relations manager at McKenna Long & Aldridge who oversees the firm’s Twitter account and works with attorneys to tweak keywords in LinkedIn profiles and blogs to increase the chances of landing top spots in search engine results. McGowan joined McKenna Long in 2010 and developed the firm’s first social media strategy and an internal policy on how firm employees can use social networks.
The efforts are brining some success: one litigator at Dechert recently signed a new client days after a LinkedIn request from a former colleague, now an in-house lawyer, prompted him to pitch to that company’s general counsel.
Similarly, Eric Paley, an employment lawyer at Nixon Peabody, scooped up employee benefits work from a multimedia firm after an acquaintance in his LinkedIn network referred him to the company’s assistant general counsel.
A narrow audience
Law firms face a unique challenge in that they often can’t publicize or even talk about client matters, nor can they promise the type of discount that would sing on Groupon. Their audience is not the mass-market consumer, but the in-house lawyer of a company.
Social media marketing “is far more challenging business-to-business than business-to-consumer,” said Andrew Glincher, managing partner and chief executive of Nixon Peabody. “My clients have joked with me over the years my only inventory is my experience and what’s between my ears. It’s a bit different than driving retail sales and having online coupons. A couple years back, most law firms were still not convinced they could reach business clients this way.”
Now firms are learning to sell themselves in more indirect ways — such as urging attorneys to blog about new regulations or court cases they’re not personally involved in. The idea is to get that blog, and the lawyer’s name, in front of a general counsel who’s searching for an outside lawyer with expertise in a matter their business is facing.
“We don’t have a product, we have a service,” McGowan said. “That’s what we’re trying to promote — knowledge and experience.”
Many firms are honing in on LinkedIn and blogs, and shying away from Facebook, which they consider a personal rather than professional networking tool. McKenna Long added two new blogs in January, including one on politics, law and policy that the firm timed to coincide with the 2012 presidential election.
Dechert last month produced the first installment of a YouTube video briefing series, which features several finance and corporate lawyers analyzing investment risks and opportunities arising from the European debt crisis. And Morrison & Foerster, one of few firms that maintain a social media practice group, unveiled its first blog in January, which tracks developments in social media law, including litigation arising from businesses’ use of social media in advertising.
“There are things you can’t share with attorney-client privilege,” Heffner said of the limitations law firms face while promoting themselves on social media networks. “But with the things you can share, it’s just another platform to do that.”
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Student loans seen as potential ‘next debt bomb’ for U.S. economy
By Eric Pianin, The Washington Post
March 10, 2012
Bankruptcy lawyers have a frightening message for America: They’re seeing the telltale signs of a student loan debt bubble that is placing increased financial pressure on families struggling with their children’s mounting debt. According to a recent survey by the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, more than 80 percent of bankruptcy lawyers have seen a substantial increase in the number of clients seeking relief from student loans in recent years.
In most cases, those clients could not meet the federal hardship standards that are necessary to discharge a student loan through bankruptcy proceedings. Instead, many of these parents or guardians who co-signed the student loans face the prospect of losing their life savings, cars or homes to collection agencies for aggressive private lenders.
William Brewer, head of NACBA, has said, “This could very well be the next debt bomb for the U.S. economy” — something akin to the housing mortgage loan crisis that triggered the U.S. financial crisis.
“Obviously, in the short term, student loan defaults are not going to have the same ripple effect through the economy that mortgage defaults did,” Brewer said. “My concern is that the long-term effect may be even graver, because people who need student loans to try to get a higher education or retraining” will be unwilling to run the risk of taking out a student loan. “Our best and brightest won’t necessarily get the education that they need to move us forward,” he added.
The amount of student borrowing skyrocketed from $100 billion in 2010 to $867 billion last year — or more than the $704 billion in outstanding U.S. credit card debt, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Of the 37 million borrowers who have outstanding student loan balances as of third-quarter 2011, 14.4 percent have at least one past-due student loan account. Together, these balances come to $85 billion, or roughly 10 percent of the total outstanding student loan balance.
