Tenn. Bar says more lawyers needed to give free services
By Kate Howard, THE TENNESSEAN (Nashville, Tenn.)
November 25, 2008
More than 18,000 people struggling with problems from foreclosures to getting dropped from TennCare coverage have sought free legal help to get back on their feet this year.
They could not all be helped.
At the Legal Aid Society in Nashville, nine attorneys work exclusively giving free, or pro bono, legal help to low-income residents. When their caseloads are full, everyone else is out of luck — unless private attorneys offer some of their billable hours for free.
The need is overwhelming enough to prompt the Tennessee Bar Association to launch an initiative encouraging more attorneys to do pro bono work through relaxed rules and good, old-fashioned peer pressure.
There are no requirements for Tennessee attorneys to do volunteer work, but the bar association's recommendations to the Tennessee Supreme Court ask all attorneys to commit to 50 hours of pro bono work per year, designate a statewide service day and mandate reporting of pro bono hours to the Tennessee Supreme Court.
The proposed rules will be open for public comment through January.
'We can't help everyone'
Lucinda Smith, director of the Nashville Pro Bono program with the Legal Aid Society, welcomes more help. "We can't help everyone that needs help," Smith said. "The cases we need volunteer lawyers for really are about preserving basic human rights: preserving health care or income."
Allan Ramsaur, executive director of the Tennessee Bar Association, said he hopes the Supreme Court will also adopt a rule that allows lawyers at legal clinics or special quick services to help without having to spend time determining whether they have a conflict of interest.
"As many as a third of legal problems can be handled with that brief consultation,'' he said.
An announcement is expected in early December about the Tennessee Supreme Court's program, focused on access to justice for low-income clients. An announcement on the details of the initiative is planned for Dec. 5.
"The court will talk soon about some of the more specific ways it will take a more active leadership role in access to justice in coming years," said Rebecca Rhodes, the access to justice coordinator with the Administrative Office of the Courts.
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End stealth ads for state judicial elections- Disclose all contributors to 'issue ads' naming candidates – [Editorial]
The Detroit News
November 28, 2008
Once again, because of this state's faulty political finance disclosure laws, we don't know who exactly was behind a barrage of campaign ads in this year's race for the Michigan Supreme Court.
According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a nonpartisan watchdog group, more than 60 percent of the spending in the race between Chief Justice Cliff Taylor and Wayne Circuit Judge Diane Marie Hathaway will not be reported.
This is because, the group notes, the money was spent on "issue ads" that didn't specifically advocate the election of a candidate, but were clearly designed to influence the outcome of the election. Under current Michigan campaign finance law, however, the financial backers of issue ads don't have to be disclosed beyond the umbrella name of the sponsoring group.
The Michigan Chamber of Commerce supported ads that were critical of Hathaway (who won the election), while the Democratic Party sponsored ads that attacked Taylor.
But which groups bankrolled the ads? Did a large union or plaintiffs lawyers support the attacks on Taylor? Did a major corporation help pay for ads raising doubts about Hathaway?
As things stand, we don't and won't know. What is known is that between them, the state Democrats, state Republicans and Chamber of Commerce, according to the campaign finance group, put up $3.75 million for the television ads.
This total outstrips the $2.5 million in spending by the two individual candidate campaign committees, in which individual contributions and campaign expenditures have to be listed and disclosed.
Campaign Finance Network Director Rich Robinson noted in a statement that since 2000, Supreme Court candidates and their committees raised a total of $10.4 million, while backers of so-called issue ads spent $10.5 million. The group recommends that full disclosure of all contributors and spending be required for issue ads that feature the name or image of a candidate during an election -- regardless of whether the ads directly call for voting for or against a candidate -- and it is right to do so.
Robinson added in a separate interview that disclosure requirements might tamp down the flow of money into the issue ads. Judges or justices might feel compelled to disqualify themselves from hearing cases from large contributors to issue ads favoring their election.
At the least, however, voters deserve to know all the players in an election -- including who is really bankrolling ads attacking or praising judicial candidates.
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Lawyers for the Poor [Letter-to-the-editor]
The New York Times
November 26, 2008
Re “Hard Times and the Right to Counsel” (editorial, Nov. 21):
Justice should not be determined by a person’s wealth or income level. Lawyers share your concern over state governments’ failure to ensure constitutionally required legal representation for indigent people charged with crimes.
Tight state budgets, however, are not the single source of this continuing failure. State governments have directed too little support for indigent defense services even during recent budget surpluses.
Lack of government support for the fundamental right to counsel is more chronic than acute. Additional financing for indigent defense is needed, but it is only part of the solution.
The United States prosecutes and incarcerates minor offenders far more than any other nation, which increases our need for more public defenders. Finding alternatives to incarceration for minor offenses would be a step in the right direction.
Lawyers support the justice system with free representation for the poor, financial support to justice programs through charitable giving and license fee add-ons, and advocacy for structural reforms intended to reduce incarceration rates.
But policy makers should be careful not to single out lawyers for resolving the public defender crisis, as this could undermine the broad public responsibility required to fulfill a constitutional mandate. We all have a stake in ensuring that public defenders and assigned counsel have resources comparable to those of prosecutors. Justice is not just for lawyers; it’s for all of us.
H. Thomas Wells Jr.
Birmingham, Ala., Nov.
The writer is president of the American Bar Association.
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Alabama Attorney General Troy King is being asked to investigate third-party groups that ran advertisements in the recent Supreme Court race – [Editorial]
The Birmingham News
Monday, November 24, 2008
THE ISSUE: Attorney General Troy King is being asked to investigate third-party groups that ran advertisements in the recent Supreme Court race.
We hate mudslinging in political races as much as anyone. But that doesn't mean we hate vigorous campaigns.
Voters are well-served by political contests that highlight real differences between candidates. Voters, though, don't just need information about the candidates. They need information about the information they get during a political campaign.
What is the information's source? And who is paying for its dissemination? That's part of how voters make judgments.
It can be hard enough with information coming directly from the candidates' campaigns; they can and do obscure the sources of their funding.
It gets even more challenging when third-party groups enter the fray, clearly seeking to influence voters but without any transparency at all.
The most recent example comes from this year's Supreme Court race between Republican Greg Shaw and Democrat Deborah Bell Paseur.
These candidates waged a very vigorous campaign. Groups such as the Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse and the out-of-state Center for Individual Freedom also chimed in with advertisements clearly designed to sway voters.
Understand: It's absolutely their right to participate in the political process. But if they want to play, they should play by the same rules as others involved in political campaigns.
That is, they should say who they are and where they get their money.
The Alabama State Bar has asked Attorney General Troy King to investigate these groups to see whether their conduct violated the Fair Campaign Practices Act, which defines and sets the rules for political action committees.
We hope King takes a good look.
These "nonpolitical" political groups have been a chronic problem in the state, and they generate no shortage of heartburn. It's not just candidates who get burned, either.
Imagine the Christian Coalition of Alabama's chagrin several years back when a Washington, D.C., scandal unearthed the fact our chief anti-gambling warriors had been getting money from casino-owning Indian tribes.
The coalition claimed it didn't know it was getting money from gambling interests. Maybe so. But if the group had been operating under the rules of political action committees, with all the disclosure requirements, it might have been a little more curious about the source of its money. At the very least, the coalition could have done a better job laundering the money. (Sorry. That was cynical.)
Often, these groups say they don't have to abide by campaign rules because they are not working to sway voters. And, true, some groups merely provide information. The League of Women Voters produces a straightforward questionnaire for judicial candidates that offers voters a comparison.
But some third-party players clearly are trying to influence the outcome of elections, and voters need to know who is behind their efforts.
Attempts to force these third-party groups to disclosure their funding sources have so far failed in the Legislature. But Alabama already has a Fair Campaign Practices Act on the books, and King should determine whether any groups are skirting this law.
AVALA accuses the State Bar of trying to stifle free speech. That's baloney.
As this newspaper has said time and again, groups that want to exert influence in elections should exert away. But voters should be able to tell who is behind all that exertion. It's not about stifling political speech; it's about providing voters with all the information they need to know.
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Help For Those Fearing Foreclosure
By Steve Alexander, WKRG-TV (Mobile)
November 20 2008
People in the Mobile area worried about foreclosure have some avenues available they might not have thought of.
The first is a program started by the federal government called "Hope for Homeowners."
An area nail technician says she's taking advantage of the service.
She didn't want to be identified because she's facing tough economic times, but she said the program is for those homeowners who have an adjustable rate mortgage.
She said Hope for Homeowners "will do a re-finance and, basically, put you in a fixed rate, and then your mortgage will be a lot less at a fixed rate."
There's another program available in Alabama that can help those facing foreclosure with free legal advice and action.
It's run by the Alabama State Bar.
Henry Callaway is a Mobile attorney who is a member of the Alabama State Bar Mortgage Foreclosure Task Force.
He said, "We can put you in touch with lawyers at no charge who are trained in this and can provide some help. Because foreclosure in Alabama occurs so quickly, in less than a month, you need to act quickly. (If) you start getting behind on your payments, talk to your mortgage company."
If you're interested in finding out more about the Hope for Homeowners program, you can call the Federal Housing Administration at 1-800-225-5342.
If you want more information on the legal help available from the Alabama State Bar, call 1-877-393-2333.
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FDIC, heeding attorneys, heads off a potential IOLTA disaster
Marcia Coyle, National Law Journal
December 01, 2008
WASHINGTON — The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) has announced that, effective immediately, client funds deposited in Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTA) — regardless of amount — are eligible for full deposit insurance coverage under the Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program (TLGP) through June 30, 2009.
The American Bar Association, state and federal lawmakers, community and consumer groups, law firms and individual lawyers had mounted a nationwide campaign to persuade the FDIC to include IOLTA funds in the expanded insurance program.
