Public Interest News Bulletin – August 3, 2012

By: Steve Grumm

Happy Friday, dear readers.  All other news this week was eclipsed by the Glorious Philadelphia Phillies Baseball Franchise’s personnel decisions.  In the midst of a woeful season, the Phils traded away center fielder Shane Victorino, a fan favorite because of the grit, grace, and enthusiasm with which he plays the game.  I commemorate Victorino’s (a/k/a “The Flyin’ Hawaiian”) splendid Philadelphia years in haiku:

Flyin’ Hawaiian

Embodied Philly baseball

He’s gone; I’m dyin’

I don’t often post my original poetry here.  YOU’RE WELCOME.  Heh.  Before turning to this week’s access-to-justice news, here is a pair of other, more serious items that have caught my attention:

  • Much ink has been spilled over the questions of whether and how the widening income gap between the U.S.’s wealthiest and poorest is impacting American culture.  Much of the spilled ink takes form as speculation; relatively little hard data is available to help us explore the question.  But some interesting Pew research shows that we are increasingly segregated by income with respect to the neighborhoods/housing-clusters we live in.  There are fewer mixed-income and middle-class neighborhoods.  Here’s a Washington Post article and here’s a link to the Pew research overview.
  • The Chronicle of Philanthropy put out research on a salary gender gap among junior-level nonprofit employees: “Even early in their careers, women are likely to make less than their male counterparts, according to a Chronicle survey of entry-level nonprofit workers. The study of more than 900 people who have been in the nonprofit workforce less than five years also found that women have lower salary expectations than men do.”  Read more here and play around with charts that sort the data by education level, including one sorting for “Law degree, medical degree, or PhD.”

Okay, access-to-justice and public interest news (which happens to be heavy on indigent defense this week):

  • the Nat’l. Center for Access to Justice has launched a survey on law student pro bono;
  • The Montana Legal Services Association benefits from national mortgage foreclosure class-action settlement funds;
  • The Virginia Legal Aid Society shutters an office;
  • Some public defenders in the Peace Garden State (great nickname!) face swollen caseloads;
  • Four NorCal immigration legal services providers splitting $650K in foundation funding;
  • Short-staffed Philly public defender’s office pulls out of 3 busy courtrooms;
  • A community-based diversionary court program is lowering recidivism in D.C.;
  • NOLA defender sues traffic court, says “Show me the money!”;
  • the Show Me State’s high court issues a (limited) decision on public defender caseload limits;
  • the Legal Services Corporation releases its 2011 annual report;
  • the Wisconsin ATJ Commission begins a series of public hearings;
  • a possible prosecutors’ strike in Contra Costa County, CA(?);
  • a county near Pittsburgh, PA may go to more staff defenders, fewer appointed counsel;
  • Garden State pro bono numbers;
  • grant funding available for state ATJ commissions;
  • a look at caseload pressures on Bluegrass State public defenders;
  • Why can’t we end poverty in the U.S.?;
  • a look at the Indianapolis Legal Aid Society;
  • Calcasieu defender’s office in Louisiana forced to cut back on conflict counsel;
  • Music!  And Space!

The summaries: 

