Archive for October, 2010

Public Interest News Bulletin – October 29, 2010 – Halloween Edition

Boo!!!, people.  Boo! because it’s Halloween and boo! because the Phillies got knocked out of the playoffs.  This week’s News Bulletin is bursting at the seams because we took a break last Friday.  This happened because we are lazy we were hosting and/or attending NALP’s Public Service Mini-Conference and the Equal Justice Works Conference and Career Fair.

We’ll put up a debriefing post about those events later, but without further ado here’s two weeks of public interest news, including: A Colorado district attorney isn’t high on public defenders; there’s nothing corny about access to justice in Iowa; a public law school’s clinic program subject to NJ open records laws; grayhairs…er…senior attorneys…volunteering on the access to justice front; federal hiring reform is happening about as quickly as most federal things happen; some domestic abuse prevention funding in Southeast PA; a foreclosure clinic at Albany Law; Canada’s feeling the legal services funding pain, too; misguided pro bono efforts in San Fran?; public defender and prosecutor almost come to blows?; speaking of, let’s return to prosecutors and defenders in Colorado; you’re welcome, Alaska Legal Services Corporation, for your organization’s new motto; LSC’s inspector general scrutinizing a Louisiana grantee program; law students fighting foreclosures in Beantown; a goofy and fortunate financial boost for a Chicago public interest organization; Microsoft forks over big donation bucks to Kids in Need of Defense (KIND); Kentucky hops on the AtJ commission bandwagon; New York State Bar’s president wants more government funding for legal services; so does the New York Times’ editorial board.

  • 10.28.10 – Kerfuffle alert!  On 10/22, the Aspen Daily News in Colorado ran a story about the funding differences between the local public defender’s and prosecutor’s office.  We summarized that story in Item 11 below, and we indicated that the story closed with comments from District Attorney Martin Beeson that were sharply critical of the role of public defenders in the criminal justice system.  Well, those comments – “Public defenders are not defenders of the public. They are not serving the public good. They are taxpayer-funded attorneys for criminals.” – have caused a stir in the Colorado legal community.  In a more recent Aspen Daily News piece, critics characterized Beeson’s comments as “scary,” “spectacularly ignorant,” and showing a “shocking disregard” for constitutional principles.  Beeson is not backing down: ““I stand by my statement. The so-called public defenders do not defend the public. The law enforcement defends the public. The prosecutors defend the public.”
  • 10.26.10 – New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, the state’s top jurist, is making good use of attorneys who are long in the tooth and not short on altruism.  A while back we covered Chief Judge Lippman’s launching of an “attorney emeritus” program that allowed retired attorneys to remain active and provide pro bono services to low-income clients in a variety of civil matters.  This represents one step Lippman has taken in an impressive personal crusade to narrow the justice gap.  (For more see Item 1 and accompanying links).  More recently, according to the New York Law Journal, the emeritus program is expanding to accept more volunteers.  “Last month, the initiative was one of 10 programs in the state to be recognized by Harvard Kennedy School’s ‘Bright Ideas’ program, which was created to share ‘creative government initiatives’ around the country with public sector, nonprofit and academic communities.  Now, eligibility has been expanded to include non-retired lawyers who otherwise meet the program’s age and experience requirements.”

Keep reading . . .

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Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service Celebrates Pro Bono

The Celebration of Pro Bono continues with highlights from the pro bono activities organized by the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service at Suffolk University Law School to commemorate the ABA sponsored second annual National Pro Bono Celebration.

Today the Rappaport Center is sponsoring a Criminal Record Sealing Clinic at Greater Boston Legal Services.  Massachusetts keeps criminal offender record information, known as “CORI,” on every individual who enters the state’s criminal court system. CORI is recorded and kept on file even if the underlying case is ultimately dismissed or the accused is found not guilty. CORI is used in screening processes by employers, landlords, and government agencies. The increased use of CORI by employers and others has resulted in more and more people with criminal records being denied employment, housing, benefits, and other opportunities for economic stability that others take for granted.

During the Criminal Record Sealing Clinic, law student volunteers will meet with clients to answer CORI questions and provide information on how to get a copy of a CORI and how to seal a CORI.  The students attended a training earlier in the week and will be supervised by attorneys from Greater Boston Legal Services and the Legal Advocacy and Resource Center.

On Saturday, Suffolk Law students will participate in foreclosure prevention canvassing in Chelsea.  The foreclosure crisis is predominantly affecting Boston’s low and moderate-income neighborhoods, with minorities and single women as its most common victims. After foreclosure auctions, banks take ownership of the homes and evict everyone living there, whether they are owners or renters, even if everyone tries to continue to pay a fair rent to the bank.

