Public Interest News Bulletin: November 19, 2010

This week: Professor Tribe leaving DOJ Access-to-Justice initiative to return to Harvard; looking for more pro bono volunteers in Maryland; a report on poverty from Legal Services of New Jersey; public benefits backlog in a California county; federal security clearance process speeding up; pro bono lawyers needed in Maryland, part deux; a tax on Ohio lawyers to pay for public defenders?; DOJ domestic violence prevention funding in Los Angeles; the terrible IOLTA situation in Florida; a need for pro bono attorneys in Eastern Washington State; a beneficiary of cy pres funds in Dallas; and a post-election call to defund the Legal Services Corporation.

  • 11.18.10 – an announcement on the Harvard Law School website states that Prof. Laurence Tribe, who has been serving as Senior Counselor for Access to Justice at the DOJ, will leave that post and return to Boston on account of health problems.   He has stayed on at DOJ this fall because he is playing ”a key role in a public White House event to be held Nov. 19 with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis. The event will announce new initiatives to help middle class and low-income families secure their legal rights, Tribe said.”  Of course his health must come first, but the PSLawNet Blog is saddened to learn that the Access-to-Justice community will lose Prof. Tribe – at least in this prominent and unique DOJ position.  There was no word in the announcement about who will fill his DOJ position (or whether it will be filled, although we assume the AtJ initiative will not be abandoned outright because Tribe had slowly been adding staff and building an office in DC).  Here’s the announcement: http://www.law.harvard.edu/news/2010/11/18_tribe.html.
  • 11.16.10 – in a clear sign of how the recession has impacted local governments’ abilities to administer social services programs, “San Mateo County is  racing to process a backlog of applications for food stamps, financial aid, Medi-Cal and other forms of public assistance.”  As reported by the Mercury News, records show that the “Human Services Agency failed to process more than 1,000 applications by state-required deadlines each month between May and September.”  The primary culprits are a huge increase in public benefit applications and the fact that the Human Services Agency, laboring under budget constraints, hasn’t been able to fill open positions.  The Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County ”will consider legal options” if there is still an application backlog by 2011.
  • 11.16.10 - here’s some good news for those who are interested in federal careers: security clearance processes, which have at times moved with all the speed of a sleepy, apathetic glacier, are quickening.  The Government Executive website reports that a “…Government Accountability Office audit … found [that the Department of] Defense required 325 days on average to complete initial personnel security clearances in 2007, but reduced processing time to 60 days in the first three quarters of fiscal 2010. The Office of Personnel Management, which conducts 90 percent of the government’s background investigations, reduced its average completion time for initial security clearances from 153 days in fiscal 2007 to 47 days in fiscal 2010, according to agency data.” http://www.govexec.com/story_page.cfm?articleid=46530&dcn=e_gvet

  • 11.15.10 – the Baltimore Sun reports on the rising need for pro bono advocates to help swollen numbers of low-income Marylanders with civil legal problems.  “The state and national bar associations expect lawyers to donate at leat 50 hours of work a year … But only 22% of full-time lawyers meet that goal, according to the most recent statistics…”  The article provides a nice overview of the pro bono/legal services infrastructure in the Old Line State (Maryland’s nickname - who knew?), and provides this observation that would qualify as Understatement of the Year among legal services advocates:  “And while economists claim the recession is over, legal aid center workers say they still haven’t seen a letup in demand.”
  • 11.15.10 – according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, a prominent local defense attorney “wants Ohio lawmakers to impose a tax on lawyers to raise money for [indigent defense] services for the poor … His voice joins a chorus of those who insist Ohio’s public defender offices … are so underfunded they effectively violate the constitutional right to a lawyer.”  The proposal, which does not have a legislative sponsor yet, contemplates a tax on 1% of the income of private sector attorneys who are not solo practitioners that would fund indigent defense.  - http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20101115/NEWS010702/11140368/A-tax-to-pay-public-lawyers-
  • 11.15.10 – The Asian Journal reports that the “Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice is one of the recipients of the Legal Assistance for Victims Grant Program through the United States Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women. The Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice Legal Assistance Project (LACLJ-LAP) will provide legal and holistic services to domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking victims.”  As for the DOJ program, “[t]he Legal Assistance for Victims Grant Program funded a total of $32.5 million in 2010 to be distributed over 24 months to 77 programs in 39 states, the District of Columbia and Guam. According to the Legal Assistance for Victims Grant Program, recipients vary from domestic violence service agencies to law school clinical programs to nonprofit legal service organizations.”  - http://www.asianjournal.com/community/community-news/7763-lacj-to-begin-new-project-through-the-legal-assistance-for-victims-grant.html
  • 11.14.10 – the Palm Beach Post reports on terrible IOLTA news in Florida - and an effort to shore up funding.  The Florida Bar Foundation administers the state’s IOLTA funds, which constitute 30% of legal services funding statewide.  But some legal services advocates see a “gathering storm” because “the IOTA program collected $44 million in 2006-07, but only $5.4 million this year.”  Wow. We’ve covered a lot of bad IOLTA news, so we know that, sadly, this has happened on the same scale in other jurisdictions.  But it’s still shocking to read when it’s so starkly stated.  The Foundation is appealing to the private bar for help.  “A campaign has started … across the state asking lawyers to pledge $1,000 to the foundation, paid over a number of years.”
  • 11.14.10 – according to the Spokesman Review in lovely Spokane, Washington (the east side of that state gets such an unfair shake), “The sagging local economy has flooded local courts with people in financial trouble who can’t pay for what could help them most: an attorney to guide them.  Only a few local programs exist to help people who need lawyers, a need that has far outstripped the programs’ ability to find lawyers willing to work for little or no pay. As a result, court dockets are clogged with people trying – and failing – to wade through a complicated system of hearings and paperwork without legal help.”  As is the case in other jurisdictions, low-income pro se litigants are found trying navigate through foreclosure, consumer debt, and family law matters.  Local providers, which include a clinic at Gonzaga Law, the Spokane Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Program, and the Northwest Justice Project, are doing what they can to stem the tide.  Here’s a link to the article: http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2010/nov/14/economy-stymies-quest-for-advocacy/.
  • 11.11.10 – following the federal elections the National Legal and Policy Center renewed its call for the Legal Services Corporation to be defunded.  A piece on the NLPC’s website argues that “LSC is receiving $420 million in tax dollars. LSC funds 136 local groups to provide civil (not criminal) day-to-day legal help to poor people. Unfortunately, many LSC-funded lawyers instead spend their time on liberal political and social causes … LSC must now be completely defunded … In recent years, LSC grantees have raised a greater proportion of their funds from private sources. They should now be freed completely from a taxpayer subsidy.”  Well, the PSLawNet Blog will leave the argument about LSC program attorneys working on “liberal” causes for another time.  (Suffice to say, in our experience these attorneys spend their time trying to keep up with swollen caseloads – and in service to their low-income clients.)  On the issue of funding, in the current political climate LSC grantee programs must maintain a broad range funding sources so they are not badly affected by the politically-driven vicissitudes of LSC appropriations.  But there are still many LSC programs – programs that provide vital services to victims of domestic violence, families in need of food and medical assistance, and those losing their homes to foreclosure – which depend heavily on LSC funds to serve citizens on society’s margins.  Given the well documented need among the poor for legal services - just read some of the stories above about strained legal services and pro bono resources; and that’s all in the past week - we find this an especially bad time to be defunding the lawyers who protect those without a voice in the legal system.

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