Legal professions less lucrative for women
Boston Business Journal
September 19, 2008
Women working in legal professions can expect to earn less than their male counterparts, according to a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Women in legal occupations earn 51 percent of what men earn, according to the report, “Income, Earnings, and Poverty Data from the 2007 American Community Survey.”
The median salary for men in legal professions was $105,233, compared to the median salary of $53,790 for women, according to the census data.
Among the survey occupation groups, the legal occupation group has the lowest ratio of women’s earnings to men’s earnings.
The study also broke it down further to compare various types of legal jobs.
The median salary for male lawyers was $120,400, compared to the median salary of $93,600 for women, which means female lawyers earn 78 percent of what male lawyers earn.
The median salary for male judges, magistrates and other judicial workers was $108,100, compared to the median salary of $69,500 for women, according to the Census data.
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Follow the money - State Supreme Court campaign spending pleads for reform – [Editorial]
September 20, 2008
The figures for summer contributions to the two candidates seeking the open seat on the Alabama Supreme Court are in, and they are stunning. Or at least they would be in any place but this state, where high court races are the most expensive in the nation.
During the hot, sultry weather, fundraising by Republican Greg Shaw and Democrat Deborah Bell Paseur passed the $1.1 million mark. Who knows what the total will be by the time Nov. 4 - election day - arrives? It will certainly be substantially more.
For the record, most of Shaw's money comes from political action committees. And most of his PAC dollars come via a lobbyist for the Automobile Dealers Association of Alabama named Tom Dart. Dart runs several PACs, and they are pouring money into Shaw's campaign. Does that make you wonder whether Shaw, should he win, can rule objectively on any matters involving automobile dealers should he be elected?
Or maybe you'd rather worry about Paseur's contributors. A majority of them are women. So would she be inclined to lean one way if she won and a women's work place issue comes before the court?
Of course, the bigger question is this: How much longer are Alabamians going to put up with a judicial election system where candidates must bow and scrape for big money and certain groups pony up such huge amounts?
Think they are doing it out of reverence for the judicial system? Or do they expect a return on their investment?
Think there must be some way to pick people for the highest state court without tainting the process with so much money?
Some of the questions raised above may be debatable, but the last one is an easy call.
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Birmingham-based judges to help reduce case backlog in Madison County - Jeffco judges help tackle backlog
ERIC VELASCO, The Birmingham News
September 20, 2008
Birmingham-based judges in Jefferson County's civil and criminal courts will pitch in to help reduce the case backlog in Madison County, court officials said Friday.
At the request of Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, 10 civil court judges and five criminal county judges from the Birmingham division of the 10th Judicial Circuit will assist on cases from the 23rd Judicial Circuit in Huntsville.
"I think it's a great idea," said Circuit Judge Scott Vowell, presiding judge in Jefferson County. "They need more full-time judges but with the state's financial crunch, the state can't add them. This seems to be a reasonable alternative that will help move these cases along."
About 300 civil cases from Madison County were transferred last week to the Jefferson County judges, Vowell said.
The assisting civil court judges will conduct pretrial hearings from Birmingham via video conferencing and hold trials in Huntsville.
The criminal court judges from Birmingham will help with the pending docket, conducting all hearings and trials in Huntsville, Vowell said.
About 2,800 civil cases were filed and 2,600 were disposed in Madison County in the 2007 budget year, according to the latest available state statistics. Another 9,600 felony criminal cases were filed and 8,900 disposed in Madison County Circuit Court that year, according to state statistics.
The Birmingham division has the highest civil court caseload in the state, with more than 7,200 cases filed in the 2007 budget year, state statistics show. Nearly that many cases were disposed that year.
Another 7,100 felony criminal cases were filed in the Circuit Court in the Birmingham division that year, state statistics show. About 7,500 felony criminal cases were disposed, includes ones from prior years.
The Birmingham division civil caseload is relatively current, in part because expanding use of electronic filing has improved case management, Vowell said.
Tasks that took days or weeks now can be done almost instantly, he said. More than half of the civil cases in Jefferson County are filed electronically, the most in the state.
Population growth in Madison County has put pressure on its courts. The county's population has increased more than 10 percent since 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Civil case filings increased 9 percent in Madison County between the 2006 and 2007 budget years, while felony criminal cases increased 16 percent.
Efforts were unsuccessful Friday to reach Jane Smith, circuit clerk in Madison County. She is helping to coordinate the assistance program.
Jefferson County's judges may take on more work once the transferred civil cases are disposed, Vowell said.
"This is just the first wave," he said. "If this works as well as expected, we will get new assignments."
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Foreclosure not the end for homeowners
By Greg Phillips, Dothan Eagle
September 24, 2008
The housing advocacy director of Legal Services Alabama has a message for homeowners facing foreclosure—don’t give up.
According to Kenneth Lay, who spoke at the Houston County Bar Association meeting at the Dothan Country Club on Wednesday afternoon, many of the people facing foreclosure may be able to avoid losing their homes.
“Unfortunately, a lot of these situations arise because of a lack of income, and there’s nothing we can do if somebody lost their job or something like that, but we have found that because of political and now financial pressure, the mortgage companies and large banks are much more willing and even desperate to work things out,” said Lay, who represents Legal Services Alabama, a state and federally funded nonprofit organization.
“We’ve seen things where they have had 12 or 13 percent interest and dropped to 5 or 6 percent, added terms on the end of the loans, et cetera.”
Now, thanks to a federal grant, more people than ever before can seek help in solving their mortgage crises.
“We have a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to help owners before and to prevent foreclosure,” Lay said. “We have a foreclosure prevention grant to counsel people and try to help work out mortgage agreements. It allows us to provide counseling to any client, regardless of income, and we can be there to help negotiate with lenders and try to reach agreements.”
According to Lay, the problem of mass foreclosures in the housing market isn’t going away anytime soon, but Alabama residents are better off than most.
“At Legal Services, we’ve been overrun with foreclosure cases,” Lay said. “Alabama is actually lucky, though. For once, we’re not in the worst situation. We have averaged in foreclosure rates anywhere from 37th to 42nd, so we are much better off than the majority of the country. Georgia, for instance, is in the top five worst, because of the Atlanta area.”
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Law dean writes of regret over errors – Author stands by article's conclusions
By Susan Finch, New Orleans Times-Picayune
September 17, 2008
Tulane Law School's dean has apologized to the Louisiana Supreme Court for what he called "numerous errors" underlying a recent Tulane Law Review article about a study that showed a high correlation between lawyer and litigant campaign contributions to justices and decisions favoring the donors.
"Because of the miscalculation in the underlying data, the reliability of some or all of the authors' conclusions in the study as published has been called into question," Dean Lawrence Ponoroff said in a Sept. 10 letter to the court.