The Rappaport Center, the Student Bar Association, the No One Leaves Project, and the Chelsea Collaborative are partnering to train students and then hit the streets of Chelsea to inform tenants and former owners of foreclosed properties that they have rights and may stay in their homes.

For a full schedule of this week’s events visit the official 2010 Celebration of Pro Bono site.

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Expert Opinion: Developing and Expanding Law School Pro Bono Programs

We continue PSLawNet’s participation in the 2010 National Celebration of Pro Bono with today’s expert opinion interview with Sylvia Novinsky, the Assistant Dean for Public Service Programs at UNC School of Law.  Novinsky has been with UNC School of Law since 1996, after practicing public interest law representing migrant farm workers and immigrant workers in Virginia and New York. She served as the school’s first public interest career counselor and, in 2000, became the Assistant Dean for Student Affairs.  Novinsky launched the Pro Bono Program at UNC in the fall of 1997 and since has been the driving force behind the development and expansion of the program.  The program has filled thousands of placements with attorneys in non-profit organizations, private practice, and legal services organization across the country – the Class of 2010 completed more than 10,000 hours of pro bono.

In our interview with Novinsky, she shares her insights regarding best practices and the challenges involved in developing and expanding pro bono programming at law schools.  Learn more about UNC School of Law’s program and their Celebration of Pro Bono events.

Why do you believe it important for students to incorporate pro bono into their law school experience?

I believe it is our ethical responsibility as lawyers because we have this special skill set to do pro bono service – and students should begin honoring this commitment to pro bono while still in school.  Additionally, pro bono is an important learning tool to assist students in building their skills outside the classroom.  It also allows students to experience different areas of law, which is helpful in planning their career path.

How did the Pro Bono Program at your school grow into what it is today?

Our program development was guided by student input, student needs, and the community’s needs.  It really is this sort of thing that if you build it they will come.  As students realize what pro bono service can offer they gravitate towards it, especially if the projects have already been organized and are right there in front of them.  If a formal structure is not in place, it takes a lot of time for students to set up their own pro bono opportunities and that can be deterrent for busy law school students.

I believe our program has also grown because we as a profession have become more aware of how lawyers can help – not just in a community service oriented way, but using our unique skills and training.  As a member of the legal profession, one of the great things about the last 10 years is that the group of students entering law schools arrives with a volunteer ethic – their belief in volunteering and giving back as lawyers is a natural outgrowth of their community service experiences as college and high school students.

Based upon your own experience at UNC School of Law, what do you believe are the greatest challenges law schools face in developing and expanding pro bono programs?

I think greatest challenge is figuring out what works for your school – what is the best programmatic structure and what is the mechanism for developing that structure?  Even though our program is now thirteen years old, it was not until the last three years that we achieved a workable system for tracking data.

What is your advice for figuring out what will work at a particular law school?

You really need to understand your community, both your law school and the surrounding legal community.  By legal community, I mean the needs of those low-income individuals seeking legal services and those providing the legal services.

You need to create relationships.  Lawyers in your community need to know that there is a point person at the law school that they can rely on to ensure all the logistics involved in student pro bono projects are being accomplished – that you are not going to let them down.

To some extent you have to take risks – some things are going to work and some things are really not going to work.

Keep reading . . .

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PSLawNet Celebrates Pro Bono!

In honor of the National Celebration of Pro Bono, October 24-30, 2010, the PSLawNet Blog will be highlighting the pro bono efforts of several of our subscriber schools across the country throughout the week.

Capital University Law School is launching a new Foreclosure Mediation Preparation Project in coordination with the National Pro Bono Week Celebration.  This pilot pro bono program was developed by Professor Margaret M. Cordray in response to the record growth in foreclosures filed in Ohio this year.  The mission of the program is to equip homeowners with the information and tools they need to prepare for foreclosure mediation.

Through this innovative new program, students will counsel homeowners by phone about what mediation is, what they can expect when they go to mediation, and how to prepare for mediation.

There has been an overwhelming response from Capital students willing to volunteer their time with the program.  More than 90 students have already signed up to donate pro bono hours to the program during the 2010-2011 academic year.

Other Celebration of Pro Bono events today included . . .