College seniors who graduated with student loans individually owed an average of $25,250, up 5 percent from the previous year, according to a study by Brewer’s group. Parents are responsible, on average, for $34,000 in student loans, a figure that rises to about $50,000 over a standard 10-year repayment period. An estimated 17 percent of parents whose children graduated in 2010 took out loans, a 5.6 percent increase from 1992 and 1993.
A report last year by the Pew Research Center and the Chronicle of Higher Education warned that public anxiety over college costs is at an all-time high. Moreover, “low income college graduates or those burdened by student loan debt are questioning the value of their degrees,” saying the cost of college has delayed other life decisions, the report said.
The Inghams of suburban Minneapolis are an example of how one family got into financial hot water. David Ingham, a 70-year-old disabled Vietnam War veteran, co-signed about $50,000 worth of student loans for his son to attend a fine-arts school in Minneapolis as well as Catholic University in Washington.
Ingham’s son held a couple of jobs after he left Catholic University, but he was laid off in October 2009 and has not found work since. When his son could not repay his loans, a Sallie Mae collection agency took the family to court, seeking to place a lien on the Inghams’ condominium in suburban Edina.
“It’s a nice condo, and I worked my butt off for years to get this thing. Now we don’t know what the heck is going to happen,” David Ingham said. “We’re in a free fall right now.”
While Ingham says he and his family are in a state of shock and depression, others are angry and defiant.
More than 125,000 people have signed an online petition to protest a $50 forbearance fee that Sallie Mae, the private student loan giant, had been charging borrowers for years whenever they temporarily deferred payments on a loan. Federal programs that provide the preponderance of loans do not charge such fees.
Stef Gray, a Hunter College graduate from New York who has paid $300 in forbearance fees to the company since May, organized the petition drive in hopes of persuading Sallie Mae to drop the fee, just as Bank of America and other financial institutions dropped unpopular fees in the face of Internet protests.
Gray, 23, who lives in Brooklyn, has become a symbol of the plight of young Americans saddled with debt. With both her parents deceased, Gray has put herself through school with part-time jobs and three private loans with Sallie Mae.
Since graduating in May with a master’s degree in geographic information systems, Gray has been unable to find full-time employment. Instead, she says, she has gotten by with temporary jobs and waitressing. Without a steady income, she says, it has been impossible to make the $700 monthly payments on her $40,000 in loans. Nor has she been able to consolidate the loans or negotiate more favorable terms with Sallie Mae.
Every time she deferred a payment on the three loans, Sallie Mae slapped her with a $50 forbearance fee for each loan — a total of $150.
“That may not sound like a lot of money to some,” she said. “But for me, with no parents, struggling to get by without a job and not receiving any unemployment, that’s a lot of money.” Because of the compounding effect of the interest rate on the unpaid portion of her loan and related penalties, Gray says, her original $40,000 loan has grown to $65,000. “The interest is snowballing,” she said.
Early in February, Sallie Mae announced it was changing how it would handle the $50 fee.
“When customers who are experiencing temporary financial difficulty ask to suspend scheduled payments, we ask for a good-faith payment to emphasize the terms and long-term implications of their decision to use forbearance,” Sallie Mae spokeswoman Patricia Christel said.
The company declined to eliminate the penalty but said it would now apply the money toward the borrower’s loan balance once on-time payments are resumed for six consecutive months.
Gray called the policy change a “partial victory” but noted that she’ll continue to be hit with $150 in fees every three months on her loans because she still doesn’t have a full-time job. Gray and other organizers met recently in Washington with Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-Mich.) to enlist his support against the Sallie Mae fee. Clarke has introduced a bill that would provide student loan forgiveness as a means of economic stimulus.
“They put me in a situation where either I pay this fee or I’m faced with default,” Gray said. “And if I default, I may never be able to buy a home at all, or rent an apartment again, or buy a car, or get a job, with employers checking credit when hiring. I think it’s ridiculous that I have to keep upholding credit card companies as much kinder to their debtors than [student loan] lenders.”