The article by Tulane comparative-law professor Vernon Palmer and Loyola University economics teacher John Levendis was based on their statistical analysis of how each of the high court's seven members voted between 1992 to 2006 on 181 cases involving their campaign donors.
The study found that campaign contributors before the court enjoyed a favored status.
The Supreme Court and its defenders blasted the study, claiming the professors' reliance on incorrect information and outdated methodology rendered its conclusions invalid.
But in a Tuesday interview, speaking for himself and not Tulane, Palmer blamed himself for the errors, including those he found himself and those pointed out by the Supreme Court.
Yet with all the mistakes now corrected, he said, the study's conclusions, broadly speaking, are the same.
Palmer said the corrected study data will be verified by an independent researcher and the revised study will probably be republished in a law review. He wasn't sure which one it would be.
Ponoroff's letter to the Supreme Court said that in light of a critique by two local lawyers of the Palmer-Levendis study, criticism the court put on its Web site, the professors "advised the Tulane Law Review that there were numerous errors in the recording of the data that formed the basis of their study."
"Although the authors contend that there is no consistent pattern insofar as these errors are concerned," a notice about the errors will be posted on the law review's Web site, and the same notice will go out with hard copies of the law review's next edition, Ponoroff told the court.
The letter also said that the law review's student editors could not have reasonably been expected to be aware of the errors and that Tulane officials "remain disappointed that the authors did not discover them until after the publication."
In the letter Ponoroff renewed the law school's offer to the court to serve as a public forum "for further discussions of the issues of judicial independence and the impact of campaign contributions and judicial elections on the court system in Louisiana and elsewhere."
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Candidates for spot on Alabama Supreme Court pledge to play nice in ad campaign
ERIC VELASCO, The Birmingham News
September 19, 2008
The two candidates for Alabama Supreme Court wield guns in their first political ads, but observers don't expect to see the kind of firefight this year that has marked past court races.
Alabama has a national reputation for political bloodletting in court campaigns.
But a gentler set of television ads should run this fall in the lone high court race, said members of the Judicial Campaign Oversight Committee, formed in cooperation with the Alabama State Bar.
The candidates, Deborah Bell Paseur and Greg Shaw, have signed the committee's pledge to play nice and act dignified in their campaigns.
Shaw, a Republican, and Paseur, a Democrat, say negative campaigning does not depict the image they want to project. But both say they will respond if attacked by their opponent or a third party.
Shaw and Paseur, who started running TV ads earlier this month, are expected to start pushing more aggressively to sway voters in the Nov. 4 election. Advertising will comprise the bulk of spending in the race.
Shaw's campaign declined to say where its ads are running. The second ad started running Wednesday.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law reported that Shaw's campaign has spent about $202,000 for more than 300 airings in six major markets Aug. 30 - Sept. 12, the latest figures available.
Paseur's first ad aired in the Huntsville market, began running in the Birmingham area a week ago, and premiered in the Montgomery market on Thursday, her campaign said.
She spent about $73,000 for nearly 160 airings through Sept. 12, reported the Brennan Center, which tracks judicial political ads nationwide.
Shaw's and Paseur's commercials focus on their backgrounds and don't mention their opponents.
It's a typical way to launch a political ad campaign, said Karen Cartee, a mass communications professor at the University of Alabama and author of books on campaign ads.
The first ones usually are biographical, then candidates run issue ads, she said. Next come character ads, attempts to make voters feel the candidate shares their values.
"Then they go negative," Cartee said.
The icon for ugly attacks in Alabama judicial races was aired in 1996 by Justice Kenneth Ingram's campaign. The ad compared his challenger, Harold See, to a skunk.
William R. Gordon, the campaign oversight committee co-chairman, said that approach is harmful.
"At a time when the public's confidence in the judicial system is at risk, negative judicial campaigns serve only to intensify the public's distrust," he said.
Attack ads - especially funny ones - can be effective in a statewide race like the Supreme Court, in which voters don't know much about the candidates, Cartee said.
"The skunk ad was funny," she said. "Undignified, but funny."
Humor aside, the skunk ad didn't work. See won the race.
J. Mark White, the Alabama State Bar president, said the backlash against judicial candidates using attack ads has become widespread.
"Going negative is now a sure ticket to losing a campaign," he said. "As an example one need only look at the 52 incumbent judges in Texas who recently lost election challenges after repeatedly attacking their opponents."
Cartee is not as convinced.
"Generally since the 1980s, negative ads are the ones that push the poll numbers," she said. "Positive ads only build name recognition."
Reliance on ads has helped make Alabama the most expensive state in the nation to run for the Supreme Court.
Since 1993, state high court candidates have raised a combined $55 million, almost twice the amount raised by candidates in the next most expensive state, Texas.
Alabama's $8.4 million chief justice campaign in 2006 was the most expensive nationally that year and the second most expensive in U.S. history, according Washington-based Justice at Stake, a national judicial watchdog group.
Taking aim at voters:
Paseur's introductory ad shows her aiming a gun while touting her support from the law enforcement community and the summers she spent working as a police officer while in law school.
The retired Lauderdale County District Court judge also took a page from the songbook of Sue Bell Cobb, whose ads in her successful 2006 run for chief justice featured the hymn, "This Little Light of Mine."
Paseur's ad opens with her mother, Jeanne Bell, singing "Amazing Grace." The singing swells to a full-blown chorus as the narrator talks about Paseur's credentials, professional background and her own experiences as a mother.
"Everybody loves mothers," Cartee said. "The use of `Amazing Grace' has wide appeal, especially to African-Americans and Protestants."
Shaw's two campaign ads so far stress his conservative values and work ethic.
One ad shows him sitting on the bench in his current job as a judge on the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and walking through the Supreme Court building where he was a staff attorney for 16 years.
Both ads show Shaw playing catch while talking about him as a family man.
"He's a fantastic dad," says Samantha Shaw, his wife who was elected in 2006 as state auditor. "And the boys think he's pretty cool, for a judge."
The first ad also shows Shaw firing a shotgun while a narrator says voters "can trust his Alabama values." It's designed to appeal to the common man, Cartee said.
"It's his way of saying, `I'm just like you; I go out and shoot on Saturdays when it's not an Alabama or Auburn game - and sometimes I even go on game days when I can't get tickets.'" she said. "It says `I'm a real man, not some effete lawyer.'"
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The race for the Alabama Supreme Court has reached $1.1 million in contributions
ERIC VELASCO, The Birmingham News
September 18, 2008
Political action committees have substantially underwritten Greg Shaw's campaign for Alabama Supreme Court, while hundreds of women contributed to Deborah Bell Paseur, campaign disclosure forms show.
The two candidates for an open seat on the state's highest court passed $1.1 million in combined fundraising since campaigning began. They have collectively spent $968,000.
