Program Watchdog Decries Lavish Spending
By LARRY MARGASAK, Associated Press Writer
September 26, 2006
WASHINGTON -- The internal auditor of the government's legal aid program is asking Congress to prevent officials from firing him for reporting excessive spending that is inconsistent with the mission of helping the poor.
Inspector General Kirt West asserted that Legal Services Corp. officials want to "retaliate against me for issuing critical reports and for asserting IG independence." The Associated Press obtained West's testimony prepared for a House hearing on Tuesday.
West said in a new report Monday that lavish spending for meals, first-class airfares, hired drivers and business entertainment was especially inappropriate for a program that pays for lawyers for the poorest Americans.
He said it would have been impossible for him to continue his work if Congress had not already intervened in his behalf.
West said he supports legislation that would require a vote of nine of 11 board members to fire a Legal Services inspector general. The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Christopher Cannon, R-Utah, is chief sponsor of the bill.
The AP reported last weekend that three lawmakers warned Legal Services board chairman Frank Strickland in April that any attempt to fire West "would be an egregious action," because the auditor was investigating Strickland and other officials.
The AP reported that several months prior to the letter, some board members -- who are part-time directors -- said in secret meetings that they favored firing the internal watchdog.
Legal Services spokesman Tom Polgar said the corporation would adopt all of West's recommendations to reform the way officials spend money. However, he rejected West's charges that officials are trying to retaliate.
"Neither the board nor management has ever interfered with any investigation the inspector general has undertaken," Polgar said.
The board of directors never threatened to fire him and had no plans to take action in April when the lawmakers' warning letter arrived, Polgar said.
Strickland, the board chairman, said in his prepared testimony that he opposed the legislation requiring a super majority to remove the watchdog.
With the board having one vacancy and sometimes having two unfilled seats, the bill would require "actual or virtual unanimity" to remove the inspector general, he said.
He added that the board of directors began reviewing West's performance before he began investigating spending practices.
In his latest report, West said, "Our review found spending practices that may appear excessive and inappropriate to LSC's status as a federally funded, nonprofit corporation, particularly in light of its mission in distributing taxpayer dollars to fund legal services for the poor."
West's latest findings, similar to an AP report in August, found:
* Lunch costs at the January 2006 board of directors meeting exceeded $70 per person, while afternoon snack breaks cost as much as $27 per person.
* The corporation could save thousands of dollars by holding its local Washington board meetings at its headquarters rather than at a hotel. While corporation officials told the auditor that conference facilities in their headquarters were too small for board meetings, West said the headquarters meeting room was slightly larger than the rooms used at an upscale hotel.
* The board chairman improperly approved taxpayer-financed expenses for outside activities by corporation president Helaine Barnett.
* Strickland, Barnett and a former vice president traveled first class or business class, contrary to a policy requiring advance approval for upgrading from coach class.
* The corporation spent more than $100,000 on coffee, holiday parties and picnics, working lunches, and business entertainment, going back to August 2000. West questioned whether these expenditures were reasonable and necessary.
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Judicial commission shouldn't play politics
Process has been skewed in a way that limits governor’s selection
The Tennessean, September 21, 2006
Here's how the Tennessee Plan, the state's merit-selection process for the selection of judges, is supposed to work: A commission of people familiar with legal matters reviews the applicants for state judgeships and recommends the three most-qualified applicants to the governor. The governor then selects the judge from the panel of three.
But now there is some indication that instead of sending the governor the three most-qualified people for the post, the Judicial Selection Commission is recommending one person who it favors and two others who would be tough appointments for the governor to make. If that is, indeed, how the commission system has developed, then the state will need more than a lawsuit to straighten it out.
Gov. Phil Bredesen has filed a legal challenge against the state Judicial Selection Commission for recommending an applicant for a Supreme Court vacancy — Houston Gordon — whom the governor had already rejected. It's hard to imagine how the commission's back-to-back recommendations of Gordon could be legal. After all, by law, if the governor rejects the first panel of three recommendations, he is required to choose from the second panel. If one name appears on both lists, the governor's choice is severely limited.
The governor's action should not be taken as a personal slap at Gordon. He is a well-known and respected lawyer. Without doubt, he is qualified for the high court.
But Gordon's qualifications are not the point. The point is that the governor deserves three well-qualified and suitable recommendations for the court — not one name and two ringers.
Tennessee governors now and in the future need to know what leeway they have in dealing with the recommendations of the state's Judicial Selection Commission. And members of the commission, both now and in the future, need to know their responsibilities as well.
But when the legal question is resolved, the state legislature also should look at ways to give the commission more independence and more objectivity than it has demonstrated lately.
