PSJD Public Interest News Digest – March 24, 2017

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

Happy Friday! We are once again recognizing law students in action. If you’d like your project featured, let us know.

Here are the week’s headlines:

  • California Chief Justice asks federal officials to stop making immigration arrests at courthouse;
  • Missouri public defender director won’t extend paid parental leave for employees;
  • Private attorneys pledge to take on some cases from overworked St. Louis public defenders;
  • Legal aid wins funding boost in Alberta budget;
  • Legal Aid of Western Michigan launches online intake interview;
  • Tenants battling bad landlords find help from new app;
  • Spotlight on Outstanding Public Servants; and
  • Super Music Bonus!

The summaries:

March 16, 2017 – “The chief justice of the California Supreme Court asked federal immigration agents to stop making arrests at courthouses, saying ‘stalking undocumented immigrants’ at the facilities thwarts people’s access to justice. Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye wrote in a letter to top federal officials that she is concerned about recent reports of immigration agents going to the courts to track down immigrants for arrest, saying the practice will affect the public’s confidence in the court system. ‘Courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country’s immigration laws,’ she wrote in the letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, adding that crime and domestic violence victims and witnesses all go to the courts seeking justice and due process of the law. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had no immediate comment on the letter.” (The Mercury News)

March 17, 2017 – “Michael Barrett, director of the Missouri State Public Defender System, has notified Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens that he cannot and will not expand paid parental leave for his employees. Barrett put the information in a letter he sent to the governor Wednesday. Urging other branches of government to follow suit, Greitens signed an executive order Monday giving roughly 45,000 executive branch employees six weeks of paid parental leave if they are the primary caregiver and three weeks if they are the secondary caregiver. The time off is on top of vacation and sick days. The Office of Administration estimated the executive order’s cost to the state would be about $1.1 million annually.” “Barrett, whose department falls under the judiciary branch, wrote in his letter that while he applauded the governor’s efforts, and said he wanted to do the same for his employees, he added that ‘regrettably’ he wouldn’t. The office has more than 560 employees, 334 of whom are attorneys. ‘I believe that these mission-critical employees would instead prefer that I work to alleviate their impossible caseload burden and deliver them a salary that is worthy of their contribution to the state and its citizens,’ Barrett wrote.” (The Joplin Globe)

March 20, 2017 – “The state’s overburdened public defender system could soon see some relief, as private attorneys in the St. Louis area have committed to taking over some cases on a volunteer basis. A new nonprofit group, the Missouri Coalition for the Right to Counsel, has proposed a system where younger attorneys in the private sector try certain jury cases in the circuit courts of St. Louis and St. Louis County, where they can gain trial experience and reduce the caseloads for public defenders. More than a dozen St. Louis area firms have pledged to provide volunteers, who will undergo training from public defenders in April and then begin assisting with their overwhelming workload.” “Regardless of outside help, lawmakers still have a duty to address the issue statewide, [Missouri Public Defender Michael] Barrett said. ‘In no way is this meant to allow the state to get out of its obligation to provide counsel to poor people in Missouri,’ said Barrett, who also helped create the coalition. And to make that clear, the help has an expiration date; the firms only plan to provide volunteers for two years.” (St. Louis Dispatch)

March 20, 2017 – “Criminal lawyers in Alberta are celebrating a boost in funding to the province’s beleaguered legal aid services. ‘We’re all pleasantly surprised that the government has shown such a commitment,’ Kelly Dawson, president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association, said Monday. In last week’s budget the province committed $81 million to legal aid for the upcoming year.” “The funding increase comes after the province dedicated more money towards hiring 50 new Crown prosecutors and 30 support staff earlier this month.” (CBC News)

March 20, 2017 – “Low-income individuals and seniors who are seeking legal services now have another way to make an initial connection with a local nonprofit. Legal Aid of Western Michigan in Grand Rapids has launched an online intake interview, which will help potential clients determine whether they meet eligibility requirements for Legal Aid’s services. The tool can be accessed by computer, tablet and smartphone.” “Legal Aid designed the tool to let those who don’t qualify find out quickly — and provide them with the contact information of other places where they might find help. The guided online intake tool is interactive and should take less than 15 minutes to complete.” (Grand Rapids Business Journal)

March 21, 2017 – “Tenants and advocates fighting evictions can get some much-needed assistance from an award-winning new app launched by a nonprofit startup. is piloting a dashboard interface to make it easier for community organizers and legal aid attorneys to keep track of open maintenance cases — like leaks, mold or rodent infestations — and communicate with multiple tenants in one building or across a complex, according to startup co-founder Georges Clement. Clement — who developed the app with Dan Kass and Ashley Treni while they were fellows at Blue Ridge Labs, the Robin Hood Foundation’s tech incubator — saw the need for such a tool after spending many days observing housing court proceedings. They saw how tenants rarely had legal representation, unlike their landlords, and often ended up simply showing judges photos on their smart phones to prove poor apartment conditions — which were inadmissible as evidence unless they wanted to give up their phones. By streamlining the ability to monitor open cases, he said, it will be easier for housing advocates to negotiate with landlords and build strong legal cases against them — especially in rent stabilized buildings where owners may be trying to push out low-income tenants through harassment and neglect.” (dnainfo)

Spotlight on Outstanding Public Servants:

Law Students in Action:  Students from the University of Connecticut School of Law spent their spring break providing free legal assistance to immigrant detainees at the York County Prison who are seeking asylum.  Congratulations to Anna Cabot, a very dedicated group of law students, and several volunteer alumni attorneys, who have just returned from the second annual spring break service trip to assist detained asylum-seekers.  You can see a TV news segment about the trip at the link. (WGAL)

Music Bonus! Music pick from the PSJD Fellow Delisa Morris.

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