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Public Interest News Bulletin: October 15, 2010 (Updated 10/18)

This Week: Memphis Area Legal Services and Liz Lemon share something in common; a new report highlights Access to Justice troubles in the U.S.; Massachusetts D.A.’s are sounding alarms about budget cuts, pointing fingers at public defender; an access-to-justice op-ed continues its tour of Texas newspapers; some Harvard Law students do good work in the Big Easy; funding woes for Seattle public defenders (and it’s probably raining there, to boot); Michigan Law to develop cross-border human trafficking clinic with Mexican advocates; learn about the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center; mandatory pro bono in Mississippi isn’t that big a deal, so calm down; New York State bar chief chimes in on the need to shore up legal services funding; New Mexico Legal Aid’s executive director explains what’s at stake if poor people can’t access the justice system; proposed federal legislation would support public defenders, but probably won’t see a vote.

  • 10.14.10 – from the Salem News we learn that Massachusetts prosecutors are questioning a disparity between funding for the state’s indigent defense program and for their own offices.  “The Massachusetts District Attorneys Association says taxpayers now spend twice as much to defend accused criminals as they do to prosecute them.”  The MDAA argues that caseloads are much higher in prosecutors’ offices than with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the public defender.  CPCS retorts, however, that many of the cases it handles are civil matters in which prosecutors are not involved, and that the prosecutors’ budget figures don’t include the budget for police, who do investigative and support work.  This article, while short, does a good job of highlighting the major sticking points in prosecutor/defender budget battles throughout the country.
  • 10.11.10 – the National Law Journal reports that the University of Michigan Law School ” has received a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of State to establish a human trafficking clinic at the Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas, Unidad Académica de Derecho, a law school located in north central Mexico. The Mexican clinic is an offshoot of the human trafficking clinic that Michigan launched in 2009, which was the first of its kind in the United States …  One of the goals of the Mexican clinic, which will represent a partnership between the two law schools and a local nongovernmental organization called Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (Center for Migrant Rights), is to educate people about human trafficking. Although it will officially be part of the Mexican law school, the Michigan law school will help set up the clinic.”  We at the PSLawNet Blog think this is an interesting approach to addressing a problem – human trafficking – that by definition defies international border controls, while at the same time exposing the Michigan and the Mexican law school’s students to transnational practice issues.
  • 10.10.10 – on LoHud.com, New York State Bar Association president Stephen P. Younger chimes in with an op-ed about the importance of access to justice for the state’s poor.  He joins with New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman in seeking solutions to the under-funding of the state’s legal services infrastructure.  “It runs counter to our basic concept of fairness to deprive someone of shelter, their child, or much needed government benefits without the aid of a lawyer.”  Funding for legal services is “woefully inadequate.  Our state’s core operating funding for these critical legal services amounts to only $3.68 per indigent person, compared to an average of $23.51 funded by our neighboring states.”  Younger moves on to make a fiscal case for boosting government support of legal services.  “Ironically, New York’s funding levels are not just morally unjust, they are also fiscally irresponsible. Last year, for every dollar spent on civil legal services to poor New Yorkers, more than $1.50 came back to our state — for a total of $361 million — through added federal benefits such as disability payments, supplemental social security or federal grants for civil legal services.”  Younger calls on the state’s legislators to create a “permanent and adequately funded Access to Justice fund.”  Good stuff.  The PSLawNet blog is pleased to see legal luminaries in the Empire State addressing an acute crisis.  As we’ve noted before, Chief Judge Lippmann has made access to justice a priority.

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DOJ Deputy Attorney General Responds to USA Today's Report on Prosecutor Misconduct

The PSLawNet Blog has been following the recent coverage of prosecutor misconduct during the last several weeks.  In particular, USA Today’s six month examination of federal prosecutors resulted in a report citing 201 cases of DOJ prosecutors violating the law and/or ethics rules between 1998-2010.

We noted in our earlier coverage that although USA Today acknowledged that the instances of misconduct or negligence were not broadly representative of the federal prosecutor community, their report painted a picture of increasingly faltering work from prosecutors who are either overworked, under-supervised, or willing to break the rules in order to win.

In a recent editorial, Gary Grindler, the Acting Deputy Attorney General for the U.S. Department of Justice, asserts that the methodology used by USA Today was faulty and the report misleading.

Unfortunately, because USA TODAY used examples stretching as far back as the 1970s and mixed together cases where attorneys made mistakes with cases where actual prosecutorial misconduct was involved, its report was misleading in its suggestion of the proportion of misconduct cases. That rate is in fact significantly smaller.

He acknowledged that will “error-free prosecutions” are always the DOJ’s goal “mistakes will unfortunately happen, as they do in every profession.”

When mistakes occur, we will correct them and be as transparent as possible within the bounds of the law, which restricts what information we can release.

Mr. Grindler also reinforced the DOJ’s commitment to ensuring prosecutors adhere to ethicial standards and to taking action when prosecutors “intentionally disregard these obligations.”