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Roving interpreters fill void
By Jay Reeves, The Associated Press
September 24, 2006
BIRMINGHAM -- Federal court interpreter Teresa Thorpe spoke Spanish softly into a microphone as one Hispanic defendant after another stepped forward, each equipped with wireless receivers and earpieces.
The scene was typical of U.S. courts that are struggling to bridge the language barrier between an English-speaking legal system and an influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants. What was unusual was Thorpe's commute to work: She was flown to Birmingham from Kentucky because of a lack of qualified interpreters in the Southeast.
Alabama is among 20 states with two or fewer people who are certified legally to act as interpreters in federal courts, where language specialists are required to have more training and testing than in state courts. When certified interpreters aren't available, officials try to fill the gaps with telephone interpretation and, sometimes, less-qualified interpreters.
But often, experts like Thorpe are hired to shuttle between states and court districts to both provide oral interpretation and translate documents during court proceedings that, despite the long commute, sometimes take no more than a few minutes. They're paid $355 a day, plus airfare and other expenses.
Laura Garcia-Hein, a certified interpreter from Louisville, Ky., frequently makes the trip to Alabama to interpret for Spanish-speaking people charged with crimes. She's also been to Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina and Tennessee to work.
"There are many of us who do a lot of traveling," said Garcia-Hein. "You have people going from Louisiana to Montana to interpret for a trial."
While some judicial districts have staff interpreters, the federal system spent about $9.8 million last year to hire interpreters on a contract basis, according to information from the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts.
Richard Carelli, a spokesman for the court system in Washington, said roving interpreters aren't unusual in areas where the Spanish-speaking population is still relatively small.
"Unfortunately it's sort of a market-based system," said Carelli. "In towns like Birmingham there's probably not enough business to keep them busy. In places like New York it's very different."
Despite Alabama having a Spanish-speaking population that is growing exponentially and topped 120,000 last year by Census estimates, the Administrative Office lists just one interpreter certified to work in federal courts in the state.
Six more states also have just one certified interpreter, four have only two and 10 have none at all -- Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming, according to the court system.
Ten Southeastern states have only 113 of the nation's 942 certified interpreters, and 83 of them are in Florida or Virginia.
Isabel Framer, a board member of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, said being bilingual isn't the same thing as being able to give accurate, real-time interpretations of complicated court proceedings.
Many people can't afford the specialized training that's needed to pass the two-part test for certification since it can cost upward of $3,000, she said.
"The main reason we have a shortage is that there is no money available to train certified interpreters," said Framer, of Copley, Ohio. "You have to do it on your own."
At the Hugo L. Black Courthouse in Birmingham, the shortage of certified interpreters has turned assistant clerk Sharon Blocker into a combination personnel recruiter and travel agent.
Blocker, who is responsible for scheduling interpreters, constantly is trying to line up new interpreters and schedule travel for people like Thorpe who have to be brought in from outside the state.
"I try to stay with interpreters who are on a Southwest Airline schedule because they are cheaper and it is easier to change tickets with them," said Blocker.
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Lawyers: State owes attorneys millions
By Mike Linn
September 21, 2006
Lawyers fighting for the reinstatement of overhead pay for defense lawyers who represent the poor told the Alabama Supreme Court on Wednesday that the state owes lawyers millions of dollars -- plus interest.
At a hearing before all but one member of the high court, the attorneys argued on behalf of hundreds of attorneys statewide who have been denied overhead pay for items such as long distance, office supplies, postage and bar dues for more than a year.
The high court didn't disclose when it would rule on the matter, but questioned the reasoning in arguments made by the state's solicitor general, Kevin Newsom.
Newsom argued that the Legislature in 1999 sought to do away with overhead pay by making a minor tweak to a standing law.
The law had said the state should pay any expenses incurred "in such defense." The amendment said payments should be made for any expenses incurred "in the defense of his or her client."
Based on that, Alabama Attorney General Troy King issued a February 2005 opinion that specific overhead expenses are not incurred from representing individual clients and don't have to be reimbursed.
Justice Harold See countered by asking, if the Legislature wanted to do away with overhead pay, why weren't they more clear about it?
Moreover, asked Justice Lyn Stuart, why did legislators adopt a resolution four years later saying they never meant to do away with overhead pay?
George Douglas, who represents a defense attorney who sued the state comptroller for overhead pay, said the state has a tough legal position to argue.
"We certainly seem to have the stronger and better legal argument," Douglas said after the hearing.
Douglas argued that King's advisory opinion is in direct contrast with a opinion on the matter by former Attorney General Bill Pryor, who is now a federal judge.