The TLGP guarantees newly issued senior unsecured debt of banks, thrifts and certain holding companies, and provides full coverage of noninterest-bearing deposit transaction accounts. The FDIC adopted the program on Oct. 13 because of disruptions in the credit market, particularly the interbank lending market, which reduced banks' liquidity and impaired their ability to lend.
ABA President H. Thomas Wells Jr. explained that if the FDIC had failed to expand full coverage for IOLTA, lawyers would have had to consider abandoning IOLTA for fully insured, noninterest-bearing accounts or moving IOLTA funds from community banks to the larger "too big to fail" banks.
"Abandoning IOLTA would have been catastrophic for IOLTA programs in all 50 states, which provide funding for legal aid for the poor," said Wells. "Moving the accounts to larger banks would have defeated the FDIC's purpose in creating the TLGP."
In a letter to the FDIC, the chairpersons of the boards of directors of 50 IOLTA programs throughout the country said establishing multiple accounts at various financial institutions for amounts greater than $250,000 was not a viable solution.
"The lawyer may not even know whether a client's cumulative funds deposited in a single institution exceed the $250,000 ceiling for insured funds, and it is not practical to separate a large deposit that is simply in the IOLTA account just long enough for the check to clear," they wrote.
If lawyers moved their IOLTA-eligible trust account funds to noninterest-bearing accounts, they added, the interest income received by IOLTA programs would be greatly reduced.
"IOLTA programs nationwide provided more than $212 million in 2007 for the provision of civil legal services to the poor, making it the second largest source of such funding in the country," the chairpersons explained, calling the FDIC decision "critical" to the program's survival.
U.S. senators Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., authored a bipartisan letter to FDIC Chairwoman Sheila Bair urging that the FDIC provide full deposit insurance coverage for IOLTA accounts. The letter was signed by 17 other senators: Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. and senators Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; John Kerry, D-Mass.; Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.; Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.; Patty Murray, D-Wash.; Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.; Bob Casey, D-Pa.; Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.; Russell Feingold, D-Wis.; Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.; Carl Levin, D-Mich.; Richard Durbin, D-Ill.; Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.; and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
"The IOLTA program has been instrumental in providing access to legal services for low-income Marylanders," said Cardin. "I am extremely pleased that the FDIC has recognized the importance of the program and has decided to ensure that these accounts will receive deposit insurance coverage by the FDIC."
Specter agreed, adding, "The FDIC has confirmed that IOLTA programs across the country produce numerous benefits for members of communities who are facing troubled times. I am pleased that the FDIC will protect IOLTA accounts because they play a major role in funding programs that help families facing foreclosure, victims of domestic violence and consumer fraud, and people needing legal advice."
IOLTA programs have been established by the supreme courts or legislatures of all 50 states; 37 states require lawyers to deposit client funds that cannot earn net interest for the client in IOLTA accounts.
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Judicial Pay Raise Stalls Again in Congress
Tony Mauro, Legal Times
Automakers were not the only ones left empty-handed at the end of last week's lame-duck session of Congress. The federal judiciary's long quest for salary increases made little progress -- though hope remains that the post-Thanksgiving session will bring some results.
"We continue to work daily with the leadership to rectify this problem the judiciary confronts," says James Duff, director of the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts. The Judiciary Committees in both houses had endorsed increases earlier in the session, but budget constraints and, most recently, the financial meltdown, have made further progress tough. In fact the only change in judges' benefits that passed into law in the current Congress was a ban on judges receiving honorary club memberships valued at more than $50.
Judges are walking a difficult line, not wanting to appear selfish when the populace at large is suffering, but their pay has lagged for years. "While many Americans are struggling financially today, few of us have jobs where we are routinely skipped over for even a routine cost of living increase and get no clear guidance on what we will earn in the year ahead," says H. Thomas Wells Jr., president of the American Bar Association, which has fought for judicial pay increases for years. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the roughly 29 per cent pay raise for Article III judges included in the bills before Congress would cost taxpayers about $131 million in the first year -- not much, compared to what the corner bank is receiving.
For seven of the last 14 years, judges have not even gotten a cost-of-living increase, and if the current session ends without even that 2 to 3 percent adjustment, judges will be disappointed to say the least. Unlike with other federal employees, judges get a COLA only if Congress affirmatively approves one. The Senate approved it by unanimous consent on Nov. 20, but there was no action in the House.
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Trailblazer for black lawyers joins Turkey Day celebration
By Ashley Hopkinson, The Montgomery Advertiser
November 24, 2008
Civil rights lawyer Solomon S. Seay Jr. stood before a small crowd gathered Sunday at Alabama State University's John L. Buskey Health Sciences Building to discuss his new book -- "Jim Crow and Me: Stories from My Life as a Civil Rights Lawyer."
The book signing was a part of a weeklong celebration for ASU's 85th annual Turkey Day Classic.
Standing behind Seay at the event were several legal professionals, including friend Delores R. Boyd, who worked with Seay on the book.
Boyd said it was only fitting that they stand behind Seay because it was his courage and that of the men of his generation that made legal careers possible for others.
"We stand on their shoulders," she said.
Boyd said Seay has been a role model for all of the lawyers who came after him. "He made it easier for us and all lawyers who believed in equal rights," she said.
Unlike Seay's generation, those practicing law between the 1940s and the 1960s, the Alabama State Bar welcomed Boyd and her colleagues with open arms and they had choices, she said.
"Wherever we wanted to go, if we qualified, we could go," she said.
In his book, Seay relates personal struggles as a black lawyer in the heart of the civil rights movement. Boyd said that while the stories were enlivened for easy reading, all of them are true.
"This is not fiction. I want to make you understand that," she said. "He actually endured what is here," she said, pointing to the book.
"Some of (the stories) will make you cry, some will make you laugh, but all of them will make you understand that on this battlefield of civil rights, you must be committed to the cause," she said.
And Seay was more than just committed, Boyd said, drawing applause from the audience.
Colleague and retired U.S. magistrate Vanzetta Penn McPherson said Seay has always been reserved and serious, a characteristic that intimidated some. He was never lacking in focus or passion when it came to people being fair, she said.
"He has been the quintessential advocate for equality," she said. "He is simply intolerant of injustice."
When Seay finally spoke he didn't disagree, but laughed quietly about the comments on his personality. He encouraged the group to engage themselves and read the book closely.
And while America has come far, Seay said the country still has a long way to go.
He cited recent statistics that show blacks with equal qualifications still make less than some of their white counterparts.
"This is not happenstance," he said. "This is not the proper period in our history for black people to experiment with mediocrity. In order to be equal we've got to be superior."
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More Americans serving as their own lawyers
By MARGERY A. GIBBS, The Associated Press
November 24, 2008
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — When Danielle Nitzel found her three-year-old marriage drawing its last breath in 2004, she couldn't afford the minimum of $1,000 she was told she would need to hire a divorce lawyer. So she did what more and more Americans are doing: She represented herself in court.
"I looked online and just tried to figure out how to write out the paperwork," said Nitzel, a nursing student who at the time had little money and a pile of education loans. "I think it cost us $100 to file it ourselves."
The number of people serving as their own lawyers is on the rise across the country, and the cases are no longer limited to uncontested divorces and small claims. Even people embroiled in child custody cases, potentially devastating lawsuits and bankruptcies are representing themselves, legal experts say.
"It's not just that poor people can't afford lawyers. This is really a middle-class phenomenon," said Sue Talia, a judge from Danville, Calif., and author of "Unbundling Your Divorce: How to Find a Lawyer to Help You Help Yourself."
The trend has resulted in court systems clogged with filings from people unfamiliar with legal procedure. Moreover, some of these pro se litigants, as they are known, are making mistakes with expensive and long-lasting consequences — perhaps confirming the old saying that he who represents himself has a fool for a client.
Paul Merritt, a district judge in Lancaster County, Neb., said he knows of cases in which parents lost custody disputes because they were too unfamiliar with such legal standards as burden of proof.
"There is a lot on the line when you have a custody case," Merritt said. "There are a lot of things that judges take into consideration in determining what's in the best interest of the child, and if you're a pro se litigant, the chances that you will know what those things are, and that you will present evidence of all those issues, are really small."
While the fees lawyers charge vary widely, the average hourly rate ranges from around $180 to $285 in the Midwest, and from $260 to more than $400 on the West Coast, according to legal consultant Altman Weil Inc.
Tim Eckley of the American Judicature Society in Des Moines, Iowa, said no national figures are kept on how many people represent themselves, "but I don't think anybody who's involved in the courts would deny that this is a growing trend in the last 10 to 15 years."
In California, about 80 percent represent themselves in civil family law cases — such as divorce, custody and domestic violence cases — according to the Self-Represented Litigation Network. In San Diego alone, the number of divorce filings involving at least one person not represented by a lawyer rose from 46 percent in 1992 to 77 percent in 2000.
In Nebraska in 2003, 13,295 people represented themselves in civil cases in state district courts. By 2007, the number had risen to 32,016, or 45 percent.
"Courts are absolutely inundated with people who do not understand the procedures," Talia said. "It is a disaster for high-volume courts, because an inordinate amount of their clerks' time is spent trying to make sure that the procedures are correctly followed."
Talia has traveled to nearly every state to speak to lawyers, judges and court workers about measures to handle the growing number of people representing themselves.
Many states offer self-help Web sites or desks at court offices that offer standard legal forms for such things as simple divorces. In some states, volunteer lawyers are made available to give legal advice to those who cannot afford an attorney.
The legal profession may not like the trend but realizes it is here to stay, and has gotten behind the effort. The American Bar Association is encouraging states to set up self-help desks and adopt standard forms.