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Attorney inducted into Ala. Women's Hall of Fame
by Alvin Benn, Montgomery Advertiser
March 2, 2012
MARION -- Nina Miglionico, a feisty little lawyer who refused to buckle under death threats, dynamite and a burning cross on her lawn during the turbulent 1960s, was inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame on Thursday.
She might have stood only 4 feet 11 inches, but those who knew her best described her as a giant in the legal profession, a woman who practiced for 73 years and never lost her zest for the law.
Miglionico, who died in 2009 at the age of 95, was so good at just about every facet of the law that opposing lawyers knew they were in for a battle whenever they came up against her in a courtroom.
Jefferson County Circuit Judge Helen Shores Lee, who took part in the induction ceremony at Judson College, pointed to Miglionico's reputation when it came to divorce proceedings.
"It is said when husbands learned Miss Nina was representing their wife, there was nothing left for them to do but fall on their sword," said Lee, to loud laughter.
A fierce advocate for women's rights, Miglionico worked for 30 years to end Alabama's practice of excluding women from jury service. A federal court order made it happen in 1967.
Birmingham lawyer Sam Rumore mentioned that along with other interesting tidbits about the daughter of Italian immigrants who sailed through college and law school and opened her own practice when no firm would hire her because of her gender.
Rumore, who began working with Miglionico as a law clerk and eventually became her partner, mentioned the hate mail she received and kept during her years as a member of the Birmingham City Council.
Her election to the council came at a time when the form of government was changed and supporters of those who were ousted began taking matters into their own hands.
Rumore said the "ultimate gesture of hatred" occurred one day when someone deposited a dynamite-laden box at Miglionico's home. He said her father was able to disarm it before it could explode.
"Nina pressed on," he said, adding that she refused to give in under mounting pressure that included a burning cross placed on her lawn.
For many years a member of the Hall of Fame's board of directors and eventually its chairwoman, Miglionico received numerous awards during her long career and is to be inducted into the Alabama Lawyer's Hall of Fame on May 4.
Miglionico, who never married, left in her will a $1 million gift for the Birmingham Museum of Arts and included a stipulation that it be used in memory of her parents and to promote Italian artists.
Nina Hall, who was named for her famous aunt, had the honor of unveiling the plaque that detailed some of her many achievements.
"If anybody deserves this, she certainly does," said Hall, who was born when Miglionico was 50. "I always knew that she was special."
Miglionico was honored during the 41st installation ceremony at Alabama's only women's college. Past inductees have included former Gov. Lurleen Wallace and acclaimed actress Tallulah Bankhead.
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Officials get creative with court funding
by Cameron Steele, Anniston Star
More money. That’s the basic answer to the funding issues facing Alabama’s courts and criminal justice system, according to the officials who work for those agencies.
But more money isn’t likely to come the way of the courts, state forensics labs and prisons, what with Gov. Robert Bentley’s pledge to fill a $366 million hole by cutting some agencies, eliminating others and not raising taxes.
The promise of more cuts to the court system and Department of Forensic Sciences and level funding for the Department of Correction’s overcrowded prisons has local officials and state legislators looking for creative ways to keep the justice system working.
Some, like Republican state Sen. Cam Ward, have proposed bills that would change the way civil cases are handled at the courthouse to address understaffed clerks’ offices.
More than 400 people were laid off this year as a result of a $13.1 million cut in state funding for the court, and officials say hundreds more layoffs are in the future if the budget cuts the courts by another 25 percent, as the governor has proposed for fiscal 2013.
Still, Ward has hopes that a pair of bills he’s introduced in the Legislature will alleviate some of the burden that reduced state funding — and the subsequent layoffs — has placed on the courts.
The first bill would allow people involved in civil litigation to hire private judges to hear their cases, so long as they agree to pay for that judge and a $100 administration fee for the courts to process the case paperwork.
