Public Interest News Bulletin – April 16, 2010

 This week’s edition is fairly abbreviated, with stories touching upon the challenges that increased pro se litigation create for public interest advocates and for court administrators, continued coverage of the debate about the autonomy of public-interest clinical programs at state-run law schools, and more.

  • 4.15.10 – Detroit Free Press (running an AP article) – delivering a State of the Judiciary speech to the state’s legislature, Michigan Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly highlighted the fact that the number of Michiganders who can not afford an attorney to help with their legal problems is rising.  Kelly noted that “her plans to address the problem include creating a task force to promote ways to help people who can’t afford an attorney, and a Web site for non-lawyers who represent themselves in legal proceedings.”  Link to article.
  • 4.13.10 – Texas Tribune – as more Texans struggle to navigate the legal system on a pro se basis because they are unable to afford counsel, “[t]he problem of decreasing legal services for the poor is getting worse in Texas — ranked 43rd nationally — and fast.  The primary source of funds for civil legal aid in Texas — interest from trust accounts, client money that Texas attorneys are required to pool — dropped from $20 million in 2007 to $5.5 million in 2009 due to falling interest rates.”  A group of lawyers, judges, courthouse administrators, and others met last week at the “Texas Forum on Self-Represented Litigants and the Courts” to brainstorm about how to better assist pro se litigants.  Link to article.  [Ed. note: last week, the Forth Worth Star-Telegram ran an op-ed by the state’s chief justice and chair of the Texas Access to Justice Commission, arguing that while the longer-term solution to this problem is to adequately fund civil legal services programs, in the short term courts, public interest organizations, and other stakeholders should implement programs and resources to help pro se litigants navigate the justice system.] 
  • 4.13.10 – Maryland Daily Record – the Maryland legislature has considerably expanded the size of the board that oversees the state’s Office of the Public Defender – from three to 13 individuals.  “The new law, which takes effect June 1, follows the controversial firing last August of former Public Defender Nancy S. Forster on a 2-1 vote by the current three-member panel that oversees the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.  Supporters of the change in the board’s composition had expressed frustration that the state’s chief defender of indigent criminal defendants could be removed by just two individuals. Under the new law, Senate Bill 97, the public defender can still be removed by a majority vote. But that majority will consist of seven votes.”  Link to article.  [Ed. Note: Ms. Forster’s firing, which was driven in part by philosophical differences over how the office approached its mission, received extensive local coverage last August.  Forster favored the continued use of funds on social services resources for clients, while at least one trustee favored a greater concentration of funds on courtroom work.  See Washington Post coverage, an 8.26.09 Baltimore Sun op-ed, by a Univ. of Maryland School of Law faculty member questioning Forster’s dismissal, as well as coverage from the Daily Record.]
  • 4.13.10 – WCCO Television Station Website (CBS Affiliate in Minneapolis) – the fact that a “one-time millionaire” has gotten a federal public defender in Minnesota raises questions about who is entitled to a free public defense and how the system works.  John Stuart, the state’s top public defender explains that while the particular case in question is a federal matter, the framework for making the decision about indigent defense is the same on the federal and state levels.  The court looks at whether a defendant is in jeopardy of facing jail time, and whether they have the assets to hire a lawyer to defend them.  Stuart goes on to note that most public defense clients are very poor – “Almost all the public defender clients were really, really poor. So if [WCCO’s] viewers are worried about their tax money going to provide free lawyers to a bunch of people situated like a used car dealer or whatever, that doesn’t happen” – and that his state office, which pays its starting lawyers an annual salary equal to a sum that highly paid criminal defense attorneys could earn in one case, is hemorrhaging lawyers as a result of budget cuts.  Link to story.
  • 4.11.10 – The Record (New Jersey) – the Rutgers University School of Law’s Environmental Law Clinic tried this week to fend off an open-records request regarding its representation of a local group of citizens who are trying to stop the building of  strip mall in Sussex County, New Jersey.  Since the school is a state institution, an attorney for the land developer has sued the clinic seeking records regarding its involvement in the litigation.  The case, which comes on the heels of a similar controversy at the University of Maryland, raises questions about the degree of school clinical programs’ autonomy as they seek to train students and serve public interest causes.  “Academic associations and law schools filed papers supporting Rutgers. The developer’s request, if granted, would hamper the school’s ability to educate its students and ‘interfere with the availability of pro bono services provided by law clinics to needy citizens of New Jersey,’ they argued.  The case also raises concerns about academic freedom at public universities, they said.”  Link to article.  [Ed. note: late last week, the New York Times ran a piece that touches on the University of Maryland controversy and zooms out more broadly to look at the proliferation of law school environmental clinic programs in recent decades, their relationships with the environmental movement, and the dust-ups that have occurred throughout the country as clinical programs have gotten involved in litigation against business interests.    Also, a 4/11/10 New York Times editorial came down on the side of clinical programs (noting yet another, recent controversy in Louisiana), arguing that business interests prompting legislative scrutiny of clinic activities interfere “with law schools’ freedom to decide how to educate students” and that “extracting information from clinics about the people they serve … also threatens the clinics’ relationships with their clients.”

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