Also, a majority of states have amended their attorney ethics rules to promote a growing practice known as "unbundling," in which a lawyer handles just part of a contract, lawsuit, divorce or other litigation for a small fee, rather than taking on the entire case.
The ethics rules have been changed to make it clear that lawyers can do this without being held responsible for the entire case. That can ease their fears of being sued for malpractice.
Nitzel, the nursing student, said court staffers helped point her in the right direction, but she also had a friend who happens to be a lawyer help in drafting her divorce papers.
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Legal eagles set free - Disruptors: By shedding the trappings of a traditional law firm, Axiom's Internet-connected attorneys offer legal services at a deep discount
By Michael V. Copeland, Fortune Magazine
November 25, 2008
SAN FRANCISCO (Fortune) -- You could be forgiven for thinking you had the wrong address when traipsing into the San Francisco office of newfangled law firm Axiom. There isn't a scrap of mahogany paneling, nor bookcases filled with impressive legal tomes. There aren't even any practicing lawyers.
There are people in this modernist chic space, and to be fair, some of them used to practice law. But their job now is to manage client relationships and drum up corporate work for the fast-growing legal services company.
The 216 people who do the actual lawyering for Axiom in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and London work from their homes or at their clients' workplaces. They don't come into the office. They also decide what kind of clients to take on, and set their own hours.
Axiom has a slick Web site where attorneys can discuss thorny legal matters - a sort of social network for lawyers. In the hidebound legal profession, where associates work endless hours and partners make all the money, Axiom is a new take on the business of law.
"Axiom is almost like an online dating service for the legal profession," said Chris Albinson, a managing director with Panorama Capital, a venture capital firm that along with Benchmark Capital, Greenhill & Co. and others have invested in the New York-based legal company.
Unlike traditional law firms, Axiom, founded in 2000 by Big Law refugees Mark Harris and Alec Guttel, is legally a corporation, as opposed to a partnership. And yes, it has venture capital funding, which means at some point it will need to return money to its investors by going public (in theory it could get bought too, but it's hard to imagine an acquirer).
By foregoing the expensive and impressive offices of high-end law firms and by doing away with partners and billing in six-minute increments, Axiom is able to offer legal services at fees that can be 50% lower than those charged by the country's top firms. Axiom is staffed by attorneys who cut their teeth working at these rival law firms.
The idea of a distributed legal team, connected by iPhones and laptops, has resonated with some of the largest technology companies and banks in the nation, says Mehul Patel, who heads up business development in San Francisco for Axiom.
"The people who are hiring us work that way too," Patel said. "And in the case of technology companies, they are all about changing business models so they get it immediately." Axiom clients include Cisco (CSCO, Fortune 500), Sun Microsystems (JAVA, Fortune 500), and Yahoo (YHOO, Fortune 500) on the tech side, and Citigroup (C, Fortune 500), Deutsche Bank (DB) and MasterCard (MA) in the financial services sector.
By leveraging the same tools and work methods of tech startups, Axiom is attempting to strip away all of the inefficiencies of the traditional law practice. Its attorneys are employees who don't earn as much as a big-firm lawyer, but they're still well-paid. They also benefit from saner hours and a greater variety of work. For their part, clients get top-notch legal help at a deep discount.
Both attorneys and clients seem to be happy with the way it's working out so far. The proof is that even in this dismal economy, Axiom, which claims to be profitable, continues to grow revenue at about 40% to 50% annually - 2008 revenue is about $60 million.
While Axiom was seen as the legal oddball when it launched, the success of the company has spawned copycats in the $200 billion legal services industry. The traditional law firm model, which risks being punished by the cratering economy, is in no danger of disappearing, but neither is the army of disgruntled, overworked lawyers willing to jump ship to a place like Axiom.
Free legal help for Alabamians facing foreclosures
By Bryan Henry, WSFA-TV (Montgomery)
November 19, 2008
MONTGOMERY, AL - It's a sign of the times across the country, home foreclosed, and Alabama is no exception.
"I would say between 2 to 4 thousand people," said Tom Methvin.
Methvin is a Montgomery attorney who is chairing the Mortgage Foreclosure Task Force, a program put together by the Alabama State Bar.
"What the state bar has decided to do is come up with a state program to give free legal advice to anybody about to lose their home," said Methvin.
The idea is to avoid bankruptcy by working out a deal between homeowners and the lenders.
"The typical story will be someone making payments for years and years and maybe they lost their job and not able to make payments and they don't know what to do," said Methvin.
There's also the scenario where the lender knowingly added unnecessary fees to the monthly mortgage bill.
"They'll be able to get free legal advice.. get a lawyer.. work with the lender and work it out. In some cases a free lawyer to litigate if they need to. For instance, the way the lender made loans violated the law and charged high rates," said Methvin.
To be fair, overly aggressive lenders aren't the only ones who contributed to the current housing crisis. Homeowners who knew deep down they couldn't afford their home played a part as well. Still:
"They still have legal rights. There are certain legal protections. A man's home is his castle," said Methvin.
A castle so many apparently want to hold on to. Public service announcements airing in the Mobile and Huntsville television markets advertising the free legal service have generated hundreds of calls to the mortgage foreclosure hotline.
"Early intervention is really important," said Methvin.
The hotline number is: 1-877-393-2333.
How can this be free? The Alabama Civil Justice Foundation and Access to Justice Commission of Alabama raised $50,000 to hire a lawyer for one year.
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Attorneys offer free foreclosure advice
By Cosby Woodruff, Montgomery Advertiser
November 20, 2008
Homeowners facing foreclosure can get advice from area attorneys for a price they can afford; It's free.
The Alabama State Bar Association and Legal Services Alabama are working together to offer free legal advice to homeowners who are facing foreclosure.
Tom Methvin, partner in the Montgomery law firm Beasley Allen and the president-elect of the bar association, chaired a task force that will have an attorney and paralegals who will field calls from homebuyers who face the loss of their home.
The Alabama Civil Justice Foundation and the Access to Justice Foundation have provided the grants that will fund the operation.
Methvin said everyone who calls the toll-free number, 877-393-2333, will get some advice.
It won't always be what the caller wants to hear, he said.
"We may have to tell them if they don't have the money to pay the mortgage, we can't help," he said.
In other cases, it will involve working with a banker to change a loan's terms.
That option has become more viable as the foreclosure crisis has deepened.
"There is a lot more willingness on the part of bankers," he said.
Lenders, many of whom already have an inventory of foreclosed homes, don't want more of these properties. In an effort to keep borrowers in the homes, some lenders are more willing to talk about loan modifications, he said.
In a few cases, the lawyers will help homeowners sue predatory lenders.
Methvin predicted that the hotline will receive more than 100 calls weekly, but he said it will be staffed to handle the workload.
"We are very concerned about people losing their homes," he said. "We are also concerned about other related effects of foreclosure such as reducing property values, creating blight with vacant and abandoned properties in neighborhoods, diminishing the local tax base, which often supports important services, and straining court dockets."
The association also has information available on its Web site for homeowners facing foreclosure. Homeowners may visit the site at www.alabar.org and click on the foreclosure resources link.
"We are committed to assisting consumers who are facing the difficult prospect of losing their homes or filing for bankruptcy," Methvin said.
All services are free. The initial call and advice are open to homeowners in any income range. Only lower-income clients are eligible for the litigation assistance.
TIPS FOR HOMEOWNERS
- Don't wait. Non-judicial foreclosures can happen in as little as 21 days.
- Contact the lender.
- Lenders don't want to foreclose but will if borrowers don't make an effort.
- Seek help.
- Free assistance is available by calling 1-877-393-2333.
- Prioritize spending.
- Focus on keeping the home, not on less-important matters
- Avoid foreclosure prevention companies.
- Help is available for free and many companies that promise to fight foreclosure are running scams.
Source: Alabama Bar Association, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
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$cales of Justice
By J.D. Crowe, editorial cartoonist, Mobile Press-Register
November 15, 2008
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State bar asks for probe of state Supreme Court campaign - Complaints about out-of-state group cited by president
By BOB LOWRY, Huntsville Times
November 15, 2008
MONTGOMERY - The Alabama State Bar on Friday asked Attorney General Troy King to investigate whether there were violations of the Fair Campaign Practices Act in the state Supreme Court race won by Republican Greg Shaw.
State bar president Mark White of Birmingham said he had received numerous complaints about push polls and large outside campaign donations from a Virginia group.
White added that he was disappointed in the campaigns run by Shaw and Democrat Deborah Bell Paseur, who conceded the race Friday.
"We started our campaign season excited for both of them," he said. "They both signed pledges (against negative campaigning). Both of these people had impeccable records. Now, I think both of them are tainted because of this process."
The two groups cited by White, Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse and the Alexandria, Va.-based Center for Individual Freedom Inc., have said they are not political groups.
But James Sample, an attorney for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law, said Friday that the Virginia group purchased at least $965,529 in television ads for Shaw.
The Brennan Center monitors TV ad spending in state Supreme Court races around the country.
White said he urged King to investigate whether there were violations of the Fair Campaign Practices Act or any other state laws during the election.
Chris Bence, King's chief of staff, said White's complaint was assigned to staff attorneys for review. He declined further comment.
Skip Tucker, executive director of Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse, told the Associated Press his group's ad in the Supreme Court race was factual and he expects nothing from the attorney general's office.
"AVALA and I would be astounded should Attorney General King join this blatant, pathetic attempt to stifle freedom of speech," Tucker said.
Jeffrey Mazzella, the Virginia group's president, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Shaw's campaign said earlier it had no contact with the Virginia group and had no control over it.
Bence said the Fair Campaign Practices Act contains several types of misdemeanor and felony violations carrying penalties of up to a year in jail to as many as 20 years in prison, and fines of $6,000 to $30,000.