That way, people will have their cases heard more quickly. And, because it is not on the court’s public docket, it will free judges up to hear other cases, Ward said.
“And the $100 administration fee to go to the clerk’s office would help put money back into the system for those offices,” the senator said. “It’s a win-win situation.”
The bill has received ample support from other legislators, passing the Senate on Thursday. Now in the House, the bill has been read once. Ward said he’s urged for the quick passage of the so-called “private judge” bill.
Ward’s second proposal would cut the amount of time allowed for discovery periods in civil cases seeking less than $100,000 in damages. Discovery is the time before a trial that lawyers have to research information about each other’s claims and build their cases. The bill, which was recently read for a second time in the Senate, would require the state Supreme Court to adopt rules for these expedited discovery periods.
The goal of the bill, Ward said, is to reduce the amount of time and paperwork for certain civil cases, thereby reducing the burden on the clerk’s office.
“If you don’t have any money, the solution is to massage the current process to make it quicker,” Ward said of his proposals.
“Massaging the process” is also how local police agencies are addressing past funding cuts to the Department of Forensics Sciences and the governor’s desire to cut another 10 percent in 2013.
Members of the Calhoun-Cleburne Drug & Violent Crimes Task Force, Anniston and Jacksonville police and the Cleburne County Sheriff’s Office are now learning how to test the drug evidence in misdemeanor marijuana cases. Hundreds of drug cases in counties across the state are stagnating, unable to move forward or be dismissed because the state forensics labs are months and, in some cases, a year behind in testing drug evidence.
Now, some law-enforcement agencies in Calhoun and Cleburne counties hope to put a dent in the growing number of pending drug cases by getting certified to test their own evidence in misdemeanor marijuana cases.
Mark Hopwood, a former forensic scientist who worked at the McClellan DFS lab until it closed, is teaching the classes. The second session will happen this week, when on Tuesday law enforcers will examine marijuana plants under microscopes.
Mark Osborne, a crime scene investigator for the Anniston Police Department, said the ability to test for marijuana locally will cut out the step of sending those misdemeanor cases to Hoover.
“It will help us alleviate some of the backlog, clear some cases,” he said.
Anniston police used to test their own marijuana evidence but stopped doing so in 2006 when it became easier and more efficient to ship the evidence to the then-open DFS lab at McClellan.
Now, as state forensic labs face more cuts at the governor’s request, police and prosecutors said they’ll have to rely on DFS for services less and less.
“We want to be prepared as they cut,” said Capt. Chris Roberson, commander of the drug task force. “We want to be prepared that if six months from now, the drug testing is cut (from DFS duties), we can figure out a way to make it happen here for our area.”
Meanwhile, members of the Alabama Sentencing Commission are also preparing to offer solutions to the state’s prisons, which are at 193 percent of capacity.
In April, the commission will present a truth-in-sentencing proposal to the Legislature aimed at reducing sentences for a variety of crimes, from burglary to possession of a controlled substance to murder.
Bennet Wright, director of the commission, said that in order to implement truth-in-sentencing guidelines without causing the prison populations to dramatically increase, the length of sentences for a number of crimes have to be reduced.
“We are trying to craft a policy that absolutely would not break the bank,” Wright said. “Obviously a lot of people are going to be taken aback by the much lower sentence lengths.”
Wright said the commission didn’t have the specifics of the proposal hammered out yet.
He gave fair warning, though: Crimes that currently carry 10- and 20-year sentences will have 18- and 30-month sentences under the commission’s proposal.
But Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Corbett noted that although people are used to hearing judges hand down 10- and 20-year sentences for convicted felons, the reality is that offenders rarely serve those full terms.
Currently, a person sentenced to 10 years in prison will in reality be released before they have served 40 months, according to corrections officials.
Ward, also a member of the sentencing commission, said he’s a huge supporter of establishing new sentencing standards and more authority for the sentencing commission to regulate incarceration issues.