"Judge Pryor was called many things while he was attorney general, but I don't think he was ever called ignorant or unaware of the law," he said.
Last year, a Montgomery circuit judge ordered the state to resume paying overhead costs for nearly 2,000 criminal defense attorneys who represent the poor.
The ruling said state Comptroller Robert Childree must immediately resume payments for overhead expenses, such as insurance, office supplies and bar dues. Childree appealed the ruling to the Alabama Supreme Court.
The payments amount to about $14 million of the overall $45 million spent on indigent defense annually.
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New Rules Mean Shift Toward Accountability for Judiciary
Chief justice holds rare press conference to applaud both of Tuesday's actions
Tony Mauro, Legal Times
September 20, 2006
Responding to complaints about judicial junkets and conflicts of interest, the Judicial Conference on Tuesday enacted new rules to force judges to use conflict-checking software and to promptly disclose their participation in privately sponsored seminars for which they are reimbursed.
Separately, a committee headed by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer issued a report recommending modest changes in how federal courts handle ethical complaints that members of the public file against judges. Among the recommendations is what Breyer described as a "Dutch uncle approach," whereby judges would seek advice on handling certain complaints from judges of another circuit to avoid "home court" bias.
Together, Tuesday's actions represent a major shift toward accountability -- or at least transparency -- from segments of a branch of government that has often resisted both.
Judges also hoped to defuse pressure from Congress, primarily in the person of House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who has proposed creating an inspector general's office to oversee the judiciary's handling of ethical complaints. The late Chief Justice William Rehnquist appointed the Breyer Committee in 2004, mainly in response to congressional complaints.
"Issuance of the two policies and the Breyer Committee report are responsive to these concerns," says University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias. "If the judiciary does not police itself, Congress may well attempt to do so in ways that judges may find troubling."
Tuesday's focus on judicial ethics comes on the eve of the Sept. 21 hearings by the House Judiciary Committee that could lead to the impeachment of California federal trial Judge Manuel Real, which would be the first judicial impeachment since 1989.
Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., in a rare impromptu press conference at the Court, applauded both of Tuesday's moves and urged federal judges to take "prompt action."
Significantly, none of what happened Tuesday affects the Supreme Court itself. The Judicial Conference never sets policy for the high court, and Breyer, speaking at the same press conference, said the scope of his committee's study of disciplinary procedures did not include the Supreme Court. As a result, it appears the justices have still not taken action on a 1993 recommendation by a blue-ribbon government commission that the Court consider establishing procedures for handling complaints against its own members.
Breyer said his committee concluded that, overall, the handling of ethical complaints by lower federal courts "does not suggest a serious problem," but a better job needs to be done in some instances, especially in the handling of complex complaints that receive media attention.
The Judicial Conference actions could have the most immediate impact on privately sponsored seminars other than those hosted by bar associations and judicial education groups.
Under the new rules, judges will be barred from accepting reimbursement for seminars hosted by organizations that do not publicly disclose their funding sources, speakers' names, and other information. Once they attend, judges will have to publicly disclose their attendance on their court's Web site within 30 days.
"The new junket rules are a pretty dramatic change of course for the judiciary, and they send a clear statement to judges that they should think twice before attending junkets," Doug Kendall of the Community Rights Counsel said Tuesday. Kendall's group has repeatedly criticized judges for attending seminars funded by companies with an interest in influencing how judges handle economic and environmental cases.
One of the targets of Kendall's criticism has been the Montana-based Foundation for Research on Economics & the Environment (FREE), which has hosted hundreds of federal judges in the past 15 years. It asserts that none of the funding for its judicial seminars comes from any corporate entity or any foundation that participates in federal litigation.
"I've seen the requirements, and everything they ask for, we've been doing voluntarily," says FREE Executive Vice President Pete Geddes. "FREE is happy to do anything it can to reassure the public about the integrity and independence of the judiciary."
The conference's action on conflict-checking software reflects the concern that many judges don't think it works well and have not put it to use. Now they will have to, said D.C. District Court Chief Judge Thomas Hogan, head of the conference's executive committee.
Hogan told reporters his software reminds him of a potential conflict of interest every time a party named Johnson appears before him. That, he said with a laugh, is because he and his wife own stock in the medical company Johnson & Johnson.
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High court challenger asks foe to fight clean
Birmingham News staff writer
Sunday, September 17, 2006
Chief Justice Drayton Nabers' refusal to sign a pledge to keep his campaign civil leaves him free to use outside interest groups as his attack dogs, his opponent in the Alabama Supreme Court race said.