White said he heard a radio ad on Election Day that gave the impression that the state bar rated candidates. He said the ad disclosed its source as Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse in Montgomery.
"If they had never mentioned the bar, we would never have done anything," he said. "But the constant advertisements involving our name prompted us to do this."
In addition, White said he received similar complaints about the conduct of the Virginia group.
He said it and the Montgomery lobby say they are not political organizations and do not endorse candidates.
But White said the push polls conducted against Paseur showed a caller identification that indicated the organization was a political action committee in Virginia. If it was a PAC, it would be required to file its campaign contributions or in-kind services to the Shaw campaign through the Alabama Secretary of State's Office.
White said the complaints he received indicated that the groups endorsed Shaw in the Supreme Court race, yet neither filed campaign financial disclosure papers in Alabama. On its Web site, the Virginia organization does not identify which corporations or foundations financially support it.
Because both groups are registered as 501(c)(4) non-profit, tax-exempt organizations, they do not have to disclose the source of their money, but they are also not allowed to endorse a candidate.
Asked for comment Friday on the bar association's complaint, Shaw campaign spokesman Josh Cooper said, "This is news to me." He had no further comment.
Alabama has a long history of nasty and expensive Supreme Court races, and White said he doubts that will change.
"I had a campaign consultant to tell me and write me, 'Don't tell me what the rules are. We're going to do what it takes to win at any cost.'"
Typically, ads for Republican court candidates' campaigns are financed either directly or through PACs receiving money from businesses and corporate defense lawyers, while Democrats are funded by plaintiff trial lawyers and labor groups.
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Paseur concedes Supreme Court election to Shaw
By Dana Beyerle, Gadsden Daily Times
November 15, 2008
MONTGOMERY — The Nov. 4 Supreme Court race ended Friday with the loser conceding the election, but it may not be over for some election participants whom the state bar president wants investigated.
Democratic Supreme Court candidate Deborah Bell Paseur conceded the election to Republican Greg Shaw after county canvassing boards completed their counts of outstanding ballots.
“I am deeply humbled by the overwhelming amount of support that I have received from Alabamians from all walks of life and all parts of the state,” Paseur said in a statement. “It’s a blessing to have this opportunity to run for the state’s highest court.”
Shaw, a second-term Court of Criminal Appeals judge, said serving on the Supreme Court will be a “true privilege and a high honor for me.” He will replace retiring associate Justice Harold See.
“I appreciate the confidence that the people of Alabama have in me as a judge, and I will work hard every day to decide the cases that come before the court fairly, based on the law and the facts,” he said in a statement.
Participation of third-party groups that ran ads either critical of Paseur or in favor of Shaw in the expensive and divisive race prompted Alabama State Bar President Mark White to ask Attorney General Troy King to investigate.
White based his request on “push polls” that said the bar association had given a grade or rating to an unnamed candidate who obviously is Paseur.
White said the false identification of the association as a “rating agency” for judicial candidates was behind his request, an association statement said.
“A number of people were subjected to telephone calls of the type commonly known as ‘push polls,’ in which the State Bar was identified as having given a grade or rating to a particular judicial candidate,” White said.
Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse ran ads that said Paseur’s district court about 20 years ago received an “F” rating.
The AOC did give Paseur’s overloaded court an “F” for its case clearance rate, but the “F” was merely part of a seven-letter rating system starting with “A” for the best clearance rate to “G” for the lowest clearance. It did not connote what an “F” means on a test grade, but the “F” rating wasn’t explained in the ad.
White also said similar complaints were received regarding the Center for Individual Freedom, a third-party Virginia group that bought television ad time.
“As president of the bar, I am making a formal request and demand that you investigate these matters to determine whether the laws of Alabama have been violated,” White wrote King.
King spokesman Chris Bence said King read the letter and “assigned it to the appropriate staff attorneys for further review.”
AVALA executive director Skip Tucker said AVALA has the right to comment on political races “unless someone revoked the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech behind our backs.”
“Eerily, chillingly, pathetically, Mark White and the Alabama Bar Association are, in hypocritical trial lawyer fashion, attacking not only AVALA’s freedom of speech, but the freedom of speech of every citizen and voter,” Tucker said.
He said the “F” rating did not come from the bar association but from the Administrative Office of Courts.
“I suspected some of these legal hoodlums would come after AVALA and, sure enough, here they are,” Tucker said.
Paseur, a retired Lauderdale County district judge, said the votes are counted and it’s time to end her campaign.
“I congratulate Judge Greg Shaw on becoming Alabama’s next associate justice on the Alabama Supreme Court and wish him the best,” Paseur said.
Paseur trailed Shaw by about 12,000 votes but wanted to wait until all votes were counted to determine whether the vote tally was within the 0.5 percent margin that would have kicked in an automatic recount.
County canvassing boards completed their counting this week and all votes from Nov. 4 will be certified Nov. 25.
The Republican Party said as many as 10,000 provisional ballots may not have been counted. A provisional ballot is given a voter who may not have proper identification or who is not on the registered voter list but who insists on voting.
Shaw’s campaign earlier this week said it was impossible for Paseur to gain enough votes from the canvassing to trigger an automatic recount. Had a recount ensued, she would have started out with deficit of about 10,000 or 11,000 votes.
Shaw takes office as a Supreme Court justice in January and a replacement will be appointed by Gov. Bob Riley.
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Alabama Bar president seeks court race probe
By PHILLIP RAWLS, The Associated Press
November 14, 2008
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The president of the Alabama State Bar has asked the state attorney general to investigate the conduct of politically active groups that got involved in the race for the state Supreme Court.
In a letter Friday to Attorney General Troy King, Bar President Mark White of Birmingham said he wants to know if any laws were broken by the Center for Individual Freedom, Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse or Americans in Contact Political Action Committee.
"As President of the Bar, I am making a formal request and demand that you investigate these matters to determine whether the laws of Alabama have been violated," White wrote.
Attorney General Troy King received and reviewed the letter Friday, spokesman Chris Bence said.
He said King assigned it to the appropriate lawyers in his office "for a thorough review."
Skip Tucker, executive director of Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse, said his group's ad in the Supreme Court race was factual and he expects nothing from the attorney general's office.
"AVALA and I would be astounded should Attorney General King join this blatant, pathetic attempt to stifle freedom of speech," Tucker said.
Republican Greg Shaw narrowly defeated Democrat Deborah Bell Paseur in the election Nov. 4. Paseur conceded the race Friday after county election officials finished counting provisional ballots.
During the campaign, the Center for Individual Freedom ran extensive TV ads praising Shaw's work on the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals.
AVALA ran radio ads criticizing Paseur's performance as a district judge in Florence and her support from trial lawyers.
White said Americans in Contact PAC appeared to be behind automated phone calls that incorrectly told voters that Paseur had received an "F" rating from the State Bar. White said the legal group does not rate judges.
Neither the ads nor the phone calls asked people to vote a certain way in the election. Traditionally in Alabama, groups have filed campaign finance reports showing where they raised their money if they encouraged voters to elect or defeat a candidate. Groups have often kept their sources of money secret when they have run ads that praise or criticize a candidate without mentioning the upcoming election.
White said he has received many complaints that the ads amounted to political endorsements, which would require the sponsors to file campaign finance reports.
The Center for the Individual Freedom and Americans in Contact PAC did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Tucker said AVALA's ads followed free speech law.
"I suspected some of these legal hoodlums would come after AVALA, and sure enough, here they are. There is no bottom to their hypocrisy, and they apparently have no sense of shame," Tucker said Friday.
White said that if the attorney general can take no action, the State Bar won't let the issue of "secretive groups" drop.
"If our current laws don't apply and offer some relief, then everybody ought to sit down and find a way to do that," he said.
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Deborah Bell Paseur concedes Alabama Supreme Court race - Retired judge hoped for recount
ERIC VELASCO, The Birmingham News
November 15, 2008
Deborah Bell Paseur conceded in the Alabama Supreme Court race on Friday, 10 days after her Republican opponent, Greg Shaw, beat her by less than 1 percentage point of the vote.
Shaw had been calling for Paseur to concede since he claimed victory about 10 hours after polls closed Nov. 4. But the retired Lauderdale County District Court judge had hoped to earn a recount in the close race.
On Friday, the final tallies from each county canvassing board showed she was not within the one-half of 1 percent margin that automatically would trigger the recount, Paseur's campaign said in a news release. More than 2 million people cast ballots in the race Nov. 4. Paseur lost by about 13,000 votes.
In a statement, Paseur congratulated Shaw and said she was humbled by her support statewide.
"It has truly been a blessing to have this opportunity to run for the state's highest court," Paseur said. "But the votes have now been counted and this campaign has come to an end."
Shaw must resign his seat on the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals before he is sworn in to his new office in January.
"Serving on Alabama's highest court will be a true privilege and a high honor for me," Shaw said in a statement. "I appreciate the confidence that the people of Alabama have in me as a judge and I will work hard every day to decide the cases that come before the court fairly, based on the law and the facts."
Alabama's sole Supreme Court race was the typical bare-knuckles brawl that has earned Alabama a national reputation for nasty and expensive judicial races.
By late October, the two candidates had spent almost $4 million on increasingly contentious ads. Conservative special interest groups also weighed in, led by the Virginia-based Center for Individual Freedom, which spent more than $1 million more on ads supporting Shaw and attacking Paseur.
The Alabama State Bar on Friday asked state Attorney General Troy King to investigate who was behind a series of push-poll calls to potential voters this fall falsely saying the State Bar had given Paseur a failing grade. The bar does not rate judges or judicial candidates, said J. Mark White, a Birmingham lawyer and State Bar president.