Shaw, a Republican, reported raising nearly $468,000 in cash and other sources between June 7 and Sept. 4, according to his latest disclosure form, posted Wednesday. He also reported spending more than $440,000 in that period, 81 percent of which was for advertising.
Paseur, a Democrat, reported raising nearly $257,000 in cash and in-kind services between June 3 and Sept. 12, according to disclosure forms sent this week to the state Secretary of State's Office. She spent more than $282,000, 58 percent of which went for ads.
Both candidates filed ahead of Monday's deadline for reporting this summer's contributions and spending. It is the only Supreme Court race on the Nov. 4 ballot.
PACs gave $439,000 in cash and in-kind services during the current reporting period to Shaw, a judge on the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. PACs provided 94 percent of his intake since June.
Nearly half of that PAC money came from the Alabama Civil Justice Reform Committee, traditionally the largest contributor to Republican judicial candidates. It is run by Thomas Dart, a lobbyist for the Automobile Dealers Association of Alabama.
Three other PACs run by Dart - Lawsuit Reform, Pro Business and Automobile Dealers Association - contributed a total of $75,000 to Shaw. Dart's PACs provided 62 percent of Shaw's contributions this summer, disclosure forms show.
Shaw has collected nearly $600,000 in cash, in-kind and other sources since his campaign began, 95 percent from PACs. Total spending for his entire campaign is just above $519,000.
Half of the contributors to Paseur's campaign this summer were women, her disclosure forms show. When couples are included, the number is above 61 percent.
Individual contributors provided nearly $206,000 since June to the retired Lauderdale County District Court judge, almost 85 percent of her total money in that period.
Less than 15 percent of Paseur's contributions came from PACs. Of the $37,000 she received from political action committees, $25,000 came from the state Democratic Party Executive Committee.
Paseur has received nearly $538,000 in cash and in-kind contributions since her campaign began. Women dominate the overall contributor list. Less than 11 percent of her money has come from PACs.
Paseur's total spending since her campaign started is almost $449,000.
In Alabama, the most expensive state in the nation to run for Supreme Court, million-dollar judicial campaigns are routine. The $7.7 million race for chief justice in 2006 was the second-most expensive judicial campaign in U.S. history.
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A state of unequal justice – [Op-ed]
By STEPHEN STETSON, The Huntsville Times
September 14, 2008
He's not a lawyer, but he shills for one on TV. The Associated Press recently reported that television ads for an Alabama attorney may soon be banned by the Alabama Bar Association. The otherwise unremarkable lawyer commercials feature William Shatner, Captain Kirk of "Star Trek" fame, who now plays an attorney on "Boston Legal."
The Alabama Bar Association has evidently decided that the image of Shatner promoting an Alabama lawyer is cheapening the legal profession. Mark White, the head of the association, told the AP that a new rule banning the use of actors in lawyer commercials would help to maintain the professionalism of attorney advertising.
The controversy over paid thespians in lawyer ads has involved charges of crass commercialism and exploitation of vulnerable low-income Alabamians. But where is the outrage over the real scandal in legal representation for the poor?
Alabama ranks fifth nationally in the percentage of its population that resides behind bars. Many of the incarcerated are among Alabama's poorest citizens, people unable to hire the attorneys who clog the airwaves with clever commercials.
Federal law requires the states to provide attorneys for the poor, but it doesn't specify how. This basic protection was firmly established in a 45-year-old Supreme Court case called Gideon vs. Wainwright. Henry Fonda starred in a movie about the landmark case, which held that the Sixth Amendment establishes a right to counsel for criminal defendants.
In the years since that vital decision, there has been no national uniformity about the procedure for providing lawyers for those unable to afford them. Alabama essentially sets the bar as low as possible.
Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights has been one of the leading voices in the national dialogue about indigent defense. He is a passionate advocate of the public defender system, in which the government hires full-time attorneys to handle the cases of the indigent accused. Most jurisdictions use this approach for ensuring that even the least wealthy are afforded their basic right to counsel.
However, virtually every county in Alabama uses the appointment system, in which judges select lawyers from a list and assign them to indigent defendants. Some of the lawyers on the lists have considerable criminal justice experience. Others are relatively green or specialize in areas other than criminal defense. It is unconscionable that a defendant facing serious criminal charges can get stuck with a tax or real estate lawyer.
Worse, appointed lawyers may take on clients begrudgingly, setting aside potentially lucrative work to defend often unpopular clients at rates capped by the state.
Sue Bell Cobb, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, seems to agree with the problems with Alabama's appointment system. She has been a leading voice in pushing for reforms, including oversight for indigent defense. Alabama is one of only a handful of states with no such supervision.
More than just a supervisory commission is required. Alabama needs the kind of reliable public defender system that other states employ. Dedicated attorneys in each jurisdiction would provide valuable expertise to those facing serious criminal charges.
This is the surest way to meet the constitutional requirements of Gideon. It is wrong to deny someone a strong defense, including competent investigation and research, simply because they are unable to hire one of the attorneys advertising on television.
There may be hostility to creating a public defender system in Alabama. Some attorneys have gotten accustomed to the steady if minimal fees that come from being on the appointment list. They will likely oppose creating a system of criminal defense professionals to handle the cases of the poor. There may also be some anxiety over the catastrophe in Georgia, where a recently created defender system is now teetering on collapse because of funding problems.
However, those interested in fairness for the poor should not be deterred. A well-crafted system could avoid many of the problems plaguing Georgia. Such a system should also appeal to the pragmatists unpersuaded by the moral and constitutional arguments. Indigent defense has been calculated to cost Alabama as much as $70 million this year.
Tax dollars could be better spent by developing a public defender system staffed by expert criminal defense attorneys who could handle large caseloads and give taxpayers a better deal.
It is astounding that after all of our national and state progress toward equality, the public is willing to accept two separate and unequal systems of criminal defense. Alabama may soon stop cheesy actors from representing local lawyers on television. When will we do something about the state's lousy performance in indigent defense?
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The Tort Bar's Comeback – [Editorial]
The Wall Street Journal
September 16, 2008
As voters mull the stakes in this year's election, here's an issue that ought to ring alarms in the ears of serious people: tort reform. After 20 years of state and federal efforts to reform a runaway legal system, the trial bar is reviving the monster.
At the federal level, lawyers and law firms invested in 2006 more than $85 million to get pro-lawsuit Democrats elected. Congress's new leadership has begun a political repayment plan -- packing legislation with provisions to increase the number and size of lawsuits. So far, this effort has been largely stymied by President Bush's veto threat.
The tort bar sees 2008 as the real prize; it has already thrown $107 million toward increasing Democratic majorities.
