Public Interest News Bulletin: June 29, 2012

By: Steve Grumm

Happy Friday, dear readers.

Let’s immediately get the SCOTUS stuff out of the way.  My colleague Maria summarized the recent blockbuster decisions here.  (And SCOTUSblog has their as-always nuanced coverage.)  With that done…

There is a good deal of recent news about the fiscal challenges confronting state and local governments.  Layoffs are very much in the spotlight.  There is not good data on how many lawyer positions have been impacted so far during this period of post-recession fiscal reckoning.  Anecdotally, we know that many state/local government law offices are smaller than they were five years ago.  And on another front, this fiscal news can’t be good for legal services organizations which rely – or relied – on state grants. Let’s look at what the news is telling us:

  •  the New York Times reports: “Companies have been slowly adding workers for more than two years. But pink slips are still going out in a crucial area: government…. Government payrolls grew in the early part of the recovery, largely because of federal stimulus measures. But since its post-recession peak in April 2009 (not counting temporary Census hiring), the public sector has shrunk by 706,000 jobs.”  On the state level, while revenues are back up there is fiscal angst about impending pension obligations.  Municipalities are up a creek, with property values – property taxes being the municipal bread and butter – having declined so precipitously.
  • the Wall Street Journal explores how state and local funding is likely to shape up over the next few years: “Forecasting firm Macroeconomic Advisors projects state and local government spending and investment will fall to about 10% of GDP by 2020, which would be the lowest level since the mid-1960s…. State and local government has subtracted from U.S. economic growth in every quarter since the middle of 2010.  Their 11.9% share of 2011 GDP was the the lowest since 2006….Much like the taxpayers they serve, these governments are going to be saving more.”
  • Sign of the times: Stockton, CA, a city of ~300,000 people, is going into bankruptcy.   

Unrelated: here’s yet another report on The Millennial Generation.  (I don’t remember being the object of such scrutiny as a Gen Xer, maybe because social scientists were about as interested in us as we in them.  We were invisible, latch-key kids even to researchers.  Hah.)  The 2012 Millennial Impact Report looks at the generation’s attitudes towards engaging the nonprofit community.  Tip of cap to the ABA’s Cheryl Zalenski, who via Twitter brought this to my tweetention.  Wow.  First and last attempt to coin a Twitter word.  Already embarrassed.  

This week in access to justice (or lack of):

  • indigent defense funding in Guam (yep, Guam);
  • Biglaw pro bono down
  • in CA, San Jaoquin County’s budget for prosecutors and defenders is leveling after years of cuts;
  • the rising cost of indigent defense in the Hawkeye State; 
  • a recent LSC summit about using technology to promote access to justice;
  • from Indiana, a look at the county-state push-pull over indigent defense funding;
  • funding to the rescue for the cash-strapped NOLA public defender;
  • with newly imposed caseload guidelines, Washington St. cities must figure out indigent defense funding;
  • “Pro Bono Partnerships Between In-House and Outside Counsel – Why Everyone Wins”
  • the Volunteer State sees a volunteer lawyer uptick;
  • maybe a new funding stream for Legal Services of New Jersey;
  • the impact of LSC cuts on Central PA legal services programs;
  • push for public defender pay boost in Philly;
  • Michigan commission says, “Change the public defense system.”
  • Montana’s public defense program needs more state funding;
  • Super Musical Bonus

The summaries:

  • 6.29.12 – the public defender in Guam is advocating for a budget boost to ensure his office effectively serves clients.  Money quote from Public Defender Services executive director Eric Miller as he made his case to local appropriators: “We want to be careful shepherds of your resources, but we also need to be careful shepherds of the constitutional rights of our clients,” Miller said. “Every law office needs training for their staff, and that is why we put it in the budget.”  (Story from the Pacific Daily News.)
  • 6.28.12 – AmLaw data suggests Biglaw pro bono is flagging: “Large law firms’ pro bono work continued to drop last year, both in terms of hours per lawyer and number of lawyers contributing 20 hours or more. Behind the decline are structural changes which suggest that a turnaround may not come anytime soon, according to the new report on the Am Law 200 in the July/August issue of ALM’s The American Lawyer and online at americanlawyer.com.  Average pro bono hours per lawyer fell to 54.3 last year, down almost 12 percent from a 2009 peak, while the percentage of lawyers contributing 20 hours or more dropped to 43.5. Of the 169 firms responding to the survey, nearly two-thirds had a lower pro bono score than the year before.” (Here’s the article from Marketwatch.) 
  • 6.28.12 – Stockton’s bankruptcy notwithstanding, the county it sits in, San Jaoquin, may see leveling funding for prosecutors and defenders after years of cuts: “For five years, budget cuts have nipped away at the number of people working in San Joaquin County’s criminal-justice system.  County government has cut more than 30 percent of the positions in the District Attorney’s and the Public Defender’s offices.”  Indeed, the public defender looks to be hiring.  “The Public Defender’s Office was expected to add two positions before the board agreed to add about $646,000 to raise that number by four.”
  • 6.28.12 – this piece looks at the rising cost of indigent defense in Iowa, and the question of whether there are ways to better manage those costs.  There is a quite a bit of focus on whether some defendants who are assigned public defenders are actually incapable of paying for their defense.    (Story from the Gazette.) 
  • 6.27.12 – LSC’s recent technology summit: “LSC convened the 2012 Summit on the Use of Technology to Expand Access to Justice on June 21-22 in Silver Spring, Md.  Nearly 50 participants – including technology experts, academics, private practitioners, representatives of legal services programs, courts, and governmental and business entities – were invited to explore the potential of technology to move the United States toward providing service of some form to all with a legal need.   This gathering, the first of two planned in 2012, focused on development of ideas.  A follow-up, tentatively planned for the fall, will focus on implementation.  Fourteen white papers were produced in advance of the summit and were used to focus the discussion.  They will be published, some in print and the rest online, by the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology.”  (Here’s more on LSC’s website.)
  • 6.26.12 – in Indiana, an op-ed looks at some of the factors influencing the fiscal push-and-pull as county and state governments endeavor to fund indigent defense programs.  (Op-ed in the Star Press.)
  • 6.26.12 – some funding comes to the rescue for the NOLA defender’s office: “The Orleans Parish public defender’s office will soon restore services slashed during a budget fiasco in February, partly thanks to recent increases in fees that criminal defendants, traffic violators and seat belt scofflaws pay along with their fines…. The moves signal some stability — though at a far lower budget — for an office that has faced criticism for spending well beyond its means and waiting too long to cut costs.  The bloodletting in February, which created what Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter labeled a “constitutional emergency,” eliminated more than 20 lawyers, including many of the most experienced attorneys in the office, and a half-dozen investigators and staffers.”  The office will actually be hiring some lawyers now that funding circumstances ahve changed. (Article from the Times-Picayune.) 
  • 6.25.12 – “Officials in cities across Washington state say that even as they’re trying to find ways to cut budgets, new guidelines from the state Supreme Court will force them to cough up more money for people who are accused of crimes but can’t afford their own attorneys.  By a 7-2 vote this month, the justices adopted new case limits for public defenders — lawyers appointed to represent poor defendants. The standards say that beginning in September 2013, public defenders should not handle more than 300 to 400 misdemeanor cases or 150 felony cases a year, limits designed to make sure the lawyers have enough time to devote to their clients and ensure those defendants are getting their constitutional right to an attorney.”  (Read reactions from city officials and attorneys in the full AP article.)
  • 6.25.12 – A piece entitled “Pro Bono Partnerships Between In-House and Outside Counsel – Why Everyone Wins” looks at the legal industry’s and corporate America’s general views of pro bono; how law firms and corporations can work together to grow their pro bono programs; and why individuals, businesses and the general public benefit from pro bono partnerships….  Lawyers must continue to view pro bono as an integral part of their professional responsibility. Moreover, serving others who may be less fortunate “makes for a better company and better life,” as noted in AmLaw Daily’s recent piece entitled “The Purpose-Driven Firm.” What that means is that law firms will benefit by ensuring that pro bono is a vital part of their business plans and practices, but equally important, its lawyers will take great satisfaction in doing the right thing while enhancing their legal skills.  (Full article in the Metropolitan Corporate Counsel.)
  • 6.25.12 – pro bono’s on the rise in, appropriately, the Volunteer State: “The Board of Professional Responsibility released data showing that more than 46 percent of Tennessee attorneys reported performing free (“pro bono”) legal work for deserving Tennesseans, an increase of six percent from last year. This is the highest percentage of pro bono reporting since attorneys began to voluntarily report pro bono in 2009 and more than twice the level of reporting during the initial year. The figure released does not include attorneys who that have yet to renew their licenses and report hours.”  (Full story in the Chattanoogan.)
  • 6.25.12 – Legal Services of New Jersey has been hard hit in the recession.  So this potential good news must be welcomed: “People would pay more in fees to cover upgrades to the state’s court system and legal services for the poor under a bill that won final passage approved in the Senate today.  The bill (A763) would raise $27.1 million through the fees. The state Supreme Court would decide which fees would increase and by how much, though no single fee hike could exceed $50. Legal Services of New Jersey, a nonprofit organization that represents indigent clients in civil cases, would get $10.1 million from the fee hikes.”  (Full story at NJ.com.)   
  • 6.25.12 – this piece in the Altoona Mirror looks at the impact of LSC funding cuts on Central Pennsylvania legal services providers, includine Laurel Legal Services and MidPenn Legal Services.
  • 6.24.12 – pay parity!  “An experienced assistant [DA] in Philadelphia, one with seven years on the job, can make $65,000 yearly.  A public defender with exactly the same experience makes a lot less: $51,500.  To close these sorts of gaps and to fill two dozen vacancies, the Defender Association is playing hardball with the Nutter administration, which funds the office.  Unless the city gives the association more money, it says, as of July, it will no longer staff three of Philadelphia’s 67 criminal courtrooms and cut back staffing in a fourth courtroom.”  (Story from the Philadelphia Inquirer.)
  • 6.23.12 – “The state should establish uniform standards for court-appointed attorneys because counties have failed to provide adequate defense, according to a governor’s commission report released Friday.  The Indigent Defense Advisory Commission, established by Gov. Rick Snyder in October, determined Michigan’s county-based system has resulted in an “uncoordinated, 83-county patchwork quilt” of public defense systems that has failed to provide adequate legal defense for people who can’t afford a lawyer. According to the report sent to Snyder and legislative leaders, a 13-member state commission should be formed to establish standards for indigent defense and to oversee the quality of the county-based system.  The commission also recommended the Legislature supplement county-based funding where necessary.” (Here’s the Detroit News article, and here’s the report of the Indigent Defense Advisory Committee.)
  • 6.21.12 – in Montana, “The State Public Defender’s Office continues to tell state lawmakers it needs more money. “A legislative committee heard a report today outlining how the office is short on resources. The public defenders will have to compete with many other requests for a piece of the state’s projected budget surplus…. Several Republicans on the committee also called for the Public Defender’s Office to start charging a small fee to those using the service as a way to raise funds—say $10 or $20.”  (Story from Montana Public Radio.) 

Super Musical Bonus: outrageously hot weather of the type DC is currently experiencing makes me want an ocean. Here’s Sun Kil Moon covering Modest Mouse’s “Ocean Breathes Salty.”

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