"Despite an immediate response from both the (State Bar) and the Administrative Office of Courts that made the campaigns aware of the falsity of that information, paid advertising continued running throughout the campaigns, up to and including Election Day, exploiting the name of the Alabama State Bar," White said in a statement.
White also asked the attorney general's office to determine whether the Center for Individual Freedom and two other groups violated state laws in its ads.
A spokesman for King said that his office would review the matter.
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Once again, a Supreme Court race in Alabama is calling attention to the abundance of money poured into judicial campaigns – [Editorial]
The Birmingham News
November 14, 2008
If money bought justice - real justice - Alabama would be the most just state in the union.
From 1994 to 2006, $54 million was spent on Alabama Supreme Court races, the largest amount in the country. In the second-highest state - huge Texas - $30 million was spent on Supreme Court races over that 12-year period.
Yet, Alabama has ranked behind every other state (and even Puerto Rico) in providing legal services to the poor.
That's what you call being dangerously out of whack.
This year's sole race for the Alabama Supreme Court perpetuated the problem. More than $5 million was spent on the race - possibly the costliest in the country and certainly more than was spent on legal services for the poor, according to Thomas Wells Jr., a Birmingham lawyer and president of the American Bar Association.
Wells rightly calls the situation "obscene." At his urging, the bar association is asking judicial, legislative and executive branch officials from each state to meet in North Carolina in May to collaborate on ideas to ensure our nation's courts are impartial and fair.
Wells' concerns go beyond Alabama's costly (and crass) court races, and with good reason. Nationwide, there are other threats to the independence of the judicial system. But in Alabama, the financing and tenor of elections are so far beyond the pale that other concerns about civil courts seem, well, paler.
At the very least, the perception is that judges can't be fair because they're so deeply in hock to businesses, plaintiff lawyers and other interest groups that fund their campaigns. At worst, the perception is real.
The dollars thrown into these races are particularly troubling when they're juxtaposed with the scant resources devoted to helping poor people get legal help for civil matters. As this newspaper has argued in the past, there's no defending a legal system in which monied interests spare no expense to elect friendly judges and poor folks can't even scrounge up the cash to get a lawyer.
We believe half the problem could be fixed with a different system of selecting judges. Our preference is a plan in which judges are appointed based on merit, then are held accountable to voters through retention elections. This would allow judges to be selected through a competitive process, but one based on their qualifications and not their ability to hurl mud and strong-arm contributors. It would also allow voters to throw out judges who don't do their jobs well.
The Alabama State Bar has long backed proposals such as this to remove some of the tarnish that ugly, costly campaigns have brought to our courts. But it has not gained political support.
That's a shame. As Wells points out, public confidence in courts is at risk when it looks as if they deliver justice only to those who are able to pay for it.
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Court race spending hurts image – [Editorial]
The Montgomery Advertiser
November 12, 2008
The perception of impartiality, the idea that cases are decided solely on their own merits, lies at the heart of the judicial system. Once that perception is eroded, public confidence in the system erodes as well, and with sad consequences for a society in which the judiciary is a vital component of government.
Such concerns are not limited to Alabama, of course, but they are a particular issue here. Once again, an Alabama Supreme Court campaign ranks as one of the most expensive in the nation, and perhaps the most expensive by the time all the expenditures are known.
The race between Republican Greg Shaw and Democrat Deborah Bell Paseur saw the candidates and outside groups supporting them spend more than $5 million. Shaw narrowly won the race, but it's hard to see any real winners in this one. Neither candidate's reputation was enhanced by a campaign that took a decidedly ugly turn, and certainly the people of Alabama can't have been pleased to see a race for their state's highest court deteriorate into a glaringly partisan exercise in mud-slinging.
Every citizen ought to be unhappy about the situation, but it drew special attention from Thomas Wells Jr., the Birmingham lawyer now serving as president of the American Bar Association. "Quite frankly, I was deeply disappointed in both candidates," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "More was spent on that race than was spent providing access to the courts for people of limited means. That was obscene."
Indeed it was. The question is what can be done to end this horrific cycle of venomous and expensive court races that has raged in Alabama for more than a decade.
Under Wells' leadership, the ABA will convene a summit meeting next May in Charlotte, N.C., for officials of every state. The idea, Wells told AP, is to "collaborate on plans for promoting fair and impartial courts." It's a worthy goal.
One crucial question for Alabama is whether partisan elections for appellate court seats should be continued. Ours is one of only a handful of states that select appellate judges this way. Most other states use some form of appointment or hold nonpartisan elections.
Although nonpartisan elections might offer some improvement over the current partisan battles, they still are subject to much of the same costs and outside influences that plague our judicial elections now.
A more appealing method would involve an appointment system, with retention elections to follow. A judge would be appointed to the court initially, typically by the governor, then after a specified time would face a retention election in which voters would decide whether to keep the judge on the court.
The May meeting in Charlotte should be well attended by Alabama officials. Surely no one -- prospective candidates or voters -- should want to see the current arrangement continue in the next round of elections in 2010.
The best justice money can buy
By Bob Martin, Editor & Publisher, The Montgomery Independent
November 12, 2008
A week before the election the two candidates for a single seat on the Alabama Supreme Court had raised and spent or had money spent on their behalf totaling over $5 million. The final tally won't be known until February when the last spending reports are due.
The two candidates, Appeals Court Judge Greg Shaw of Montgomery, the apparant eventual winner, and former District Judge Deborah Bell Paseur of Florence are both decent people who are qualified to be a justice on the court, but what they have had to raise and spend to be competitive is repugnant to the goal of fair and impartial justice.
This is not to say that either of them would not strive to be fair and impartial in their service, but the odor left by this taint of huge contributions renders a deep void in the perception of equal justice and fairness in matters before the state's highest tribunal.
The $5 million they've already raised and spent keeps Alabama No. 1 in the Nation in the "attempting to buy justice." category. Who are the culprits who want to subvert the perception of equal justice under the law in Alabama? It's the same laundry list of partisans, PACS, lawyers of all stripes, business groups, and shadow organizations that have been doing it for decades.
Paseur, the Democrat, raised and spent over $2.2 million in her campaign. Individual contributions, many funneled through the State Democratic Party and PACS have made up about three-fourths of Paseur's funding.
Overall Shaw raised and spent about $1.6 million prior to a week before the election, with over 90 percent of his funding coming primarily from business and corporate PACS. However, an out-of-state shadow group called the Center for Individual Freedom spent another $1.3 million on behalf of his campaign.
This group, based just outside Washington, calls itself a "non profit" and "non partisan" organization, but its ads where just the opposite, praising Judge Shaw, the Republican, and scorching Judge Paseur, the Democrat in the closing days of the election. The group also promoted Judge Shaw on its web site at www.cfif.org.
A better way to select judges
For all the reasons above and more Alabama must find a better way to select judges. We are one of seven states which still select judges in partisan elections.
What must we do?
A good start would be to make judicial selection non-partisan like municipal elections. From that point there are numerous merit selection models from which to select that work in other states.
My choice is a model which would be established to keep the people involved in the selection process.
How would it work:?
First, a judge would stand for office on a non-partisan ballot for an eight-year term. At the end of that term he/she would stand for what is called a "retention election. The question on the ballot would be "Should Judge Jane or Jim Smith be retained in office for another term?"
If the voters said "no" then the position would be filled for two years by a judge selected by the governor from three names send to him by a local or state nominating commission. That nominating commission would be selected by judicial, legislative and executive officials. In the next general election, the position would be back up for election on a non-partisan ballot.
Should a judge for any reason leave office during a term, the local or state nominating commission would go through the same process to fill the remainder of the term. This nominating commission process is already used in about eight jurisdictions in the state for the filling of vacancies in judicial office.
You may have noticed that I would extend the elected term of a judge by two years. One reason for that is to encourage qualified lawyers to seek the positions and the other is that a part of my plan would place in law a provision for the voters to recall a judge under certain circumstances.
Today in Alabama the only qualification one must have, other than residency, to become a judge is to be licensed to practice law in the state.The plan I would propose would provide certain levels of experience for all judges before they could take the bench with circuit and appellate judges having a higher level than municipal or district judges.
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Lawyers offer toll-free hotline
By KATHY JUMPER, Mobile Press-Register
November 12, 2008
Starting today, Alabama lawyers will answer a toll-free hotline to assist homeowners faced with foreclosure, according to the Alabama State Bar and Legal Services Alabama, two organizations that partnered to provide the service.
The hotline number is 1-877-393-2333, according to Brad Carr, director of communications for the state bar in Montgomery.
Help is free to anyone. "You can own a McMansion or a modest home; it doesn't matter," he said. Lawyers from Mobile and around the state will staff the hotline, he said.
"There are foreclosure procedures as simple as writing a letter to your lender, and the attorneys can do that," Carr said. "Or they can help in a mediation with your lender."
If the matter is already in litigation and the homeowner needs representation in court, the homeowner will be charged a fee, with the amount based on the person's income, he said.
Alabama has two kinds of foreclosure proceedings, judicial and non-judicial, according to Thomas J. Methvin, a Montgomery attorney and president-elect of the state bar. Non-judicial foreclosures are most common and can occur within 21 days, he said.
"This is why it is crucial for homeowners who have missed making even one monthly mortgage payment to call the hotline immediately," he said.
Local attorney Henry Callaway serves on the state bar's foreclosure task force.
The assistance hotline kicked off in Huntsville earlier this month, followed by Mobile and will soon be available in Montgomery and Birmingham, according to Carr.
The nonprofit Legal Services Alabama, which provides legal assistance to low- income Alabamians, pays the attorneys to man the hotline. The cost is covered by a grant from the Alabama Civil Justice Foundation and Access to Justice Commission.