“The justice system is indeed one of the biggest problems facing us today,” Ward said. “There is no simple answer.”
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Delays and dilemmas: Budget cuts slow down the wheel of justice in county courts
by Cameron Steele, Anniston Star
March 4, 2012
In the Calhoun County Courthouse, a stack of un-mailed checks sits on a bottom shelf.
For the past four months, the untouched garnishments have piled up, waiting for a time-strapped clerk to spare the hours it takes to process them and send them off to businesses and people who are, in turn, waiting to be paid.
Meanwhile at the Anniston police station, hundreds of drug cases are gathering dust — filed away for half a year or longer — as local investigators play their own waiting game. Test results for those backlogged drug cases are only just starting come in — one or two at a time — from a state forensics lab in Hoover.
And on a recent day at the St. Clair Correctional Facility, corrections officers faced another kind of jam: The ratio of inmates to prison guards was 95-to-1.
These are only a few examples of the many cracks beginning to show in the Alabama justice system. The state’s courthouses, police departments, prosecutors and prisons perform some of the most basic, most vital functions of government, but that doesn’t mean they automatically get the money officials say it takes to serve the public well.
In fact, automatic cuts seem to be the norm these days — cuts resulting in smaller staffs, closed offices and delays in services. A $13.1 million decrease in state funding for the courts between fiscal 2011 and 2012 led to layoffs of more than 400 employees last year. Now, all of Alabama’s courthouses are operating at 40 percent below the workforce levels suggested by a national nonprofit study.
For the state Department of Forensic Sciences, slashed budgets have meant closed doors and shuttered facilities. Most recently, the $3.9 million decrease in state funding over the past four years has resulted in the closing of three satellite laboratories, including one in Anniston. Now, drug cases around the state are stalling — with suspects out on bond or sitting in jail — without the necessary test results to move them forward or have them dismissed.
And Gov. Robert Bentley’s proposal of level funding for the Department of Corrections in fiscal 2013 means the state’s overcrowded prisons — the 29 facilities are 191 percent over capacity — will stay that way if nothing is done to change the rate at which people are incarcerated or the length of their sentences.
The whole system has slowed down, officials said, and the forecast doesn’t look much better. The state general fund faces a $366 million budget shortfall in the next fiscal year, and Bentley has pledged not to raise taxes. His 2013 proposal calls for the elimination of some state agencies and cutting funding for most others, including sweeping cuts to those agencies that support the justice system.
“I think many people started out with the premise that government is waste and we can get by with less,” Calhoun County Circuit Judge Malcolm Street said of the cuts. “They are going to ultimately find that these smaller budgets are going to have an impact in a lot of ways they haven’t thought.”
COURT CUTS: WORKERS ARE WEEKS BEHIND
At the Calhoun County Courthouse, the impact is hard to see at first. Sure, lines to pay traffic tickets on Wednesday mornings are long, the clerk’s offices close in the middle of each day for lunch, and only three women man the circuit clerk’s office on the third floor. But like the general quiet at the courthouse, the recent loss of half of the 25-person courthouse staff is muted. Most criminal cases in district and circuit courts move through the system at the same pace they did before, and even circuit civil cases are routinely pushed through the docket.
That’s primarily because Circuit Clerk Ted Hooks was able to dip into another pot of money to rehire four of the 13 workers laid off last summer. Although those four clerks are only part-time employees, they go a long way to fill the holes left by layoffs, Hooks and his assistant, Kim McCarson, said.
All four part-timers work in the district clerk’s office, where the paper backlogs are the highest and filing is falling behind.
Workers are weeks behind in processing the hundreds of new civil and small claims cases that come into district court each week. And that means a person has to wait that much longer before his or her case is heard by District Judge Beth Rogers, who oversees small claims and district civil cases.
Rogers declined to comment on case backlogs, but McCarson can recite a laundry list of cases that are being delayed — from property-line disputes between neighbors to the collection of child support to landlords who are trying to have tenants evicted.