The trial barons are making more progress at the state level, as described in a report by the American Tort Reform Association. States had been making progress: New laws cleaned up venue requirements, reformed punitive and non-economic damages, and enacted medical malpractice reform. So-called "judicial hellholes" like Texas and Mississippi have seen insurers return and premiums fall.
The trial bar is fighting back, with success. In last year's legislative session, Michigan lawmakers proposed repealing safeguards for prescription drug providers; Maryland legislators wanted to revoke medical liability reforms; and Florida's legislature entertained the nullification of its joint and several liability reforms. The trial bar's big coup was in Colorado, where Democratic Governor Bill Ritter signed a law increasing previous limits on non-economic damages.
Lawyers have also been laboring to create opportunities for more lawsuits, more money and more time to sue. Last year, Alabama saw legislation that would allow a tort claim to continue even after a plaintiff had died, while California proposed authorizing lawsuits for any violation of privacy. New Mexico and New Jersey passed laws authorizing citizens to file "false claims" suits on behalf of the state -- in effect turning private individuals into state bounty hunters.
Four states -- Colorado, Washington, Illinois and Texas -- considered proposals to increase the size of awards plaintiffs could claim, and with it attorneys' contingency fees. The tort bar pushed bills across the country to expand "consumer protection" damages and in at least three states to allow plaintiffs to claim damages for "emotional harm" when their pets are injured. In Maryland and Oregon, lawyers successfully shepherded new laws to extend the time in which plaintiffs could file lawsuits.
Plenty of legislatures remain wary of walking back down the highway of ruinous lawsuits, while many Governors say they'll veto this legislation. Still, the lawsuit industry is counting on discontent this fall to help flip a few more legislatures and governorships to pro-tort majorities, laying the groundwork for their proposals to become law. Tort reformers will have to push back.
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Contract indigent defense system saving money
By Jim Cook, The Dothan Eagle
September 13, 2008
The cost of justice in Houston County remains affordable for the underprivileged who face criminal charges after county officials revamped the legal defense system nearly five years ago.
Anyone charged with a crime has a right to an attorney to defend them in court. If the criminally charged can not afford a lawyer, they can be declared indigent, and the court will appoint them a lawyer.
Costs for that defense skyrocketed in Houston County under the old system, which was partially overhauled in 2004.
The county changed its indigent defense system from court appointed lawyers for specific cases to awarding attorneys contracts to work indigent cases for specific judges. In each of the last three years the new system saved nearly $1 million compared to the previous system, which paid the lawyer an hourly rate.
“The contract system works extremely well,” said Circuit Court Judge Lawson Little, the circuit’s presiding judge. “We’ve saved the tax payers a lot of money in my opinion.”
In the last two years of the appointed system indigent defense fees accumulated to more than $2.2 and $2.3 million for 2003 and 2004. In 2004, about $800,000 of the costs came from the Fair Trial Tax Fund, which comes from the court costs and fines charged to the defendant. The remaining $1.5 million was picked up by the Alabama general fund, according to the state Comptroller’s Office. In 2007, indigent defense only added up to about $1.5 million, which included about $800,000 from the general fund, a large decrease from the old system.
But dipping into the state’s general fund isn’t unusual. David Sawyer, an attorney with the state Administrative Office of Courts (AOC) said some state officials have previously submitted legislation to form a state-wide indigent defense commission.
Sawyer said judicial districts across the state use a three-prong system for indigent defense from appointed counsel, to contract systems to a separate public defender’s office. He said 11 counties across the state primarily use the contract system, while at least three judicial districts use a public defender’s office.
Contract vs Appointed
Overall, Houston County has 18 lawyers under contract. Circuit judges have two lawyers under contract to handle all indigent cases and they are paid $66,000 annually. District judges have one contract lawyer and are paid $40,000 annually. Eight lawyers do contract work for juvenile cases and are paid $30,000 annually.
Little said a five-member county indigent defense commission chose the contract lawyers after taking recommendations from each judge. Former presiding circuit court judge Larry Anderson made the original appointments to the commission.Any changes to the commission would be determined by the current presiding circuit court judge.
Most of the county’s indigent defense services are handled on a contract basis, unless there is conflict of interest in a case or it’s a capital murder case.
In those cases the court will appoint lawyers to serve as counsel, and in a capital case the defendant gets two lawyers.
While contract lawyers earn a flat monthly rate, an appointed lawyer earns an hourly rate of $60 while in court and $40 for defense outside the courtroom. An appointed lawyer is also allowed $25 an hour for overhead and office costs. Henry County, which is inside the same circuit as Houston County, uses the appointed counsel system.
Little said the contract system has helped move cases more quickly. He called the county’s criminal case load “pretty manageable,” especially with a new circuit judge starting in January 2009.
He said it would likely cost twice as much to start and run a public defender’s office for Houston County.
Eric Davis, who has served as a contract lawyer for Anderson since it started in 2004, agreed with Little. “It’s kind of hard to compare county to county because everybody does it differently,” said Davis, who also previously served as an assistant district attorney. “If we had a public defender’s office it would have to be funded like the DA’s Office.”
Davis said the cost to the defendant would likely increase six to 10 times if they attempted to retain counsel.
“By having a contract I don’t feel pressured to take every case that walks in the door,” Davis said. “I think it works well in Houston County. I’m not sure one system is going to fit every one (judicial circuit).“
Tom Brantley, a Dothan criminal defense lawyer, said indigent defendants get their money’s worth. Brantley said a county public defender’s office would need an office at the courthouse and regular full-time employees that require a salary.
“I really think the contract system is the most cost effective for the tax payers,” Brantley said. “The contract system is the best system available. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best.”
Daniel Johnson, chairman of the Houston County Bar Association, said the indigent defense system in Houston County improved since it switched to the contract system.
“The same lawyers handling the same type of cases day in and day out are going to get more experience,” Johnson said.“An accused person here in Houston County can rest assured their lawyer will likely have handled a similar type case previously.”
A defendant declared indigent automatically has to repay the cost of their defense, and Little said that cost varies on the type of conviction. He said a defendant convicted of a class A felony such as murder or armed robbery would be ordered to pay $1,000, for a class B felony the bill would come to $750 and a class C felony such as third-degree burglary would cost $500.
The court periodically holds show cause hearings in an effort to collect overdo fines and court costs from convicted defendants already released from prison or on probation.
“We try to recoup as much of the costs as we can,” Little said. “The reality of it is if they go to prison for a long period of time we’re not going to get the money. If we can get the basic court costs then we’ve done pretty good in my opinion.”
Public Defender’s Office
At least three other counties have a public defender’s office, including Tuscaloosa, Shelby and Escambia. But Escambia’s office serves on a part-time basis. Sawyer said Shelby county uses all three methods to provide services for indigent defense.