For more information on foreclosures, go to the state bar's web site at www.
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Citing Workload, Public Lawyers Reject New Cases
By ERIK ECKHOLM, The New York Times
November 9, 2008
MIAMI — Public defenders’ offices in at least seven states are refusing to take on new cases or have sued to limit them, citing overwhelming workloads that they say undermine the constitutional right to counsel for the poor.
Public defenders are notoriously overworked, and their turnover is high and their pay low. But now, in the most open revolt by public defenders in memory, many of the government-appointed lawyers say that state budget cuts and rising caseloads have pushed them to the breaking point.
In September, a Florida judge ruled that the public defenders’ office in Miami-Dade County could refuse to represent many of those arrested on lesser felony charges so its lawyers could provide a better defense for other clients. Over the last three years, the average number of felony cases handled by each lawyer in a year has climbed to close to 500, from 367, officials said, and caseloads for lawyers assigned to misdemeanor cases have risen to 2,225, from 1,380.
“Right now a lot of public defenders are starting to stand up and say, ‘No more: We can’t ethically handle this many cases,’ ” said David J. Carroll, director of research for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.
The Miami-Dade case, which is being closely watched across the country, was appealed by the state, which says that defender offices must share the burden of falling revenues. On Friday, the Florida Supreme Court sent the case to an appellate court for a ruling. If the judge’s decision is upheld, it will force courts here to draw lawyers from a smaller state office and contract with private lawyers to represent defendants, at greater expense.
But such lawsuits are just the most overt sign of the burdens that lead harried lawyers in Michigan to talk openly about “McJustice” and in New York to make dark jokes about the plea bargain “assembly line.”
“In my opinion, there should be hundreds of such motions or lawsuits,” said Norman Lefstein, a professor at the Indiana University School of Law and an expert on criminal justice.
“I think the quality of public defense around the country is absolutely deteriorating,” Mr. Lefstein said, asserting that unless states spent more on lawyers, the courts would force them to delay trials or, as has happened in a few cases, threaten to drop charges against unrepresented defendants.
The most immediate impact of the rushed justice, Mr. Lefstein and Mr. Carroll said, is that innocent defendants may feel pressure to plead guilty or may be wrongfully convicted — which means the real offenders would be left untouched. Appeals claiming inadequate defense are very difficult to win, experts say.
In a 1963 decision, Gideon v. Wainwright, and subsequent cases, the United States Supreme Court ruled that poor criminal defendants are entitled to government-paid representation.
Here in the 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida, the defenders’ office has had its budget cut by 12.6 percent in the last two years, said the elected chief defender, Bennett H. Brummer, and the workload has climbed by 29 percent over the last four years.
State Senator Victor D. Crist, chairman of the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, is a vocal critic of the Miami-Dade lawsuit, saying Mr. Brummer is “blowing things out of proportion.”
Mr. Crist said the judicial system had faced smaller cuts than other parts of government. Although no defendant should be denied due process, he said, the courts, state’s attorneys and public defenders must all tighten their belts. He said defenders’ offices could increase efficiency by, for example, more carefully choosing which cases require depositions and other time-consuming actions. He said they should impose fees on clients, even if the sums were low or payment was delayed.
Legal defense is a right, Mr. Crist said, but “quality education is a right as well, and proper policing and safety in the community and maintaining standards in our prisons.”
Mr. Brummer countered: “There’s a race to the bottom here. As the loads worsen, the more experienced lawyers leave. But the cases continue to come in.”
This puts defenders like Arthur J. Jones, 30, on a treadmill of frustration. In his Miami office on a recent morning, Mr. Jones looked over a printout listing 155 current clients. He spent a frantic morning in court, handling arraignments and plea bargains for 23 offenders, a majority of whom he had never met before. His cases involve lesser felonies like cocaine possession, burglary and grand theft.
Mr. Jones, in between hushed conversations with clients in the hallway or the holding pen, said he wished he had more time to investigate cases and could go to trial more often, rather than accepting the police version of events and then, after a short discussion, helping his clients make a life-altering deal.
“I’d love to have time to visit the crime scene and do more legal research,” Mr. Jones said.
In Missouri, the system has not added staff members in eight years, while the annual number of cases has grown by 12,000, said J. Marty Robinson, the director of the state’s public defenders. “We’re on the verge of collapse,” he said.
Mr. Robinson appealed to an oversight commission, and beginning last month, defenders in more and more counties are declining misdemeanor cases and others that are unlikely to result in incarceration.
In Kentucky, the state public advocate, Ed Monahan, filed a lawsuit that would allow defenders to turn down cases they cannot ethically handle. “Since Gideon, I don’t remember a time when the challenges to adequate representation have been so great,” Mr. Monahan said. In Kentucky as elsewhere, though, some senior legislators say that public defenders must share the fiscal pain.
Similar lawsuits are pending, or offices have turned down clients this year, in Tennessee, Minnesota, Maryland and Arizona.
In New York City, financing from the city and state for criminal defense declined by $2.7 million this year, from a budget of just over $90 million. Meanwhile, the annual number of cases has climbed to 226,000, from 210,000 in 2006.
The city’s Legal Aid Society is promoting a bill before the City Council that would set caps on the number of clients each lawyer could take on. But this would require a significant increase in funds at a time when both city and state face large budget shortfalls.
The hurried processing of even misdemeanor pleas can have serious consequences for the accused, noted Deborah Wright, president of the Association of Legal Aid attorneys, the union for New York defenders. Even if they get no jail time, such defendants still get a criminal conviction, which can affect immigration status and some public benefits.
Michigan requires counties to protect the indigent without providing state funds, resulting in large disparities. In some counties, those charged with misdemeanors are not even offered a lawyer; in others, the judge hires one for a flat fee, creating a conflict of interest and incentives to skimp on defense, according to a recent report by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and the Michigan Bar Association. County and state officials acknowledge the problems, but counties say they cannot fix them without funds from a state government that is already reeling.
On the positive side, Mr. Carroll of the defender association said that Nevada, Louisiana and Montana had recently acted to shore up public defenders.
In Miami, as elsewhere, cases involving serious felony charges, potentially involving prison terms of decades or life, more often go to trial. Amy Weber, who has worked in the office for five years, handles about 50 serious felony cases at one time — too many, she said. “The stakes are a lot higher and the cases involve lots of witnesses, lots more discovery,” she said.
On one day in April, Ms. Weber had 13 cases set for trial, so she had to arrange for delays in all but one. That same day, James A. Simons, 59, who was in jail on child pornography charges, was offered a plea: one year in prison. Ms. Weber said she simply had no time to discuss the offer with him, but that he would have accepted it and ended his case.
Not receiving an immediate agreement, prosecutors gathered more evidence and rescinded the one-year offer. Mr. Simons ultimately had to accept a five-year sentence. “My client suffered and it makes me feel terrible,” Ms. Weber said. “You try to tell yourself you can only do what’s possible.”
Her colleague, Mr. Jones, left his $44,000-a-year job on Monday for private practice, saying he could not support his children and pay off school loans on that salary. A few weeks earlier, he had to tell a 53-year-old man who was charged with grand theft, for stealing a few locks from a Home Depot, that the state was offering five years because earlier convictions made him a “habitual offender.” In a discussion in a holding pen, his client asked, “Won’t they take one year?” Mr. Jones went back to the prosecutors, who calculated that the minimum sentence, under a scoring system here, would be 2.6 years. But Mr. Jones had no time to check their math.
The man was already resigned to taking that sentence when the prosecutors discovered their calculations were mistaken: the correct minimum was 366 days.
“You see how easily accidents can happen?” Mr. Jones said. “He easily could have gotten three years instead of one.”
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Official: Spending in Alabama judicial race 'obscene'
By Phillip Rawls, The Associated Press
November 10, 2008
The president of the American Bar Association says enormously expensive judicial races, like this year's $5 million slugfest for a Supreme Court seat in his home state of Alabama, threaten the public's confidence in the judicial system.
"More was spent on that race than was spent on providing access to the courts for people of limited means. That was obscene," said ABA President Thomas Wells Jr. of Birming- ham.
At his request, the bar association is urging judicial, legislative and executive branch officials from each state to gather in Charlotte, N.C., in May for a summit. The goal, Wells said, is to "collaborate on plans for promoting fair and impartial courts."
Wells, who built his reputation defending businesses in complex litigation, doesn't limit his concerns to partisan elections like those in Alabama and six other states. He said nonpartisan elections also can get nasty and expensive. And there have been moves in some states to term limit judges and take away their judicial immunity for the decisions they issue.
Going into the 1994 election, Democrats held every seat on the Alabama Supreme Court. In the years since, Republicans have dominated elections for the court, with only two Democrats winning. One has since retired.
In Tuesday's election, the Republican Party won the only court seat on the ballot, keeping the court's lineup 8-1. The candidates and outside groups spent more than $5 million on the race, which may end up the most expensive court race in the U.S. this year.
At the start of the campaign, both candidates signed a pledge to run positive campaigns that would not damage the image of judges. By the end, they were accusing each other of being untruthful and having dubious qualifications, despite long records of service as judges.
"Quite frankly, I was deeply disappointed in both candidates," Wells said.
The race lined up just like every Supreme Court contest since 1994. The winning Republican, Greg Shaw, drew strong support from the business community in Alabama and a business group in Washington. The losing Democrat, Deborah Bell Paseur, was backed by many plaintiff lawyers.
Alabama Republican Party Chairman Mike Hubbard said GOP candidates began to have success in 1994 because the state's all-Democratic court got a national reputation for upholding huge lawsuit verdicts.
"The people of Alabama are conservative and want a conservative court," Hubbard said. "People remember what Alabama was like when it was 'tort hell' and had a bad reputation around the nation."
