PSJD Public Interest News Digest – November 11, 2016

by Christina Jackson, NALP Director of Public Service Initiatives & Fellowships

Happy Veteran’s Day! We honor those who have served our nation in war and peace.

Here are the week’s headlines:

  • Montana’s public defender’s office hires 62 attorneys;
  • New York Legal Assistance Group’s pro se clinic opens in Southern District of New York;
  • Grant funds to help crime victims in Kentucky more than doubling;
  • Judge dismisses suit against Missouri governor over funding public defenders;
  • Connecticut public defenders join a union;
  • Judge dismisses one of two suits against Utah indigent defense system;
  • University of New Mexico School of Law launches new Natural Resources and Environmental Law Clinic;
  • Legal Services Corporation announces Technology Initiative Grants;
  • Jones Day and ABA to launch VetLex;
  • Spotlight on Outstanding Public Servants;
  • Super Music Bonus!

The summaries:

November 2, 2016 – “To accommodate a budget shortfall of $3.5 million, the State Office of the Public Defender will no longer be contracting cases with local attorneys. Instead, the office will hire a total of 62 attorneys in offices across the state to handle cases previously assigned to outside counsel, OPD Chief Administrator Scott Cruse said Monday. This plan was projected to save the office $2.2 million in fiscal year 2017, according to the OPD’s mitigation plan. On Wednesday, Interim Director of the Billings’ office Doug Day said the office would no longer contract out cases to local lawyers.” “The new attorneys will handle certain cases that were previously assigned to local attorneys because of conflicts of interest or high caseloads. Day says the public defender typically paid contracted attorneys about $62 per hour. The new attorneys will be part-time and will be paid between $37 and $48 hourly. Some contract attorneys worried they may not be able to support their practices without the public defender’s cases. But Public Defender Commission member Mark Parker says the move is the best way to reduce costs while upholding the office’s mission.” (Billings Gazette)(Great Falls Tribune)

November 3, 2016 – “Pro se litigants and the docket of the Southern District will get a boost with the launch of a new clinic in Lower Manhattan that will provide free advice to litigants who can’t afford a lawyer. ‘We are very likely to see a significant impact on our pro se docket,’ Southern District Chief Judge Colleen McMahon said at a ribbon cutting ceremony Thursday. ‘So it’s not only good for the litigants, but good for the courts.’ The new clinic is staffed by the nonprofit New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) and is run by Robyn Tarnofsky, a former litigation partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.” “NYLAG’s own legal clinic is used to working in conjunction with the district’s Pro Se Intake Unit and its Office of Pro Se Litigation, but the pro se clinic will operate independently from the court. The district is providing office space for the clinic on the ground floor of the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse, including a conference room, a PACER terminal, a computer for the client and office space for Tarnofsky, a second attorney from NYLAG and a paralegal. That staff will be supplemented by a pool of volunteer law firm associates “who are looking to get some client contact, which can be difficult at large firms,” Tarnofsky said in an interview.” (New York Law Journal)(subscription required)

November 4, 2016 – “Gov. Matt Bevin and Kentucky Justice Secretary John Tilley announced Thursday that grant money to help victims of violent crime is more than doubling this year – all thanks to an aggressive effort to capture federal funding and pair grants with Kentucky organizations. In total, the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet is awarding more than $14 million in grants to programs that aid crime victims, including rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters and child advocacy centers. That’s a 127 percent increase over the $6.2 million given out last year.” (Kentucky New Era)

November 4, 2016 – “A judge tossed out the state public defender agency’s lawsuit over Gov. Jay Nixon’s budgeting authority. The lawsuit challenged the governor’s decision to withhold millions of dollars in funds from the agency that defends poor people. A Cole County judge, in a ruling made public on Friday, sided with Nixon in the lawsuit that the Missouri State Public Defender system and the state’s Public Defender Commission filed in July. The plaintiffs alleged Nixon cut their budget while no general revenue was restricted from Nixon’s own budget. The system’s director, Michael Barrett, called the move political. In August, Barrett appointed Nixon, the state’s former attorney general, to defend one of his agency’s clients in protest of the budget cut. A judge later blocked that move.” (KY3)