The Tuscaloosa County Public Defender Robert Woolridge said the lawyers within a public defender’s office only work indigent defense cases without distraction from other cases. He said his office with 11 lawyers handles about 75 percent of the indigent defense load for the county.
“I think the public defender’s system is the model throughout the country for indigent defense. Unfortunately Alabama doesn’t follow the model,” Woolridge said. “It provides a level of expertise, and a level of efficiency.”
The rest of the country doesn’t use the public defender’s office system, but neighboring Florida does. Florida’s system is vastly different to Alabama indigent defense system because Florida also elects a public defender along with a district attorney for each judicial district.
Public Defender Herman Laramore, who’s jurisdiction stretches across seven Florida counties including Jackson County, called Florida’s system one of the most progressive in the country.
“My lawyers become experts in criminal law because that’s all they do is criminal law,” said Laramore, who has more than 20 regular lawyers. “They’re in the court room everyday.”
Wills for Heroes to provide free legal services to first responders
Beverly Harvey, Opelika-Auburn News
September 8, 2008
The Alabama State Bar Volunteer Lawyers Program’s “Wills for Heroes” project has enlisted volunteer, local attorneys to provide free legal services for first responders in Lee County.
The clinic will be held in two sessions Sept. 15 and 16 — from 8:30 to 11:45 a.m. and from 1:30 to 4:45 p.m. — at the East Alabama Medical Center Health Resource Center, 2027 Pepperell Parkway in Opelika.
Wills for Heroes is open to all first responders in Lee County, which include police officers, sheriff’s deputies, state troopers, paramedics, city and volunteer firefighters and emergency management agency personnel.
First responders whose net worth is less than $600,000 can choose to have up to three legal documents drafted at no cost — simple wills, advance healthcare directives and powers of attorney.
Typically, it costs about $1,000 to have all three documents prepared by a lawyer, according to Wills for Heroes Alabama program coordinator and healthcare attorney John Little. Each client will fill out a questionnaire, which can be downloaded at http://www.alabar.org.
An attorney will review the questionnaire at the clinic and enter the information into a computer program. The process will take up to an hour for each client, Little said. All volunteer attorneys are members of the Lee County Bar Association.
This is the first time the pro bono clinic has been offered in Lee County and the first time the program has used an online registration system, Little said.
Clinic participants must register online through an employer representative by Friday. If time slots are available, the program will take some walk-in clients, Little said.
“We’re hoping to have approximately 100 clients,” Little said.
The Wills for Heroes program was created four years ago by a South Carolina attorney as a response to the Sept. 11 tragedy.
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States Seek To Slow Judicial Election 'Arms Races'
By Evan Weinberger, Law360.com
September 8, 2008
In early 2008, Wisconsin voters were bombarded with nearly 12,000 campaign commercials, many of them negative, according to campaign watchdog group Factcheck.org. Another group, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, has revealed that the entire ad campaign cost $6 million, with around $4.8 million put out by outside interest groups.
Both election observers agreed that normally that kind of money would be pumped into a statewide political election. But in 2008, that was the spending for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, an election that saw a challenger oust an incumbent for the first time in nearly 40 years.
The campaign spending in this year's Supreme Court election, as well as in 2007, broke records and raised concerns about the state of judicial elections in Wisconsin. “Our last two elections have been a real wakeup call for the people of Wisconsin,” said Michael McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
It's not just in Wisconsin where the method for selecting judges — and the money that is increasingly being devoted to judicial campaigns — has come under increased scrutiny. States around the country are looking at ways to curb spending in judicial races, with suggestions ranging from merit selection of judges to hybrid merit selection and retention election systems, from public financing to stricter financial disclosure rules for outside groups.
The danger, according to James Sample, an expert on state judicial elections at the Brennan Center for Justice, is that people will lose faith in the judicial system. “There is a pervasive impression that judicial impartiality is being undermined,” he said, citing polling from earlier this decade.
According to a 2002 poll by the firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research Inc., 76 percent of voters and 26 percent of judges felt that campaign contributions had an effect on judges' rulings.
Alabama is one such state where spending on judicial elections has grown rapidly, and hurt the reputation of the judiciary.
“I don't think the judiciary is up for sale in Alabama, but when you have groups raising millions of dollars for candidates, I don't think it's unrealistic for the man on the street to think that,” said retired Judge Bill Gordon, the co-chair of the Alabama Judicial Campaign Oversight Committee.
Gordon said that the Alabama judiciary received its wakeup call in 1996 when one candidate for the state supreme court ran a commercial calling his opponent a skunk. Since then, the Judicial Campaign Oversight Committee has provided confidential advice to candidates on how to run campaigns, in Judge Gordon's words, that bring “dignity to the office they are seeking.”
That includes a non-binding pledge to run an ethical campaign, Judge Gordon said.
There is evidence that a focus on ethical campaigning may be having an effect in Alabama. “Last election cycle, if you went negative, it pretty well correlated to 'you lost,'” said J. Mark White, a Birmingham, Ala., attorney and co-chair of the National Committee on Judicial Campaign Conduct of the National Center for State Courts.
While Alabama campaigns have been hot, Wisconsin's campaigns have become the center of much attention because of the amount of money and the level of partisan rancor that have gone into them.
According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, for every $1 the 2008 candidates — challenger Michael Gableman and then-incumbent Justice Louis Butler — spent prior to the April 1 election, outside interest groups spent $4. Of that spending, the largest chunk came from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state's largest business group and big Republican backer, which dropped $1.8 million on the race, mostly on ads that supported Gableman or taking down Butler.
The Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's largest teachers union and major Democratic donor, spent nearly $350,000 in support of Butler, often on misleading ads about Gableman.
Both the WMC and the Education Association were forced to disclose their spending, McCabe said, because of campaign finance rules.
What was more troubling, he added, were three “issue-oriented” groups which spent a combined $2.5 million. Because the groups — two supporting Gableman and one supporting Butler — did not explicitly support one candidate or party, they fell outside the lines of campaign finance laws and did not have to make detailed disclosure reports, McCabe said.
The result was a campaign that redefined dirty for Wisconsin judicial elections, McCabe said. One ad, run by the Education Association, alleged that Gableman handed out lenient sentences to child sex offenders.
A conservative outside issues group, the Coalition for America's Families, alleged that Butler overturned a murder conviction where there was overwhelming evidence of guilt. In reality, Butler overturned the ruling because new DNA evidence had emerged that undercut the prosecution's case, Factcheck.org said.
But the coup de grace came from Gableman's own campaign. In an ad reminiscent of the infamous 1988 Willie Horton commercial that George H.W. Bush levied against Michael Dukakis, a photo of Butler, Wisconsin's first African-American supreme court justice, was shown next to the mug shot of a convicted rapist who was also black.