Joe Turnham, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party, said the party has recruited quality candidates. But they usually lose very close races, and he's unsure how to change that.
"It's my one great thing I haven't been able to figure out as party chairman," he said.
Turnham had hoped voters would be riled by a decision last November that broke along party lines. The court's eight Republicans threw out most of the $3.6 billion judgment the state government won against Exxon Mobil in a dispute over natural gas royalties. The court's lone Democrat dissented.
The case never developed into a big issue for Democrats.
Tom Dart, chairman of the Alabama Civil Justice Reform Committee, said lawsuit issues are not at the forefront like they once were, but "it's still a powerful message" for Republicans.
Dart's group is a coalition of more than 100 businesses and business organizations, including the Business Council of Alabama and Alabama Retail Association. They are the biggest contributors to Republican Supreme Court candidates.
Two groups that track spending in judicial races, the Brennan Center for Justice and the Justice at Stake Campaign, said Alabama is on track to possibly have the nation's most expensive judicial race this year, with more than $5 million spent by the two candidates and outside groups.
That is a huge jump from the $1.6 million spent by both candidates in Republican Perry Hooper's defeat of Democratic incumbent Sonny Hornsby in 1994.
From that campaign through the 2006 elections, Alabama led the nation in Supreme Court campaign spending, with $54 million raised by candidates. Texas was second at $30 million.
Those figures have raised questions about the impact of money on justice.
The Institute for Money in State Politics issued a study in 2003 that found that $18.4 million, or 9 percent of the money given to Alabama Supreme Court candidates between 1994 and 1998, came from contributors who later had cases before the court -- either as parties or lawyers.
Wells said the public's confidence in the fairness and impartiality of courts is affected by contributions from participants and by huge spending like this year's race. Public financing or judicial appointments are some alternatives that have been discussed, but measures to change from partisan votes have gotten little traction in the Legislature, particularly among Republicans who view such changes as a way to undermine the GOP's current hold on the courts.
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Judges should gag on nasty court races – [Editorial]
November 07, 2008
CHANGE WAS a winning theme in the presidential election, but the status quo was the big winner in Alabama's statewide judicial races.
It's evident that most Alabamians are satisfied with the performance of Republican jurists who promise to strictly interpret the law and keep the courts within traditional constitutional boundaries. Republicans prevailed in all four statewide judicial races, including a nasty and expensive contest for an open seat on the state Supreme Court.
Unfortunately, the disgraceful tone of the Supreme Court race between Democrat Deborah Bell Paseur and Republican Greg Shaw represented a continuation of the status quo in the struggle for partisan control of the state's highest court.
Alabama's Supreme Court contests have become the most expensive — and, quite possibly, the nastiest — court races in the country.
In 2006, Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb and then-Chief Justice Drayton Nabors broke national spending records in their down-and-dirty campaigns.
The spectacle of that bare-knuckled TV ad brawl in the halls of justice should have turned the stomachs of respectable judges contemplating a run for the Supreme Court. And, indeed, Ms. Paseur, a former district judge, and Judge Shaw, a member of the state Court of Criminal Appeals, launched their general election campaigns on a positive note last summer.
But by early October, Ms. Paseur was running ads decrying the influence of "Big Oil" in the race and insinuating that her opponent was a paid retainer of this interest group.
Independent groups backing Judge Shaw responded in kind to Ms. Paseur's mudslinging, and the campaign devolved into a near-replay of the Cobb-Nabors mudbath. Judge Shaw prevailed on Election Day, winning by a narrow 14,000-vote margin, but Ms. Paseur hasn't conceded and is hoping for a recount.
We hope this race finally triggered the gag reflex of voters and aspiring candidates, but we're not optimistic.
More than ever, the Press-Register editorial board believes the best way to restore dignity and independence to Alabama's judiciary is for the state to adopt a Missouri-style system of judicial appointment and voter retention. Let the governor choose judges from a list of candidates provided by a blue-ribbon committee, and then let the voters decide whether or not to retain the appointed judges.
From all indications, the state's Supreme Court justices and the members of the criminal and civil appeals courts are qualified, solid jurists. But it's difficult to maintain public respect for the judiciary when the members of the state's highest court are elected in big-money races dominated by character assassination.
The two parties and their financial angels ought to embrace the cause of judicial appointment and retention. It would be good for the state — and it also would save the partisan combatants a lot of money they could use savaging one another in other races.
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Business Connections Hurt Judicial Incumbents
Amanda Bronstad, National Law Journal
Change was in the air among the country's most prominent state judicial races last week as the Wall Street meltdown and a growing frustration about outside private interest groups contributing millions of dollars to elections helped unseat several incumbent candidates -- particularly those with business supporters.
"Obviously, it's now a benefit that comes with a cost," said Charlie Hall, a spokesman for the Justice at Stake Campaign, a bipartisan organization in Washington that tracks state judicial elections. "Whether it's perceived that a candidate is taking money from special interests, it seemed to be an issue raised with more effect this year."
In one of the most surprising upsets, Michigan Chief Justice Cliff Taylor, a Republican, lost to Democrat Diane Marie Hathaway, 49 percent to 39 percent. Taylor raised $1.8 million, breaking his own record of $1.3 million set in 2000, according to Hall. Hathaway raised about $420,000.
Ads paid for by the Michigan Democratic Party portrayed Taylor as literally sleeping on the job and a "good soldier" for businesses. Ads paid for by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Republican Party portrayed Hathaway, a Wayne County Circuit Court judge, as being soft on terrorists and sexual predators, with one image showing an Arab-American holding an assault rifle.
In the end, Taylor's business support worked against him, Hall said. With Wall Street collapsing, the idea of supporting a judicial candidate with corporate donors "rings worse" than it would have four years ago, he said.
Another surprise blow involved Mississippi Chief Justice Jim Smith, who was criticized for his ties to business groups. Smith, whose television ads were paid for by private interest groups such as Mississippians for Economic Progress, lost to Jim Kitchens, an attorney, who received 54 percent of the vote.
Sam Hall, campaign manager for Kitchens, said the problems on Wall Street aided in defeating Smith.
"This was a court that ruled 88 percent of the time on behalf of businesses, when businesses were found negligent against an individual in the lower court," he said.
Two other incumbents, neither with significant business support, were also unseated in the state. Presiding Justice Oliver Diaz Jr., who was indicted a few years ago on bribery and tax evasion charges but later cleared, was defeated by Chancery Judge Randy Pierce. Diaz had been backed by plaintiffs' attorneys. Also, Associate Justice Charles Easley was defeated by Mississippi Court of Appeals Judge David Chandler.
But Hall said that, whether backed by businesses or plaintiffs' attorneys, judicial candidates exploited the message, more so than ever before, that their opponents had been "bought" by their donors.
In Alabama, Republican Greg Shaw, a judge on the state's Court of Criminal Appeals, defeated Democrat Deborah Bell Paseur, a retired district judge, with a slim 50.4 percent majority that was declared on Nov. 5. But Paseur made inroads in attempting to discredit Shaw for accepting support from the Center for Individual Freedom, a Virginia group that paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for ads supporting his campaign.
In West Virginia, where former Chief Justice Elliott Maynard was unseated earlier this year during the primaries amid accusations that he vacationed in the French Riviera with an executive who had a case pending before him, two Democratic candidates narrowly defeated a Republican for two seats on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
One of those Democrats, Margaret Workman, a former West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals judge, said voters expressed dissatisfaction with judges beholden to special interests in rejecting Beth Walker, a Republican who received significant financial support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other outside groups five days before the election.
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Merit Selection of Judges: Time for a Change in Mississippi
By W. Wayne Drinkwater
[NOTE: Mary Margaret Bailey suggested the articles in the latest issue of the Mississippi Lawyer might be of interest since they discuss the issue of judicial election.]
Whether expressed through this or some other model, merit selection is designed to choose judges through a screening process conducted by knowledgeable commissioners. The process permits the voters to reject a judge whose performance they find unsatisfactory, but it does not allow them to choose that judge’s successor. All judges will be chosen by the Governor, upon nomination by the Commission, and after professional vetting.
There is inevitable tension between judicial independence and accountability for judicial performance. Merit selection seeks to reconcile this tension by holding judges accountable according to proper standards: not for the popularity of their decisions, but for their legal ability, objectivity and judicial temperament, as determined by the lawyers and litigants who appear before them.
Merit selection will not remove all politics from the judicial selection process, but experience has shown that it will help weed out unqualified candidates, eliminate the need to campaign and solicit contributions, and reduce the pressure that judges feel to avoid unpopular decisions. The Governor may still pick a candidate who is congenial to his views, but the candidate will be selected from a group of screened and qualified candidates chosen by commissioners who the Governor did not select.
I am not insensitive to the political obstacles that merit selection will face in Mississippi. Any such change would require amendment to Mississippi’s Constitution. Further, because merit selection would constitute a change in voting practice, preclearance by the Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act would also be required.
Merit selection will not cure all that is wrong with our judicial system. However, many of the most persistent problems in our judicial system will never be removed so long as our state court judges are forced to run for office in contested popular elections.
- These “positions” may turn out to be not-so-subtle messages that fall just short of promises about future rulings: Candidate A will end jackpot justice and runaway punitive awards. Candidate B will keep criminals off the street. Candidate C will protect the little man from corporate greed and abuse. No great imagination is required to predict what A, B, and C are likely to do in cases when the time comes.