Put simply, a single instance of prosecutorial misconduct is unacceptable. At the Justice Department, we are keenly aware that people can suffer serious harm when we do not adhere to the great traditions of this institution. Overwhelmingly, the cases we bring are handled according to the highest ethical standards. Indeed, an internal review ordered by Attorney General Eric Holder last year found misconduct in just a tiny fraction of the 90,000 or so cases brought annually.

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Foreclosures + Elections = Voting Rights Lawyers

The Blog of the Legal Times yesterday posted a piece about the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund preparing to deal with possible challenges to voter residency requirements based on voters’ homes being in foreclosure.

Two years ago, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed suit in Indiana and stopped what it said was a threat to disenfranchise homeowners facing foreclosure. Now, after countless more foreclosures, an NAACP lawyer says it’s ready to litigate again if needed.

At issue in the 2008 lawsuit was whether a list of homeowners facing foreclosure could be used to challenge their eligibility to vote. A local Republican Party official had been quoted saying that presence on such a list “would be a solid basis” to ask someone to cast a provisional ballot.

The official later backtracked, and a state judge ordered that such a list is not by itself evidence that someone doesn’t meet the residency requirements for voting.

 The PSLawNet Blog wonders whether this contentious election cycle will produce a lot of, well, legal contention.  Letting alone this voter residency issue, how could there not be legal wrangling over the Senate election in Alaska, a three-way race in which current Senator Lisa Murkowski is running  as a write-in candidate because she lost the Republican primary?  Is there is enough voter intent shown if someone writes in “Lisa M.” as opposed to “Murkowski”? Oh, brother.  We were hoping all this stuff had died 10 years ago in Florida.

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Clinicals Expose Law Students to Challenging Public Interest Issues at Home and Abroad

Last week we covered news of law students providing pro bono services to clients in under-served areas.  This week, we’ve come across a few articles covering the good work of students through clinical programs:

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Public Interest News Bulletin: October 8, 2010

This week: the Glorious Philadelphia Phillies Baseball Franchise is Phightin’ to Return to the World Series.

This Week in Public Interest News: SCOTUS reviews a $14 million jury award for an innocent man who spent 20+ years in jail; Baltimore public defenders may get busier; a $1.8 million cy pres award for some Chicago public interest organizations; Jim McGiffin, legal services lawyer and incoming Delaware Bar Assoc. president, seems like a cool dude; NoCal Innocence Project blasts shortcomings in disciplining California prosecutors; pro se resources for Wisconsinites; federal loan repayment funding for local prosecutors/public defenders coming to a state near you; new prisoner re-entry pro bono project at Rutgers Law;  indigent defendants getting billed by the state for the trouble they’ve caused; the mental health court community grows; law students go mobile to provide pro bono.

  • 10.6.10 – the National Law Journal (password may be required) covers Supreme Court arguments in a case stemming from prosecutorial misconduct in New Orleans.  “Supreme Court justices on Wednesday appeared ready to give the green light to efforts by a New Orleans man to win compensation for prosecutorial misconduct that put him behind bars for more than two decades for a murder he did not commit.   The Court heard arguments in the case of Connick v. Thompson, in which former New Orleans district attorney Harry Connick argues that his office should not be held liable for what he contends was a single incident of failing to hand over exculpatory evidence to the defense before trial.”  Thompson, who had been on death row as a result of the wrongful conviction, made a Section 1983 civil rights claim against the DA’s office.  A $14 million jury award was upheld by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.  The main question in front of the Supreme Court is whether the DA’s office’s actions were enough to warrant the successful civil rights action.  (On a much more trivial note, here’s some trivia: Do you know who’s the son of former district attorney Harry Connick?  Hint: he tickled the ivories in an old episode of Cheers, and got shot down by an alien in the sci-fi cinema aberration Independence Day.) 

 

