PSLawNet Public Interest Law News Bulletin: March 18, 2011

This week: the ABA president on an underfunded justice system; death, taxes and educational debt; the Lone Star State reckons it needs legal services funding; ditto the Tennesseans; ditto ditto the Pennsylvanians; the National Law Journal runs a multi-article feature, putting its finger on the pulse of civil legal services; a San Francisco prosecutor shines during a dark time; and she gets paid, unlike some prosecutors in L.A., the ABA says, “Fund legal services!”; and New Yorks’ prosecutors and defenders get some loan repayment help.

  • 3.17.11 – writing in The Hill’s Congress Blog, ABA president Stephen Zack laments that funding shortages hamper access to the justice system.  Courts are underfunded, the legal services community is facing Congressional funding cuts despite overwhelming demand for their services, and it is difficult for law graduates to make a living as ”Main Street” lawyers.  (There’s more from the ABA and Zack specifically on legal services funding cuts a few stories down.)
  • 3.16.11 – one of the chief concerns among new public interest lawyers is loan repayment.  On the issue of how policymakers and the general public perceive the problem of student debt, a new report dispels the notion that a borrower must be financially comfortable if they are not in default.  From Inside Higher Ed: “Much of the discussion about college student debt revolves around the 15 percent of borrowers who default on their loans…”  And this leaves many with the impression that the other 85% are in decent shape.  “Yet a study released Tuesday by the [Institute for Higher Education Policy] suggests otherwise, showing that a majority of borrowers at least delay some loan payments, and a full quarter (26 percent) actually go into delinquency on their debt at some point during their first five years of repayment.”  The study looks at a cohort of grads whose repayment periods began before the federal Income Based Repayment program became available.  Nevertheless, we find the report’s findings compelling.  They highlight the fact that many borrowers who do not actually default still struggle with educational debt.  In a great blog post our friend Heather Jarvis notes the following about graduate students as reported in the study: “Although graduate and professional borrowers were less likely than other borrowers to have been delinquent or defaulted on their student loans, 42% couldn’t manage to make timely payments without either postponing their payments, becoming delinquent, or defaulting on their student loans.”
  • 3.15.11 – the Fort Worth Star-Telegram runs an editorial in support of state legislative proposals that would boost legal services funding, mainly via increases in court filing fees.  The editorial notes that the state’s two most significant legal services revenue streams – federal funding and IOLTA revenues – are, respectively, likely to shrink and already shrunken.  Anticipating cuts in Legal Services Corporation (LSC) funding, “Legal Services of Northwest Texas already is planning to eliminate paid law school internships and not fill six attorney vacancies.”  A state appropriation to shore up legal services, which was made last year, is out of the question this year.  So the newest proposed solutions are the best bets: “This session, a bipartisan collection of bills has been filed to generate the revenue IOLTA accounts aren’t. Proposals include increasing District Court civil filing fees by $10 ($6.6 million over the 2012-13 biennium); adding costs for filing county records and for misdemeanor convictions in justice and municipal courts ($58 million to $68.9 million, split between legal aid and indigent criminal defense); and dedicating court-ordered restitution in consumer-protection lawsuits to legal aid in consumer cases (possibly more than $1 million).”
  • 3.14.11 – the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that state funding for civil legal services would remain close to current levels under Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget proposal.  ”[Corbett] proposes to keep $5.05 million in legal services, funded through a Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) that involves federal funds targeted to urban or rural areas in economic distress, at the same level. He also proposes that funding for the Department of Public Welfare to contract with the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network (PLAN) to provide low-income people legal assistance be held at $3.01 million, down from $3.04 million in this fiscal year.”  But, because it seems that no good news about legal services funding can exist these days without some offsetting bad news, a filing fee revenue stream that had channeled some money to legal services is set to expire in early 2012.  And of course there is uncertainty about federal funding via LSC.

 

  • 3.14.11 – The Recorder in California has a nice profile of San Francisco prosecutor Sharon Woo, who had sent warning signals to superiors about strange events at the city’s crime lab.  Those strange events blossomed into a full-on scandal, as a crime lab technician admitted stealing narcotics.  Woo successfully managed the thorny, politically charged fallout, and has emerged as a star in the office.  Woo has been promoted by the new district attorney to the ”newly created position of chief assistant for operations.”
  • 3.14.11 - speaking of California prosecutors, a Los Angeles Times article begins this way: “Malibu resident Ashley St. Johns-Jacobs, 40, typically rises before 5 a.m. to get to her job at the Los Angeles city attorney’s office by 8 a.m. After a full day prosecuting misdemeanors, she often brings work home.  What she doesn’t bring home is a paycheck. With no position open, she has been working as an unpaid intern for nearly a year in hopes of eventually getting hired when a job opens up.”  The piece goes on to look at the phenomenon of would-be employees taking unpaid positions during an economic recovery that has been stingy about producing new jobs.  “Interns” are exempted from labor wage regulations, but is an “intern” an “intern” if they are essentially doing the work that a professional would do?  As you may guess, it depends on the nature of the “internship.” 
  • 3.11.11 - ”In written testimony submitted to the Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies today, American Bar Association President Stephen N. Zack called on Congress to fund the Legal Services Corporation at $450 million, citing increased need for assistance for the poor and working class during tough economic times.  ‘Appropriations for the Legal Services Corporation is not just about funding another federal agency.  This is about providing legal services for the 57 million Americans at or below the poverty line, including 19 million children, who are eligible for assistance,’ said Zack.”  Here’s an ABA press release, and here’s the text of Zack’s testimony.
  • 3.10.11 – prosecutors and public defenders in New York State may now benefit from federal John R. Justice Act loan repayment assistance funds, which are being administered by the state’s Higher Education Services Corporation.  Here’s a press release with more info.  The application deadline is May 1, 2011.

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