The commercial gave the impression that Butler let the convicted rapist out of jail early, allowing him to commit another crime. In reality, the rapist's sentence was complete when he left prison, the watchdog group said.
“It was highly misleading about the nature of the work of the supreme court,” McCabe said, noting that most ads run during the election cycle focused on crime and punishment issues even though the state supreme court does not sentence criminals.
Overall, attack ads predominated by a wide margin, according to Factcheck.org, with 7,273 negative versus 4,689 that were all or mostly positive. And it was the winner's side that slung the most mud, by far.
McCabe said that the winner of a 2007 supreme court election that previously held the title of the most expensive campaign in the state's history has had to recuse herself from more cases than the rest of the court combined. “Confidence in the court has been eroded,” he said.
In Wisconsin, the WDC and the state's supreme court are pushing for public financing of judicial campaigns. McCabe said that a public financing bill, the Impartial Justice Bill, is in the state's legislature.
All seven of Wisconsin's supreme court justices signed a letter supporting public financing in 2007, prior to this year's election.
McCabe said that the state needs to update its financial disclosure rules. Wisconsin's Government Accountability Board will meet at the beginning of October to discuss new rules for special interest advertisements, he said.
One state that has public financing for judicial elections is North Carolina. In 2002, the state set up a system where judicial candidates had to raise between $10 and $500 from at least 350 registered voters to become eligible for state financing of their campaigns.
“Candidates are running now without having to worry about who's coming before them,” said Damon Circosta, director of policy at the North Carolina Center for Voter Education.
The voluntary public financing program has become so popular, Circosta said, that three state-level political offices — the insurance commissioner, auditor and superintendent of public construction — work under the same system, with the legislature looking at adopting the program for other statewide and legislative offices.
But the goal for reformers in North Carolina and several other states is merit selection, where impartial panels of lawyers and laypeople recommend judicial candidates to legislators and governors, said Associate Justice Mark D. Martin of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Justice Martin is also the co-chair of the American Bar Association's Presidential Commission on Fair and Impartial State Courts.
That, according to Dan Pero, the president of the American Justice Partnership, is a bridge too far.
Pero said that he does not support allowing a small group of people, especially a small group of trial lawyers, choosing judges. Merit selection, he said, would prevent judges from being held accountable by voters.
Campaign contributions flow to judicial candidates because of their philosophies, Pero said, not because of businesses or other interest groups who may have business before a particular judge. Public financing, he said, won't be able to stop outside expenditures.
If voters don't like the rulings or advertising a judicial candidate puts forward, those voters should be free to elect someone new to the seat, he said.
“Let the candidates be candidates,” Pero said.
McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign said that his group, and other reformers in the state, are not pushing for merit selections of judges. “Clearly, our elections have become poisoned,” he said. “But if you have poisoned elections, you should focus on getting rid of the poison, not get rid of the elections.”
Alabama is also looking at various proposals to allow nonpartisan judicial elections and merit selections of judges, Judge Gordon said. Public financing is not currently on the table.
According to the ABA, 21 states choose their appellate and general jurisdiction courts through partisan and nonpartisan elections. In 15 states and the District of Columbia, the ABA reported, judges are chosen through nonpartisan nominating commissions while in five more the governor or state legislature appoint judges.
Missouri and eight other states use a hybrid model, where judges are originally recommended by a nonpartisan commission or elected officials, appointed by the governor and then stand for re-election when their terms expire. The Show-Me state was the first to adopt such a plan more than 40 years ago.
Currently, St. Louis and Kansas City, the two largest cities in Missouri employ the Missouri Plan. Greene County, where Springfield, the state's third-largest city, sits, will vote on adopting the plan later this year.
But the Missouri Plan has recently come under fire. Last year, the plan narrowly survived a challenge in the state legislature. Thomas M. Walsh of the group Better Courts for Missouri, which opposes the Missouri Plan, said that opponents would take up the banner again at the next opportunity.
Without some sort of changes, the money spent on judicial elections will only increase, reform advocates say.
“When it comes to state judicial elections, it really has become an arms race,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of the Justice at Stake Campaign, an umbrella group advocating tighter controls on campaign spending in judicial elections.
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Longtime coach tries to set good example: Teams coached by Billy C. Bedsole have won 28 Mobile Youth Football Conference championships over the years
By JO ANNE McKNIGHT, Mobile Press-Register
September 2, 2008
"I enjoy coaching young kids," said Billy C. Bedsole about the many years he's spent doing just that at Langan Municipal Park.
"I try to set a positive image, encourage them to do their best, study hard and stay away from drugs and alcohol."
The young athletes learn about winning, too: In the nearly 40 years that Bedsole has been a football and basketball coach for various age groups of boys at the park, he has achieved a record of 378-20-1 in football and 110-8 in basketball.
The city of Mobile has selected Bedsole as Coach of the Year eight times, and his teams have won 28 Mobile Youth Football Conference championships and 10 city and state basketball titles.
Bedsole said that he likes to begin with a team of 5-year-old Municipal Park Raiders and stay with that team until the youngsters graduate from the program. The team he's working with now is made up of 8-year-olds.
"I started out coaching my son Rusty's team and just kept at it for 38 years," he said. He has coached, in some cases, three generations of players, he said.
At 68, Billy Bedsole has set many records and held several elected offices in youth baseball, football and basketball associations.
He has had a day dedicated to him — Dec. 11, 2001, was declared Billy Bedsole Day by the city of Mobile.
And in March 2002, in recognition of his years of service to youth, the street leading to the park's athletic fields was officially named "Billy Bedsole Run."
The 1963 University of Alabama law school graduate has been practicing law in Mobile since 1963. "Civil litigation, no criminal cases," he said.
He has been elected by his constituents and has served for the past 12 years as Bar Commissioner from the 13th Judicial Circuit (Mobile County).
He has been married to his wife, Mamie, for 47 years and has two children and five grandchildren.
He visits his 89-year-old mother, Lucille, each morning and takes her to church on Sunday.
A member of Spring Hill Baptist Church since 1968, he has taught Sunday school for 25 years. He was ordained a deacon in 1976 and serves as vice chairman of the deacons at the church.
An avid runner who knocks out six miles every Monday through Friday at lunchtime, Bedsole has participated in 5K and 10K runs for the last 40 years.
Coaching consumes a lot of his spare time, Bedsole said, noting that during football season, the players practice three evenings a week and play their games on Saturday mornings.
Bedsole also likes to work in his yard. But the hobby that he truly loves is raising tropical fish.
He built a special "fish room" onto the rear of his house and has about 5,000 colorful swimmers from South Africa in the tanks that range from 10- to 200-gallon capacity.
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W.Va. lawmakers eye new ways to pick judges
By The Associated Press
September 8, 2008
BRIDGEPORT - West Virginia may be hard-pressed to remove politics and the appearance of conflicts of interest from the ranks of its judiciary.