"Judges shouldn't hide behind third-party groups to make their political attacks," Sue Bell Cobb said Friday. She is the state Court of Criminal Appeals judge who will face Nabers in the Nov. 7 election for chief justice. "As judges, we are held to higher standards, and rightly so."
Nabers, a Republican, said he will wage a clean and ethical campaign. On the advice of the Alabama Republican Party, he didn't sign the pledge issued by a State Bar campaign ethics committee, said Clay Ryan, Nabers' campaign manager. Nabers views the State Bar committee as partisan, Ryan said.
"We agree with the Alabama Republican Party that this so-called committee is stacked with Democrats," Ryan said. "He won't pledge anything to a group dominated by Democratic activists, donors and former candidates who have run nasty campaigns themselves."
This spring, the Washington-based American Taxpayers Alliance spent almost $1 million on ads in the Republican primary for Supreme Court. Half of those ads attacked Nabers' opponent in the primary, Justice Tom Parker, according to the Brennan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake, two national watchdog groups.
The ATA generally does not disclose its contributors. But the advocacy group Public Citizen says court documents show the national Chamber of Commerce and electric utilities are major contributors to ATA.
"I'm concerned about third-party ads, especially from groups that are not required to disclose their sources of funding," Cobb said. "I believe that the voters want to know who's paying for the ads. They have the right to know."
Nabers' campaign dismissed Cobb's criticism as negative campaigning.
"Perhaps Judge Cobb should spend less time talking about pledges and more time living up to hers," Ryan said. Alabama has long had a national reputation for rancorous and ugly state Supreme Court races, including a 1996 television ad that compared one candidate to a skunk.
That race led to the creation of a judicial campaign oversight committee, which was appointed by the state's chief justice in 1998 and 2002. When Nabers didn't appoint one for this year's election, the Alabama State Bar created one, said Bill Gordon, a retired Circuit Court judge and co-chair of the committee. "It's not a committee made up of all Democrats," said Gordon, who ran as a Democrat during his 17 years on the bench. "I don't think anyone can say we have done anything that exhibits partisanship."
In the four contested state Supreme Court races this year, only Cobb and Democratic Place 2 candidate Gwendolyn Kennedy have signed the committee's campaign agreement, Gordon said. The committee soon will renew its request for all candidates to sign the agreement, he said.
"Our goal is to have people campaign in a way that upholds the dignity of the office they are seeking," Gordon said. "The judiciary is the most respected branch of government. If the judiciary wants to erode that respect, candidates can campaign like other elected officials. We don't want to see that happen."
More than 7,600 ads costing almost $2.7 million were aired during the Republican primary for state Supreme Court, according to the Brennan Center and Justice at Stake.
Nabers spent $655,000 on television ads, mostly touting his conservative credentials. The ATA spent more than $490,000 on ads attacking Parker and almost $229,000 praising Nabers, according to the Brennan Center and Justice at Stake.
"In my opinion, that was a coordinated campaign," said David Brown, a media consultant to Cobb's campaign. The ads ran when Nabers was trailing in the polls, Brown said.
"It allowed him to look moral, while they did his dirty work," he said. Ryan said that allegation is "100 percent false." He cited several statements by Nabers during the primary denying he had anything to do with the ATA ads and saying he found them disappointing.
"As in the primary, my pledge is to run a fair, honest campaign that fully complies with the Canons of Judicial Ethics," Nabers said Friday.
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Judicial Politics Run Amok (Editorial-New York Times)
September 19, 2006
Contests for important state judgeships around the country are getting nastier, more partisan and tons more expensive. Monied interests seeking to influence court decisions are spending lavishly to boost preferred candidates, much as they do in campaigns for regular political office. Today’s round of judicial elections in Washington State points to the seriousness of the problem and its threat to judicial integrity, independence and impartiality.
With three seats on the Washington State Supreme Court up for grabs, a record amount of money — some $2 million — has poured in to underwrite the contested races. Some of the television and radio attack ads against the incumbent chief justice, Gerry Alexander, were so unfair or misleading they would have seemed out of line even if the contests were for local alderman instead of a lofty position on the state’s highest court. The inevitable result: reinforced ties between would-be judges and their partisan supporters, and diminished public respect and confidence in judicial decision making no matter which candidates win today.
The problem is hardly isolated. Thirty-nine states still choose at least some judges by election, instead of some preferable form of nonelective merit selection system. Recent court decisions have loosened restrictions on judicial campaigning without taking adequate care to delineate reasonable ethical boundaries needed to preserve public trust and the courts’ special role as a neutral arbiter.
In 2004, spending on campaigns for state supreme courts rose to $42 million nationwide, up from $29 million just two years earlier. This year, spending in these contests is likely to spiral even higher, and pressure on candidates from interest groups seeking firm commitments, in writing, on controversial issues is likely to intensify.