“Everything down there is falling behind,” McCarson said of the district clerk’s office. “We used to be able to have a service-oriented, friendly attitude, and now we don’t have time to talk.”
Cases that include garnishments are among the worst backlogs at the courthouse now. These are civil matters in which a judge has ordered a defendant to pay the plaintiff a certain amount of money each time the defendant gets a paycheck. In the past, those checks were sent out each month. But now, hundreds of garnishments dating back to November are still sitting on an office shelf.
“We can’t ever get caught up here,” said Jana Hauseman, one of the part-time clerks in district court. “It never stops.”
Other backlogs at the Calhoun County Courthouse include divorces filed in paper form and traffic tickets.
There are four weeks worth of paid traffic tickets waiting to be filed away, but no one can seem to find the time, McCarson said.
And if someone wants to file for divorce without hiring a lawyer to file it online, that person has to wait three to four weeks before the divorce papers are even entered into the system, divorce court clerk Lynne Whitten said. There never used to be a wait for divorces or traffic tickets to be filed, officials said.
And at courthouses around the state, the backlogs are much the same or worse. In Madison County, residents must now wait around 24 months between filing for divorce and the conclusion of those cases, officials said.
In Clay County, the rural courthouse staff has been reduced from four people to two full-time employees and one part-time worker. The bare-bones staff can only focus on criminal cases, because if it didn’t, it would risk violating the constitutional rights of criminal suspects.
“It’s absolutely brutal for them,” Clay County District Attorney Fred Thompson said. “And they are looking at the loss of another employee.”
That’s because, based on the governor’s proposal to cut the court system by another 25 percent in 2013, more layoffs are likely in the coming year.
If the cuts happen, court officials may have to let go an additional 543 workers, according to a funding-reduction analysis from the Alabama Administrative Office of Courts.
In fact, even if the courts receive the same amount of funding next year as they did for fiscal 2012, there will have to be around 100 new layoffs, that analysis shows.
“Without … upgrades, the system cannot continue to operate efficiently and could even fail,” AOC spokesman Dean Hartzog said, meaning that paper backlogs could grow so overwhelming as to cause massive delays in civil and criminal cases. Delays like that could risk violating the constitutional rights of defendants in criminal cases, officials said.
Upgrades are just what state Supreme Court Chief Justice Chuck Malone has asked for: In his budget proposal to the Legislature, Malone asked the governor to increase funding for the courts by $18.6 million, an appropriation that would allow for the rehiring of 226 workers.
But, based on the rhetoric coming from Montgomery, Hooks and other court officials said they feel like that’s a distant dream.
“I don’t want to see the system go down the tubes, but it’s going down the tubes,” Hooks said. “I don’t see any hope.”
EVIDENCE DELAYS: DRUG CASES PILE UP
There is little hope, too, for the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, an agency that shuttered three laboratories in August after an $850,000 budget cut this fiscal year. For fiscal 2013, Bentley has proposed another 10 percent reduction in funding for the agency, which handles autopsies, drug and DNA testing, and other forensics analyses.
That’s bad news for law enforcers and prosecutors across the state, who say the closing of the satellite labs in Anniston, Florence and Dothan have already caused an unprecedented backlog of criminal drug cases.
“We’re to the point where questions are being asked: ‘What’s taking so long; why isn’t my case being resolved?’” Talladega County District Attorney Steven Giddens said. “But right now, we’re unable to put drug cases on grand jury, because we don’t have drug reports back.”
Giddens has more than 200 drug cases he is unable to prosecute, because he is still waiting to receive test results back from the DFS lab in Hoover. When the Talladega DA was able to send drug cases for testing at the now-closed McClellan lab, he received results back within a couple of weeks
Now, Giddens said he’s been waiting for months to receive evidence back on cases he sent to DFS at the end of last summer.
Now he and other officials have to wait up to a year to get results. And the longer it takes for the results to come back from DFS, the longer drug defendants have to wait for their cases to be heard.