That's the view from a panel of legal experts assembled by the Legislature as it studies whether to stick with electing judges and justices along party lines.
West Virginia University political science professor Richard Brisbin offered an overview of the various methods tried by the states. Some states have adopted nonpartisan elections, while others rely on the governor, legislators or special commissions to nominate or appoint their judiciary.
But each has its politics, Brisbin said. Appointment systems, for instance, appear to favor candidates with political connections and insider status, he said. Polling, meanwhile, continues to show public support for elections, Brisbin noted.
The joint interim subcommittee assigned the topic also heard that some studies show that states end up with the same kind of judges regardless of which system the adopt.
"Judicial selection methods do not seem to play a great role,'' said Chris Bonneau, a political science professor from the University of Pittsburgh. "All the information we have is that the characteristics do not vary very much among the different selection methods.''
But another panelist cited his research suggests a link between partisan judicial elections and the size of certain jury awards and settlements.
Alex Tabarrok, an economics professor at George Mason University, helped review more than 75,000 damage awards from across the country. The 2002 study found that for cases involving in-state plaintiffs and out-of-state defendants, the awards were 42 percent higher in states with partisan elections versus those with nonpartisan elections
Tabarrok, who oversees one free market-oriented think tank at George Mason and directs research at another in California, cited the control judges have over evidence, witnesses and other elements of civil cases. But Bonneau said that research also has yet to demonstrate that judges are influenced by the donors who help elect them, in states with that method.
"We have anecdotes, but we don't have any empirical evidence that a judge is voting the way he or she is in a case because of campaign contributions, he said. "There is no actual evidence that judges are being bought.''
Political science professor Aman McLeod of Rutgers University said the signs of influence may be subtle, and hard to detect.
"Judges are not just machines, that you just put money in them and they vote your way,'' McLeod said. "Some people say it is a factor, other people say there isn't enough evidence to show that.''
Conflicts of interests suggested by campaign cash have become an issue in West Virginia. The U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to review an April ruling by the state's Supreme Court that erased a $76 million judgment against Massey Energy Co. Harman Mining and its president, who had won that judgment at trial, cite the more than $3 million spent by Massey's chief executive, Don Blankenship, to elect Justice Brent Benjamin to the state high court in 2004.
Benjamin helped form the 3-2 majority that reversed the Harman verdict. He had rebuffed repeated requests for his recusal in the case, and has cited multimillion-dollar cases in which he sided against Massey. But the American Bar Association, Public Citizen and other groups have joined in urging the U.S. Supreme Court to accept the appeal. The New York Times echoed those calls in an editorial Sunday.
Sunday's interim meeting also heard from Judge Wanda Bryant, of the North Carolina Court of Appeals. She touted her state's route of removing party labels from all judicial races and offering public financing to appeals court candidates.
The latter removed the pressure of "dialing for dollars,'' Bryant said, if the candidate had raised at least $10 apiece from at least 350 state voters during the primary. She added that many such donors choose the minimum.
"These aren't people who are trying to influence you as a judge,'' she said. "They believe you are qualified to serve on the bench, and want you to continue there.''
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New way to choose judges needed – Editorial
The Montgomery Advertiser
September 2, 2008
It may seem strange to have a candidate for judicial office saying publicly that electing judges is a lousy way for a state to choose its judiciary.
But regardless of the irony of that message coming from an active judicial candidate, it is one that the citizenry of Alabama should heed.
Deborah Bell Paseur, a Democrat who is running for the Alabama Supreme Court, said recently that she favors a merit selection process to appoint judges and then allowing voters to decide if they should be retained in office.
The current partisan election of judges, which has resulted in judicial candidates having to raise millions of dollars in campaign donations, has contributed to perception among the public that justice is for sale, Paseur said.
"Begging for votes and soliciting money is demeaning to the institution of the judiciary," she said in an article in the Birmingham News.
It is not unusual for lawyers, even many sitting judges, to admit that the state's current selection process in which candidates run for judicial office under party labels is a bad one. What is unusual is to have a judicial candidate in the midst of a campaign to say it publicly. Paseur is running against Republican Greg Shaw, a judge on the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, in the Nov. 4 election.
For the past several years, Alabama has led the nation in the amount of money spent by judicial candidates in their campaigns. That forces judicial candidates to go hat in hand to large campaign donors to seek the financing necessary to run. That not only demeans the office of the judiciary, it undermines public confidence that judges are independent.
It also contributes to having some of the most bitter political campaigns in the nation.
Over the years, the Montgomery Advertiser's editorial board has asked dozens of judicial candidates if they are affected by these large campaign donations. Almost invariably, each candidate says that he or she can set aside those donations in his or her mind and rule fairly on issues involving the donors.
But asked another way, not about each of them specifically but about judges in general, and many of them admit that it is a problem for some judges.
And we know that donors argue that they aren't really trying to influence decisions when they make five-figure contributions to a judicial candidate.
But who really believes that any human being who has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from one side or the other can completely set aside that fact when considering an issue?
Alabamians have elected judges for so long that many of them might feel it's really the only way to do it. But most states now choose judges in some other fashion. Alabama is one of only six states that still have unfettered, partisan elections for judgeships. Some states hold nonpartisan elections, which would be an improvement but still would not address the unhealthy effect of huge campaign donations on the process.
The Alabama State Bar -- hardly a radical group -- has been proposing for years some form of merit selection for judges. The state's voters still would hold judges accountable because they would face retention elections on a regular basis. Under one proposal, the record of the judge would be evaluated by an evaluation commission, and that evaluation would be open to the public. The public then would vote in a retention election on whether the judge would serve another term.
There are several variations on the merit selection theme being used by other states, but virtually any of them would be a major improvement on the nasty, costly and demeaning way Alabama now chooses its judiciary.
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Be ready when disaster strikes
By J. MARK WHITE
August 31, 2008
The howling winds of a tornado or hurricane, the relentless rise of flood waters or the wind-driven roar of a wildfire can change our lives in an instant.
In Alabama, we have witnessed firsthand the destructive power of these natural disasters. Most of usknow that a man-made or weather-related disaster can strike at any time, yet most of us have put off making plans with our families on how to cope with a disaster or how to rebuild our lives afterwards.
While none of us can be sure how we will behave in a disaster, or how much time we will have, we can plan, prepare and practice.
Planning means deciding how you and your family will get out of your home and where you will meet if you are not together. It means putting together and stocking an emergency supply kit and it means talking about these preparations with family members. It also means having copies of important documents and records ready to take with you.