November 7, 2016 – “Nearly 200 attorneys who work for the Judicial Branch’s division of Public Defender Services voted to join Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Rank-and-file public defenders voted 100-18 in favor of unionization and the supervisors’ group voted 15-3. The election took place via mail between Oct. 14 and Oct. 28. ‘We joined Council 4 to strengthen our voice on the job and to protect the vital services we provide to citizens in need of legal representation,’ Assistant Public Defender Jeffrey LaPierre said. ‘Unionizing is our path to a more secure and stable future, for ourselves and our clients.'” (CT News Junkie)

November 8, 2016 – “A federal judge has tossed a proposed class-action lawsuit challenging Washington County’s public defender system. The lawsuit — filed in January against the state of Utah, Washington County and several public officials — claimed the county’s current public defender system is broken, and that the attorneys who handle those contracts are overworked, underpaid and are not given the proper support to defend their clients. The two named plaintiffs, William Cox and Edward Paulus, are two Washington County men who have been assigned public defenders for their pending criminal cases. But in an order dismissing the case filed on Monday, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson ruled that because the plaintiffs’ criminal cases are not resolved, they cannot yet claim they have been harmed or that they have had ineffective counsel. The judge wrote that their claims were ‘sweeping, yet unsupported.'” “The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah filed its own lawsuit against the state in June, asking that a judge find that the current system is not constitutional. The ACLU argues in its lawsuit that the system is inadequate, underfunded and unfair to Utahns accused of crimes who rely on public defenders. That lawsuit is still pending in federal court as the plaintiffs seek class-action status.” (The Salt Lake Tribune)

November 9, 2016 – “The University of New Mexico (UNM) School of Law will open a new Natural Resources and Environmental Law Clinic (NREL) in January 2017. NREL joins the UNM Law School’s 40 year history of providing legal services to New Mexico’s communities.  It will be the fifth section of the UNM Law School’s mandatory Clinic Program, in which law students represent actual clients with supervision by faculty. NREL will provide a wide variety of legal services to underrepresented individuals, community groups, nonprofit organizations, and Indian tribes to protect, preserve, and use lands and natural resources, and improve public health and the environment of communities. The clinic provides an opportunity for law students to work on a mix of litigation, drafting laws and policy, and advising clients.  Clinic students may appear before all levels of tribal, state and federal courts, administrative agencies and the legislature.” (UNM News)

November 9, 2016 – “The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) today announced 34 Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) to 27 legal services organizations in 20 states and one territory. TIG funding supports a variety of initiatives, from building more efficient intake systems for clients seeking legal services to creating automated forms to support legal aid staff, pro bono attorneys, and self-represented litigants. The program was established in 2000. Since that time, LSC has made more than 600 grants totaling more than $57 million to civil legal aid organizations across the country.” See the full list of grantees here. (LSC)

November 10, 2016 – “Jones Day law firm has joined forces with the American Bar Association to launch a national veterans assistance program called VetLex, to match U.S. veterans and military families who need legal help with veteran service organizations and attorneys willing to offer their expertise pro bono. VetLex (, a combination of the words ‘veteran’ and the Latin word for ‘law,’ will be the first national network of its kind devoted to providing veterans with referrals to social service providers and pro bono or ‘low bono’ (low-cost) lawyers qualified and willing to provide those services. The program will start in a handful of pilot cities — including Cleveland — in the spring of 2017, before expanding nationally.” The initial target of the program is low-income veterans. (


Spotlight on Outstanding Public Servants:

Janet Reno, who rose from a rustic life on the edge of the Everglades to become attorney general of the United States — the first woman to hold the job — and whose eight years in that office placed her in the middle of some of the most divisive episodes of the Clinton presidency, died on Monday at her home in Miami-Dade County, Fla. She was 78. Her sister, Margaret Hurchalla, said the cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, which was diagnosed in November 1995.  Click on the link to read more about her amazing life and career. (The New York Times)

Music Bonus!  A special video in honor of Veteran’s Day.

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