That could create situations in which innocent people who are unable to make bond sit in jail for lengthy periods of time, said Jim Pratt, president of the Alabama State Bar Association.
“There will be people, there are people who can’t have their cases heard,” Pratt said. “That’s a real problem the courts are already having to face.”
In Clay County, Thompson said, about half of all drug cases that prosecutors present to grand juries are now being continued, meaning there is not enough evidence in a case to either dismiss it or move it forward.
For example, during Clay County’s last grand jury in February, 30 of the 60 drug cases presented were continued because the drug testing results had not been returned from DFS, Thompson said.
“And we’re going to see more and more of that — which only occasionally used to happen — with these future cuts,” the Clay County DA said. “This is as bad financially as I’ve seen it … it’s ridiculous nothing is being done to change the situation.”
Several attempts over the past couple weeks to reach Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh and DFS officials for this story were unsuccessful.
But, as presiding judge of the Calhoun County Courthouse, Street said he’s seen the pending drug cases begin to pile up.
“You’re not going to convict anybody in a drug case until the forensic lab has come back and said, ‘This is marijuana; this is meth,’” Street said. “That is slowing down; they are staying on the docket longer, those criminal cases.”
That reflects information provided by Anniston Police’s Crime Scene Investigations department and the Calhoun-Cleburne Drug & Violent Crimes Task Force.
The Anniston Police Department is waiting for drug results on 204 cases — a year’s worth of cases to be exact; the oldest files date back to March of last year. That number was slightly higher, Anniston Investigator Travis Bentley said, but the department received results back on eight cases in mid-February. Those eight cases — originally sent to DFS a year ago — were the first test results that DFS sent Anniston since last summer, Anniston officials said.
The situation is similar for the drug task force. Task force members said they received “only a couple” of test results back since they had to start taking drug evidence to Hoover after the McClellan lab closed.
And in those seven months, the task force members have collected evidence in nearly 400 new cases.
“It chokes up grand jury and everything else,” said Mark Hopwood of the case backlogs. Hopwood, a former lab analyst for DFS, joined the task force as a crime scene processing specialist after his McClellan lab shut down. He’s seen the issue from both sides — both as an analyst who understands the time it takes to test drug evidence and as a law enforcer waiting to get those results back. The situation now is as bad as he’s seen it.
“Cases are dead in the water,” he said.
PRISON OVERCROWDING: IT'S A REVOLVING DOOR FOR SOME
Meanwhile, Alabama Sentencing Commission Director Bennet Wright points to statistics that illustrate the alarming state of Alabama’s overflowing prisons. With nearly 27,000 inmates in a prison system built for 13,400, Alabama now has the most-crowded corrections facilities in the country, according to statistics provided by the sentencing commission.
And while the governor has promised not to reduce funding for the Department of Corrections in 2013, Wright points out that the prison population grows by 300 to 400 inmates per year, even with some 12,000 inmates released from custody every year.
Coping with that growth has proved difficult, Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Corbett said. To create more living space, corrections officials have transformed old warehouses, kitchens and factories at the 29 existing prisons into sleeping areas. And, more controversially, the number of offenders released early from prison — through parole, split sentences or for a 30-year-old “good time” law that grants most non-violent offenders early release as long as they don’t break prison rules — has grown every year since 1980, statistics show.
“Because of good time and parole, you won’t get a 10-year sentence anymore,” Wright said. “When somebody under the current policy is sentenced to 10 years, they would spend no more than 39 months in prison.”
For the past 10 years, the sentencing commission has studied the overcrowding issues in the state. Wright said it will present a truth-in-sentencing proposal to the Legislature in April. But corrections officials worry that proposal will actually increase the prison population unless sentence lengths for crimes ranging from burglary to drug possession to murder are lowered.
Of the 12,718 prisoners released in 2010, roughly 1,600 were released before serving their full 10- to 20-year sentences. Moreover, in that same year, more than 400 prisoners sentenced to more than 20 years in prison were released early. And 304 inmates sentenced to life in prison were released early in 2010.