Here are some tips from the Alabama State Bar on which documents to take and how to prepare them:
Make copies of all important documents, including birth certificates, marriage licenses, divorce decrees, vehicle titles, adoption records, deeds, mortgages, insurance policies, health insurance, medical information, prescriptions, Social Security cards, passports, recent drivers' licenses, identification cards, wills, investment information, retirement account information, bank account numbers and passwords.
Create an inventory of your possessions. List furnishings, electronics, jewelry, clothing, toys and other items. Take digital photos or video whenever possible, and you may wish to copy this information to a USB drive.
Gather all documents, inventories, photos and USB drives together and make two copies of each. Keep one set of copies in a secure location away from your home; it can be the home of a family member in another community or in a safe deposit box at your bank. Put another copy in a protective covering such as a plastic sleeve or in a waterproof storage container. Keep this near your emergency supplies so you easily can take it with you.
Take your document copies along with your emergency supplies when you need to evacuate.
Planning, preparation and practice will not make your life disaster-proof, but this will help make your life disaster-ready.
J. Mark White is president of the Alabama State Bar and a founding partner of the Birmingham law firm of White Arnold & Dowd, P.C. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Rants & Raves
The Montgomery Advertiser
August 30, 2008
RAVE: For retired Justice Hugh Maddox of the Alabama Supreme Court, winner of the Sherman E. Christensen Award from the American Inns of Court. The award honors Maddox's efforts to increase professionalism in the legal field. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito will preside at the Oct. 11 presentation. Maddox served 31 years on the state's highest court.
RANT: For the groundless gripe that a proposed rule change from the State Board of Bar Commissioners violates free speech rights. The board has asked the state Supreme Court to approve new advertising rules, one of which would prohibit the use of paid actors and testimonials. That would bump "Star Trek" and "Boston Legal" actor William Shatner from those TV commercials for Auburn lawyer Mike Slocumb. Slocumb says that would violate his First Amendment rights. Please.
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The heart of indigent defense - Judge looking to unify method of representing poor defendants
By Dennis Sherer, TimesDaily
August 20, 2008
We hear Miranda rights quoted so often on prime-time television dramas that most of us could recite it, in part, by heart: "... If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you ..."
But providing legal representation to indigent defendants is not a uniform system across the state of Alabama, something at least one state judge and representative would like to rectify. In Lauderdale and Franklin counties, judges appoint attorneys to represent indigent criminal defendants from a pool of lawyers who have volunteered for the duty. In Colbert County, a team of six attorneys handles cases for people who cannot afford to hire a lawyer.
Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb worries that what she calls a hodgepodge of methods for representing the poor prevent some defendants from receiving adequate legal representation. She also has concerns about the amount of money some attorneys collect for representing indigent clients and would like the state to create an oversight committee to look out for the interests of poor defendants and state taxpayers.
"I want to make sure poor defendants are getting a good solid criminal defense and that Alabama's tax dollars are being spent wisely," Cobb said.
Alabama is among a handful of states without a statewide indigent criminal defense oversight committee. Individual counties can either contract with attorneys to represent indigent defendants, assign attorneys to cases, or use a public defender system.
State Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, plans to propose legislation in the 2009 session to revamp Alabama's indigent defense program. A bill he introduced in the 2008 session called for establishing an indigent defense office and a 14-member Alabama Indigent Defense Commission to oversee legal services provided to indigent defendants. The bill failed to make it out of committee.
Cobb said an indigent defense office will bring uniformity to the system that this year will cost taxpayers about $70 million for 83,169 cases, up from $17 million in 1998, when there were 49,022 cases. Alabama's indigent defense program is paid for with money from a fair trial tax and the state's General Fund.
Black said he and other proponents are querying judges and criminal defense attorneys around the state for their ideas. "We need as much input as we can get."
Some local judges and attorneys agree more oversight is needed but worry that a Montgomery-based committee could derail a system they say works well in the Shoals.
Lauderdale Circuit Court Judge Mike Jones assigns criminal cases to attorneys based on an their legal experience.
"If I have a very serious case with complicated issues, I am going to appoint someone who has the experience and is capable of handling such a case," Jones said. "If it's a simple case where the issues are straightforward, I might appoint an attorney with less experience."
Jones said appointing attorneys from a list of lawyers willing to represent indigent clients works well for Lauderdale.
"I'm not against change, but I'm not advocating it," Jones said. "What we have in Lauderdale County works well for our county. If there is another system that works equally well and saves the taxpayers money, I would be for it."
Franklin County Circuit Judge Terry Dempsey said he knows the legal experience of the attorneys who are willing to represent indigent clients and assigns the cases accordingly.
"I'm not going to assign a capital murder case to a young attorney fresh out of law school," Dempsey said. "For the complicated cases, I assign an attorney who has the proper experience."
Tuscumbia lawyer Steve Aldridge said the indigent defense team system works well in Colbert. He does not see the need for a state committee to oversee indigent defense in the county.
"We already have an oversight committee," Aldridge said. "Our judges provide the oversight. If they believe someone is not receiving adequate representation, they are going to take action to remedy the problem. The judges are committed to ensuring every defendant receives proper legal representation. The circuit judges and district judge make sure every case is handled properly."
Black said revamping Alabama's indigent defense program is not to strip local judges from having oversight of indigent defense in their courtroom. Instead, it is aimed at creating a more uniform system and making sure indigent defendants in all counties receive proper representation.
"If a system is working well for a county, we probably don't need to change it," Black said. "We do need to identify the counties where their system is not working so we can make improvements."
Cobb said the latest proposal for revamping Alabama's indigent defense program calls for each judicial circuit to have a five-member committee to work with the state oversight committee. The local committee would make recommendations to the state committee about how indigent defense should be handled in each circuit.
"This is not a one-size fits all program," she said. "It can be individually tailored to fit the needs of each judicial circuit."
In addition to establishing an oversight committee, Black's bill would introduce a change the fees attorney receive for indigent defense work.
Attorneys receive $40 per hour for work on indigent cases outside the courtroom and $60 for work inside the courtroom and bill the state for overhead, which is the cost of operating a law practice, with a maximum fee based on the type of case. The maximum fee an attorney can collect for a Class A felony is $3,500, the maximum for a Class C felony is $1,500.
Cobb said under the current system, attorneys with offices next door to one another sometimes have huge discrepancies in the amount they claim for overhead. She would like to see an increase in the fees paid to attorneys and eliminate the overhead payments.
"The judges have no way of knowing if the amount an attorney claims in overhead is factual. The judge does know how much time an attorney has spent working on a case," she said.
Black said having a more uniform system for paying attorneys who handle indigent cases could attract more lawyers willing to handle the work.
Black said many of the top defense attorneys in Alabama began their careers by accepting indigent cases.
"Everyone is entitled to equal justice under the law," Cobb said. "We believe that establishing an indigent defense commission will not only make that an inspirational ideal but a true foundation of our court system in Alabama."
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