- In Louisiana, this may not be just perception. A Tulane study has shown that justices on the Louisiana Supreme Court voted in favor of their contributors 65% of the time. Two justices did so 80% of the time. One justice voted for civil defendants in 47% of the cases when no contributors were involved. But when plaintiffs contributed more to this justice than did defendants, he voted for plaintiffs 90% of the time. See Palmer & Levendis, The Lousiana Supreme Court in Question: An Empirical Study of the Effect of Campaign Money on the Judicial Function, 82 Tul. L. Rev. 1291 (2008).
ABA President Decries Expensive Judicial Races
By Debra Cassens Weiss, ABA Journal.com
November 6, 2008
The home state of ABA President H. Thomas Wells Jr. was the site of this year’s most expensive judicial race, and Wells isn’t happy about it.
Wells said in a press release issued today that judges in Alabama and states like it are set up to rely on campaign contributions from interests that argue before the courts.
“Judges should be accountable to the law and the Constitution, not the whims of the day or to popular public opinion,” he said. “We urge citizens in states under the grip of increasingly costly court races to band together and find solutions that remove the potential influence of money from our courts.”
Spending on the race for an open seat on the Alabama Supreme Court surpassed $5 million, making it the most expensive state high court race this year. Criminal appeals judge Greg Shaw narrowly won the contested seat in Tuesday’s election, the Birmingham News reports. The most recent tally showed the two candidates spent a combined $3.8 million and a group supporting Shaw spent $1.3 million.
The issue of campaign contributions is raising legal ethics and constitutional issues. A cert petition pending before the U.S. Supreme Court contends a West Virginia Supreme Court justice was constitutionally required to recuse himself in a corporate case because he received more than $3 million in campaign contributions from the company’s CEO.
The ABA has urged the Supreme Court to accept the case, Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co.
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Paseur won’t concede
By Dana Beyerle, Tuscaloosa News
Thursday, November 6, 2008
MONTGOMERY | Republican Greg Shaw claimed victory Wednesday in the bitterly fought state Supreme Court race, but Democrat Deborah Bell Paseur is not giving up.
Shaw and the Republican Party want Paseur to concede Tuesday’s election, which Shaw appears to have won by 12,000 votes out of more than 2 million cast.
But across the state, there may be as many as 10,000 provisional ballots left to be counted next week by local canvassing boards, ballots that could affect more than just the Paseur-Shaw race.
Paseur said a shift in just a few thousand votes could trigger an automatic recount under state law.
“I’m not going to concede,” she said.
She contends that there’s no need to rush because the winner of the associate justice race will not be sworn in until January.
“I’m just saying every vote should be counted and we should know what the votes are,” Paseur said. “It’s not my will; it’s what it is.”
The provisional ballot recount occurs Nov. 12.
With all but six of 2,843 statewide precincts reporting, Shaw had a 12,832-vote lead out of 2.025 million votes cast, according to unofficial results. Shaw had 1,018,894 votes to Paseur’s 1,006,062 votes.
Shaw campaign spokesman Josh Cooper said that even if Paseur were to get all 10,000 provisional votes, she still loses.
“We do think she should concede because it’s mathematically impossible to make up the difference,” Cooper said. “There’s no reason to stay in this race.”
Meanwhile, Republican Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh trails Democrat Lucy Baxley by 12,389 votes in the race for president of the Public Service Commission.
Cavanaugh said she wants provisional votes in her race counted before deciding whether to concede an automatic recount.
“There is no hurry,” state Democratic Party executive director Jim Spearman said.
A provisional ballot is given to a voter who may not have the required identification at the polls, who is in the wrong precinct or who is not showing up as registered. Valid provisional votes are counted, but no one knows how many of the about 10,000 provisional ballots will end up being good.
An automatic recount would occur in either race if the margin is within one-half of 1 percent.
Because Shaw’s unofficial lead is 12,832 votes, an automatic vote recount would kick in if the margin is reduced to 10,124 votes or less. Candidates can waive a recount if they believe it would not help.
Shaw is in his second term on the Court of Criminal Appeals. If his margin holds, he will replace the retiring Republican Associate Justice Harold See and Gov. Bob Riley will appoint Shaw’s replacement.
Paseur retired after 27 years as the Lauderdale County district judge.
The expensive race included ads charging that each candidate was a tool of special interests, prompting a judicial watch organization to call for reform of the way judges are selected.
Charles Hall of Justice at Stake, a Washington-based group that monitors judicial elections, said state Supreme Court elections, including Alabama’s, were “punctuated by runaway spending, partisan pressure, angry accusations and costly, secretly funded ads by third-party special interests that often drowned out the candidates.”
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Watchdog Says Mich. Judicial Election Ads Create ‘Orgy of Negativity’
By Debra Cassens Weiss, ABA Journal.com
November 4, 2008
Dueling television ads criticizing two candidates vying for a seat on the Michigan Supreme Court are creating an “orgy of negativity,” according to the executive director of the Justice at Stake Campaign.
Bert Brandenburg made the comment in an interview with the National Law Journal. The ads depict Chief Justice Cliff Taylor as asleep on the bench and a “good soldier” of big business, and portray challenger Diane Hathaway as a terrorist sympathizer who gave light sentences as a trial judge to sexual predators.
"Unfortunately, the worst is happening again," Brandenburg said. "The crisis in judicial elections continues to grow. Special interests of all stripes are still fueling a financial arms race, in hopes of claiming court seats as political prizes."
He told the National Law Journal of these problems in judicial races:
• Problems with a false attack ad in Mississippi. A recent story in the Jackson Free Press characterized the supreme court election there as a power struggle between plaintiffs lawyers and pro-business defense interests. Business is backing Chief Justice Jim Smith.
• Special interest spending in Alabama. Spending on one court race there has reached $4.3 million, the Times Daily reports.
• A battle over the all-Republican supreme court in Texas. Democrats vying for seats are claiming the court is biased in favor of business and insurance interests, the Austin American-Statesman reports.
• High spending on TV ads in Louisiana. Two appeals court justices there are in a “heated” battle to fill a supreme court seat, reports 2theadvocate.com.
• West Virginia, where the chief justice was defeated in a primary after allegations that he had vacationed with a litigant.
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Mortgage fraud cases, getting a piece of the financial bailout, staying out of trouble in a downsizing - all can translate into billable hours for the legal profession
By Carol J. Williams, The Los Angeles Times
October 30, 2008
The loose-leaf binders on Beverly Hills attorney Paul Kiesel's blond wood shelves contain hundreds of stories alleging deception, loss and heartache.
Kiesel is representing struggling homeowners who contend they were misled about the terms of their mortgages. He is far from the only lawyer finding himself busy these days as a result of the hard economic times.
In addition to attorneys suing lenders, there are others providing counsel for companies that are downsizing or have been pushed into bankruptcy. Others are representing clients in fraud lawsuits against banks and Wall Street investment firms.
And there are lawyers guiding distressed banks and others seeking a piece of the $700-billion government bailout of the financial system.
The country may be slipping into recession, but it's shaping up to be boom time for lawyers.
"Is this a business opportunity?" Karen Garrett, head of the financial institution regulatory practice for law firm Bryan Cave in Kansas City, asks rhetorically.
She quickly answers her own question, saying that the $700-billion federal rescue package will create plenty of work as banks and other institutions seek legal guidance to get a share of the funding and comply with the sometimes complex requirements.
"From here on out, we're going to see huge opportunity as credit fans out and everyone tries to use the tools available from recent legislation," Garrett said.
The bailout also includes new rules, including restrictions on executive compensation, that will create even more work for lawyers, said Scott Sinder, head of Steptoe & Johnson's government affairs and public policy practice in Washington.
"We're going to have to marry program restraints with contractual obligations of companies," as lenders and insurers execute contracts with the government, Sinder said.
Even smaller clients whose business isn't directly affected by the credit and mortgage problems are peppering their lawyers with questions on such matters as the security of their deposits and their access to credit, said Bryan Cave's Marty Rolle, a partner in the London office.
Labor and employment lawyers, including a team at Rutter Hobbs & Davidoff of Los Angeles, are busy advising companies that are cutting their staffs on how best to handle layoffs without getting sued.
In international law firm Fulbright & Jaworski's latest litigation trends survey, 43% of corporate counsel surveyed said they expected an upswing in lawsuits, largely spurred by the economic crises.
Stephen C. Dillard, who heads the firm's global litigation practice, said the survey's findings represented a belief that the world is in "a period of economic challenge that is likely to fuel litigation over who is to blame and who should pay for the consequences."
Michael B. Dorff, associate dean and law professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, sees little prospect of success in most of the litigation, although he agrees that a gusher of lawsuits is likely to occur nonetheless. He sounds a more cautionary note about the financial future for law firms, noting that lawyers, like everyone else, may be facing tougher times.
"If you look industrywide, the recession is going to hurt lawyers more than any kind of benefit they would derive from the legal work," he said.
Dorff believes that many of the lawsuits that grow out of the crisis -- including shareholder suits alleging that executives misled investors -- will be difficult or impossible to win because plaintiffs would have to prove willful misconduct or failure to fulfill fiduciary responsibilities.
Defendant banks, brokerages and investment houses can argue that they were caught unaware by the swift change in the economic tide.
But the difficulties won't stop the legal actions.
"There's so much at stake, it's just undeniable that there is going to be a lot of litigation," said Michael Dolan, chief executive of Tusker Group of Austin, Texas, which operates two legal services facilities in India where 300 lawyers, researchers and processors review documents for about 10% of what it costs for a U.S. lawyer to do similar work.
"Because of the players involved, this is going to be document-intensive litigation," Dolan said, estimating that U.S. law firms already spend $30 billion a year poring over potential evidence that has grown exponentially in volume now that courts allow exchanges by computer.
Only a tiny fraction of the document reviewing for U.S. legal actions is done out of the country, he said, leaving the bulk of the work in the hands of American lawyers billing their clients more than $200 an hour.