Those are hard facts for law enforcers — and crime victims — around the state to swallow.
Law enforcers say the early release of prisoners clogs the slowing justice system further, because those offenders are likely to commit crimes again, requiring the courts to again spend time on their cases.
“We are constantly dealing with the same offenders,” said Thompson, the Clay County prosecutor. “It seems they are getting out as fast as I can get back from the courthouse to my office.”
But with level funding from the state in 2013, it will be all corrections officials can do to keep the overcrowding issues from getting worse.
“We hope to maintain the status quo,” Corbett said. “But this is something we do have to address, because you’re not going to put more inmates into an existing amount of finite space.”
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Need Free Legal Help? There's An App for That
By: KARK-TV 4 News, Little Rock AR
February 28, 2012
A University of Arkansas-Little Rock William H. Bowen School School of Law graduate has developed the first interactive pro bono mobile app available to Arkansas pro bono attorneys free of charge through iTunes.
Licensed Arkansas attorney and professional software developer Stewart Whaley, a 2008 Bowen Law School graduate, and his team volunteered time, expertise, and innovation to create iProBono. In the spirit of legal services programs and efforts to close the justice gap, iProBono was developed pro bono.
With the release of iProBono, the tagline "Pro Bono Wherever You Go" has never been truer. The app will help connect Arkansans in need of representation to greater access to the justice system.
Through their iPhones, licensed Arkansas attorneys can now view pro bono cases representing low-income Arkansans, sort through those cases based on legal topic and county, and request cases with a push of a button.
The app's release comes on the heels of steep federal funding cuts for legal services programs. Compounding the loss was an 18-percent cut to state funds that legal aid receives through filing fee increases passed in 2005 and 2009. The cuts translate to a combined loss of more than $750,000 for Legal Aid of Arkansas and the Center for Arkansas Legal Services. Combined with the economic downturn, more Arkansans are in need of legal assistance.
"I couldn't fit the typical pro bono client scenario into my normal business day," Whaley said, "but I knew I wanted to do something to help low-income Arkansans achieve better access to justice."
The iProBono app can be viewed in the iTunes store or downloaded through iTunes.
Whaley is the co-founder of LogiCurrent, LLC. He is an advocate of technology's ability to enhance access to, and delivery of, legal services. Arkansas Legal Services Partnership and Access to Justice provided additional support to the iProBono project.
Legal Aid of Arkansas and the Center for Arkansas Legal Services are nonprofit organizations that provide free legal services to low-income Arkansans with civil legal problems, including orders of protection for domestic abuse victims, uncontested guardianships of minors, consumer issues and public housing.
With 17 offices staffed by more than 50 attorneys throughout the state, plus a volunteer pool of about 1,500 attorneys, legal aid services helped more than 30,000 low-income people and the elderly with their critical legal needs in 2010. However, more than 555,000 people were eligible for legal aid in 2010, and thousands of those Arkansans in need were turned away due to lack of resources.
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Public defender funding legislation advances
By Bill Rankin, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
March 5, 2012
The state House on Monday approved legislation for a constitutional amendment to be placed on the ballot to let voters decide whether revenue collected to fund Georgia's indigent defense system can be dedicated to it.
House Resolution 977 and its accompanying legislation, House Bill 648, were approved overwhelmingly and now head to the Senate. When the Legislature established the state's indigent defense system, it created a mechanism to pay for it through increased court fines and fees. But in past years, lawmakers have diverted millions of dollars in collections to other programs, and the defender system has been slapped with a number of lawsuits.
House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee Chairman Rich Golick, the Smyrna Republican who sponsored the new legislation, reminded his colleagues of the litigation and said the system has been underfunded over several years. "This will bring stability to a system that needs to be stable," Golick said.
Under an amendment tacked onto the legislation, if the annual fine and fee collections exceed the money needed to pay for the defender system, any money left over will be returned to the state's general fund.