Public Interest News Bulletin – February 17, 2012

Happy Friday, dear readers.  Below you will see a lot of news, from Florida, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere about crippling cuts in legal services funding. It can be easy, when reading reports that focus on dry items like IOLTA yields and budget lines, to forget that those dollar figures have real impacts on real people: low income individuals and families who are struggling to get by, to say nothing of legal services staffers who have lost their jobs in budget cuts.  

A story summarized below tells of Legal Services of Greater Miami’s work on behalf of a veteran of operations in Afghanistan whose wartime injuries have left him with physical, mental and psychological after-effects.  After a year of advocacy, LSGM secured $1000 in monthly benefits for their client, who is married with children.  Reading of this impacted me powerfully.  I often jog by the Dep’t. of Veterans Affairs headquarters.  Engraved in stone on the building are these words from Abraham Lincoln, spoken during his second inaugural address in the midst of the Civil War: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”

To me, this quote speaks to our shared obligation to provide support for those who sacrifice in service.  Sometimes it falls to legal services lawyers to ensure that that obligation is fulfilled.  So when I think of legal services funding cuts, I think of fewer veterans who access benefits.  I also think of fewer domestic violence victims who achieve legal protection from abusers, and fewer children who receive medical care.  There are tolls exacted on real human beings when figures on spreadsheets shrink. 

This week:

  • Maryland’s high court considers the financial burden of ensuring that indigent defendants have counsel at bail hearings;
  • New Mexico voters to decide if public defense program should become independent agency;
  • an ACLU suit over allegedly over-burdened public defenders in Washington State;
  • the Legal Aid Society of Orange County spins off a for-profit entity to help pro se litigants;
  • the White House FY2013 budget proposal includes a $402 million LSC appropriation;
  • the PA governor’s budget proposal would significantly cut legal services funding;
  • to close or not to close the San Joachin County, CA public defender’s office;
  • how last November’s LSC cuts are impacting programs in the DC metro area;
  • funding woes for Alabama prosecutors’ offices and courthouses;
  • federal employee retirements jumped by 24% in 2011;
  • speaking of Uncle Sam, a Presidential Management Fellowship application snafu dashes the hopes of 300 candidates;
  • Yale Law School cuts back on LRAP program;
  • the impact of legal services funding cuts in Florida;
  • ditto, West Virginia;
  • ditto, Connecticut;
  • ditto, Detroit;
  • but closing with good news(!), $2 million to the Arkansas Access to Justice Foundation.  

Here are the summaries:

  • 2.17.12 – Maryland’s highest court decided Thursday to wait for more information before issuing a mandate that would require lawyers to be available to a defendant within 24 hours of arrest, when it is decided whether he or she will be detained or released.  [T]he Court of Appeals decided to consider responses, due March 5, to motions filed by the Baltimore City District Court Commissioners and state Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe Jr. before issuing a mandate to enforce its Jan. 4 decision.  DeWolfe, whose office would need an estimated $28 million more annually to make public defenders available at initial bail and bail review hearings, told the court in asking again for a stay of at least 180 days that his office does not have and is unlikely to quickly obtain the resources to comply.”  (Story from The Gazette.)
  • 2.16.12 – the question of whether to separate the state’s public defense program from the executive branch so that it operates as an independent agency will be on the November ballot in New Mexico.  (Story from the Daily Times.)
  • 2.15.12 – the ACLU is litigating over alleged over-burdened defenders in Washington State.  From the Seattle Times: “Attorneys for the cities of Mount Vernon and Burlington are sparring with the American Civil Liberties Union over allegations that the Skagit County cities knew their public defenders were overburdened with cases. In a federal lawsuit, the ACLU says the two part-time attorneys contracted by the cities fielded more than 2,100 cases in 2010, even though Washington state Bar Association guidelines say full-time public defenders shouldn’t surpass 400 cases a year.” 
  • 2.14.12 - there has been much talk in the Great recession’s wake about the rise in pro se clients and the potential value of unbundling legal services delivery.  This SoCal development is interesting: the Legal Aid Society of Orange County is spinning off a for-profit entity, Legal Genie Inc., a “web-based program which combines the power of self-help technology with access to unbundled legal services, enabling self-represented litigants to complete and e-file legal pleadings.” Here’s a press release.
  • 2.13.12 - ”Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget would keep general-fund money allotted to the judiciary the same as last year, but funding for civil legal services for the poor would be cut by $274,000….  Mr. Corbett has proposed that legal service s funded in a budget line within the state Department of Public Welfare be funded at $2.5 million, down from $2.74 million last year and down from $3 million two budget cycles ago.”  Story from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
  • 2.13.12 -  in northern California, San Joaquin County is debating the financial efficiencies of a proposal to close the public defense office.  Here’s the story from the Record
  • 2.12.12 - the Washington Post reports on how last November’s LSC cuts are impacting grantee programs in DC, MD, and VA.
  • 2.12.12 – funding woes are plaguing Alabama courthouses and prosecutors’ offices, and there are more clouds on the horizon.  From the Ledger-Enquirer:  “District attorneys and court officials who rely on state funding are reeling from recent budget cuts that have strained Alabama’s judicial system. The squeeze is being felt in East Alabama counties and elsewhere, prompting circuit clerks to shrink their staffs and scale back hours of operation despite mounting caseloads.” As for Gov. Bentley’s new budget proposal, “District attorneys would [experience] 20 percent cuts. And while the courts requested increased funding next fiscal year, the governor’s plan would slash the total judicial system’s General Fund appropriation by some 26 percent, mitigated mildly by about a 9 percent increase in earmarked funds.”
  • 2.10.12 - no attorney-specific numbers, but Government Executive reports that, “[f]ederal retirements increased 24 percent in 2011 from the previous year, according to new statistics from the Office of Personnel Management…. The appeal of buyouts and early outs to agencies grew after the failure of the joint select committee on deficit reduction to agree on a plan to reduce spending by $1.2 trillion triggered across-the-board automatic spending cuts. Those cuts are slated to take effect in January 2013 unless Congress repeals sequestration. While there are no official figures available yet on how many employees accepted such incentives in 2011, tens of thousands were offered, and agencies en masse are likely to offer another round of buyouts heading into fiscal 2013.
  • 2.10.12 - a glitch in the Presidential Management Fellowship program application process gave false hope to candidates before crushing said hope.  From Government Executive: “A prestigious postgraduate fellowship program run by the Office of Personnel Management has acknowledged it sent acceptance letters to about 300 applicants by mistake in January. The [PMF] program had 9,077 applicants, nominated for the program by their graduate schools, for 2012. Of those, 628 were ultimately chosen as fellows and 1,186 were semifinalists. All semifinalists were invited to conduct in-person interviews.  Approximately 25 percent of the semifinalists received erroneous acceptance letters, according to Fox News.”  Boy, it’s just never good to be one of The 300
  • 2.10.12 – “Faced with increased enrollment and rising loan costs, the Yale Law School is scaling back its loan forgiveness program. The Career Options Assistance Program, which partially subsidizes tuition loan payments for Law School graduates should they enter relatively low-salary careers, will require a larger student contribution from members of…incoming…classes…. Under the previous policy, law school alumni who earn less than $60,000 [annually]…are eligible to have their loans payments fully subsidized by COAP, while those earning more than $60,000 are expected to contribute a quarter of their income above that baseline. The new policy sets the baseline salary lower, at $50,000, and expects participants to contribute varying percentages of their income toward loan payments, based on a sliding scale…”  (Story from the Yale Daily News.) 
  • 2.10.12 – legal services layoffs in West Virginia.  From the Charleston Gazette: “West Virginia Legal Aid executives announced Friday afternoon that they have laid off 15 case handlers and closed their Logan County office in response to federal budget cuts that promise to saddle the program with a $1.2 million deficit by 2013.”
  • 2.10.12 -  two million dollars from the recent blockbuster mortgage/banking industry settlement will go to the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission.  The Sun-Times has the story: “The Arkansas Attorney General’s office announced the news on Thursday, and funds distributed to the Commission will be used to provide access to civil justice for Arkansans affected by the mortgage crisis

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