Judges around the country are so concerned that the national Conference of Chief Justices, composed of top jurists from all 50 states, voted last month to start an initiative aimed at changing the deteriorating culture of judicial elections.
There is no perfect way to choose a judge. But to undermine the whole purpose of the court system by allowing special interests to buy judgeships, or at least try to, is the worst system of all.
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Local lawyers volunteer services to needy
By RENEE BUSBY
Staff Reporter, Mobile Press Register
Monday, September 11, 2006
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast a year ago, a group of area attorneys who volunteer their legal services were ready to help low-income residents who couldn't afford to hire an attorney.
But their volunteer work didn't begin or end there.
They are part of the Mobile Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Program, which has been assisting low income residents since 1989. A group of veteran attorneys who were members of the local bar association established the assistance program 17 years ago.
Today, about 650 attorneys volunteer their time with the program, which is about half the number of lawyers in Mobile.
"Basically, the Volunteer Lawyers Program is a strong, long-standing program that provides free legal services to low-income citizens of Mobile who have needs in certain civil cases," said Blakely H. Davis, the program's new executive director who just took over the job a week ago. "I have worked in the non-profit sector for so many years and the need for this program is overwhelming."
The program handled more than 1,500 cases in 2004.
Board president Henry A. Callaway III, a Mobile attorney, said a person's eligibility for the program depends on their income and the number of people in a household.
"This is all volunteer, lawyers who want to make sure the legal system is available to people who can't afford a lawyer," said Callaway.
"The cases are given out (to attorneys) on a rotating basis," he said. "We try to make sure every lawyer gets a case a year."
Davis said while lawyers come into the office two to three days a week, potential clients need to call the office and make an appointment.
Callaway said they handle a wide variety of civil cases that are not fee-generating types of cases. Their volunteer caseload, however, does not involve any criminal work, he said.
The cases range from family law cases like adoptions by agreements, probate work, guardianships or conservatorships and landlord/tenant disputes.
Immediately after Katrina, Callaway said the group's former executive director, lawyer Ann Stein, spent time in Federal Emergency Management Agency shelters volunteering her time giving free legal advice and handling cases.
"We have a fair amount of work coming out of Katrina with folks who were not getting their insurance to pay what they could for a new roof and so on," said Mobile attorney Hank Caddell, who participates in the volunteer program.
Caddell, who donated 80 volunteer hours in the past year, was named Alabama State Bar Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year this year for his volunteer work. He has been involved in the volunteer program since its inception.
"You feel like you're giving back and feel like you're making a better system," said Caddell, who has been practicing law since 1971. He has donated 232 hours in volunteer work since the program began.
"You get a personal satisfaction," said Caddell of the volunteer work. "If you're just helping people who need help, it just helps you feel better about your profession."
"It's very rewarding," Callaway said of the volunteer work he does with the program. "I feel good doing something to help someone do something they couldn't do for themselves.
"It makes me feel good as a lawyer."
Initially, the bar association called it the pro bono program, which meant "for the public good," said Caddell. "We got rid of that name because nobody knew what it was."
Caddell joked, "They thought it was Sonny (Bono) and Cher."
Caddell said some states mandate that lawyers do volunteer, or pro bono, work but Alabama is not one of those states.
"We were the first volunteer lawyers program in the state," said Callaway. "For a long time we were the biggest."
Callaway said they handle about 500 cases a year.
"We're trying to increase that," he said. "We're one of the smallest cities that I know of that has it's own stand-alone volunteer lawyers program.”
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Carrolton attorney to replace Colvin as Pickens judge
The Associated Press
September 15, 2006
Gov. Bob Riley has named Carrollton attorney W.O. "Buddy" Kirk Jr. as Pickens County district judge, replacing former District Judge Ira Colvin who resigned after he was arrested on drug charges in Mississippi.
Riley made the appointment Thursday, 42 years to the day Kirk became a member of the Alabama Bar Association. He will fill part of the remaining four years of Colvin's term. Colvin resigned his Aug. 14 arrest.
The first Republican judge in Pickens County, Kirk said he plans to run for the seat when it comes open in two years.
An election must be held in 2008 because Colvin had about four years left in his term. Kirk's appointment is effective immediately and he plans to take the oath of office Wednesday in the courtroom of the Pickens County Courthouse. Kirk, a graduate of the University of Alabama and its law school, is a mediator for the Alabama State Court system.
He served on the state Board of Bar Commissioners and the Alabama Law Review Board of Editors and is married, with two children and three grandchildren.
"I look forward to serving the people of Pickens County," he said.
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