  • 10.4.10 – the National Law Journal reports on a new pro bono project at the Rutgers School of Law – Camden: “The Federal Prisoner Re-entry Project at Rutgers-Camden pairs law student volunteers with recently released prisoners. Under the supervision of a managing attorney, the students work with their clients’ federal probation officers to handle issues such as obtaining drug and alcoholic treatment or securing housing…. Other law schools offer students the chance to assist prisoners in re-entry through clinics, but Rutgers’ program is unique in that it relies on student volunteers who don’t receive academic credit for the work…”
  • 10.3.10 – USA Today covers two new reports (by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, and the ACLU, respectively) on states requiring indigent defendants and individuals with criminal convictions to pay various fees related to their time in the system.  USA Today’s coverage focuses on fees related to the provision of indigent defense services: “States increasingly are imposing fees on poor criminal defendants who use public defenders even when they can’t pay, causing some to go without attorneys, according to two reviews of the nation’s largest state criminal justice systems. A report out Monday by New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice found that 13 of the 15 states with the largest prison populations imposed some charge, including application fees, for access to counsel…. A separate report of five state justice systems out Monday by the ACLU produced similar findings.”  Here’s a link to the Brennan Center report – Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry – and here’s some additional coverage of its release, by the National Law Journal.  Finally, here’s a link to the ACLU report – “In for a Penny: the Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons.”
  • 10.2.10 – the Justice Bus rides tomorrow!  According to Woodland California’s Daily Democrat, the Justice Bus, a mobile legal clinic sponsored by the University of San Francisco School of Law (whose students staff the clinic), the Public Interest Clearinghouse, and Legal Services of Northern California, is stopping in Woodland on 10/9 to hold a free employment law clinic.  “This clinic will offer free legal advice and referrals for all aspects of employment law from wrongful termination and wage and hour claims to workers compensation and benefits questions. Anyone with employment related questions is able to attend this free legal clinic.”  It’s great to see this project allowing students to engage with clients in under-served areas who need help.  And it’s not the only example of such an undertaking.  Indeed, it’s not the only Justice Bus.  In March, the PSLawNet Blog profiled the Justice Bus run by Arizona State law students.  And in August we covered the work of University of Detroit Mercy law students who run Project Salute, which aids low-income veterans and rolls in a “custom designed 31-foot Mobile Law Office, built and donated by General Motors.”  Our major malpractice concern in all of this is a student driving the bus.  

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Misconduct, Misconduct, Misconduct. For Prosecutors, It's Been a Tough Couple of Weeks in the News

One half of the PSLawNet Blog Team used to work in civil legal services.  Both during and after law school, I hung out with a lot of other folks who were going the nonprofit route, and also did much of my socializing with the public defender types.  I’m aware that some folks perceive that a huge gap – whether moral, ideological, political, or some other -al – exists between prosecutors and defenders. 

I’ve always had trouble seeing it that way (although there is of course adversarial tension between the two camps).  I see both prosecutors and PDs as necessary counterbalances in the pursuit of justice.  And even though they may be driven by different priorities, at the end of the day I think prosecutors and defenders wish to preserve and even improve the system of justice that we all rely on to keep communities safe but also to preserve civil liberties.  And I know a lot of lawyers feel the same way, because they’ve crossed from one side of the courtroom battle lines to the other – and sometimes back again.

So, the PSLawNet Blog has a lot of respect for the work of prosecutors and the substantial responsibilities they shoulder.  But, along with bearing the weight of responsibility to the public, they wield an enormous amount of power.  And sometimes it’s not easy to police the prosecutors.  Some recent news coverage would seem to highlight this potential problem.

Last week we covered a USA Today report stemming from a broad-based investigation into prosecutorial misconduct on the federal level.

Federal judges have found 201 cases of DOJ prosecutors violating the law and/or ethics rules between 1998-2010.  USA Today’s foray into prosecutor misconduct reveals that “the abuses have put innocent people in prison, set guilty people free and cost tax payers millions of dollars in legal fees and sanctions.”

Earlier this week, the LA Times covered a report released by the Innocence Project of Northern California.  From the Times:

Hundreds of prosecutors in California — including many in Los Angeles County — have committed misconduct with near impunity as authorities failed to either report or discipline them, according to a report released Monday…. The researchers discovered 707 cases in which state and federal courts and appellate courts found prosecutorial misconduct in opinions issued between 1997 and 2009. Of those, 67 prosecutors committed misconduct in more than one case, including three who committed misconduct four times and two who did so five times.  The authors of the report said most prosecutors follow the law and act ethically, but they criticized the State Bar for disciplining only six prosecutors during the period covered by the study.

 And today, National Law Journal (password may be required) covers Supreme Court arguments in a case stemming from prosecutorial misconduct in New Orleans:

Supreme Court justices on Wednesday appeared ready to give the green light to efforts by a New Orleans man to win compensation for prosecutorial misconduct that put him behind bars for more than two decades for a murder he did not commit.   The Court heard arguments in the case of Connick v. Thompson, in which former New Orleans district attorney Harry Connick argues that his office should not be held liable for what he contends was a single incident of failing to hand over exculpatory evidence to the defense before trial.

Context is important, so it’s worth mentioning that thousands of prosecutors handle thousands and thousands of cases daily.  Nevertheless, knowing the public trust we place in prosecutors and knowing that sometimes only they can hold themselves accountable to act fairly, this recent spate of negative coverage is notable.

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