  • 8.1.12 – “The National Center for Access to Justice is preparing a Guide to Strengthening Law Student Pro Bono to Increase Access to Justice and is seeking your help.  If you work in a court, legal services program, law school, law firm, Access to Justice Commission, bar association, or other justice system setting, we hope you will respond to this call. The Guide is focusing on ‘volunteering,’ as distinct from clinics, externships, fellowships, and other activities which law students pursue for credit or pay.  The Center is gathering examples of best practices in which law students, as volunteers, are making a difference….  The Center seeks your input via a survey monkey instrument or via email, info@nc4aj.org. Please also feel free to email the Center’s Executive Director with any questions, David Udell, udell@yu.edu.”  
  • 8.1.12 – Montana’s attorney general announced how the state’s share of settlement funds from a class-action over shady lending and foreclosure practices are being divvied.  The Montana Legal Services Association will receive $863,000 to serve low-income homeowners facing foreclosure-related problems.  (Here’s the AG’s announcement.)  
  • 8.1.12 – public defenders in North Dakota are facing swollen caseloads and are short on attorneys to handle them.  The state’s indigent defense program director cites a “crushing” caseload in one rural office on the state’s western edge.  (Full story from the Williston Herald.) Unsolicited speculation by your author: North Dakota has enjoyed a natural-resource-driven economic boom of late, and droves of people have found employment there.  I suspect that with all of this inflow and churn, the state government – including its indigent defense program – is feeling some strain to keep up with the need for services.  Also, speaking of western North Dakota, if you’ve never been to Theodore Roosevelt National Park you’re missing out.
  • 8.1.12 –  The Silicon Valley Community Foundation “announced Tuesday, July 31, that it is donating $654,090 in grants to organizations providing immigration [legal] services for low and moderate-income residents of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. This is the foundation’s third year of donating to legal services for immigrants in the area. The money will be divided between four organizations: Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, the Mission Asset Fund, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and the International Institute of the Bay Area.  The organizations receiving the grant money all offer various immigrant services, including visas, naturalization, asylum and assistance to survivors of violence.”  (Full story from the Mountain View Voice.)
  • 8.1.12 – the Philly public defender’s office has pulled out of three courtrooms on account of longstanding attorney shortages: “Staffing has been eliminated for now at three of the busiest Common Pleas courtrooms in Philadelphia.  The action is not being taken by city officials.  Rather it’s a form of protest by the defender’s association. (Here’s a WHYY interview with Philadelphia Public Defender Ellen Greenlee.)
  • 8.1.12 – a report from the D.C. Superior Court (our trial-level court) highlights the success of a neighborhood court diversionary program, most of the participants of which are minor drug offenders.  The main takeaway is that the recidivism rate among East of the River Community Court (ERCC) participants was markedly lower compared to defendants in the regular court system. Here’s a link to the report, courtesy of the Legal Times.
  • 7.31.12 – “The chief public defender in Orleans Parish and the state board that oversees indigent defense in Louisiana filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the four New Orleans Traffic Court judges, seeking millions of dollars they claim the court has illegally withheld in fees slated for poor defendants. The lawsuit, filed in East Baton Rouge Parish, claims the judges have failed to follow state law in collecting and turning over an indigent defense fee that rose from $35 to $45 per conviction this year. The lawsuit follows a standstill between the state Public Defender Board and the judges over the court’s responsibility to make up for past failures and pay what it owes.”  (Full story from the Times-Picayune.)
  • 7.31.12 – “A divided Missouri Supreme Court concluded Tuesday that a judge exceeded his authority when appointing a public defender despite a rule that restricts new clients to control caseloads…. The state public defender system has set maximum caseload standards for its offices. When limits are exceeded for three consecutive months, the public defender director can certify that the local office has limited availability for cases. Officials then are supposed to work with prosecutors and judges to reduce demand for public defenders and can refuse new cases if an agreement is not reached…. The Supreme Court ruled, in a 4-3 decision, that the caseload rule should have been applied because nothing was shown to suggest that the protocol was invalid or inapplicable.”  (Here’s the full AP story.)  More coverage:
    • “With Tuesday’s decision, the Supreme Court affirmed that Missouri State Public Defenders Commission has the authority to set rules governing procedures for the district offices.  But the twist: The court did not decide whether this specific rule, which allows a district office to close when caseloads reach a maximum level set by the commission, was proper.”  (Full article from the Springfield News-Leader.)
  • 7.31.12 – the Legal Services Corporation has released its 2011 annual report.  Here are some key data points from the report’s “By the Numbers” section:
    • The number of Americans eligible for LSC-funded legal assistance reached an all-time high: 64.6 million.
    • LSC’s 135 grantees employed 8,363 full-time staff at 915 offices throughout the United States and its territories.  4,097 were attorneys, 1,447 were paralegals.  [Ed. note: according to prior year’s (2010) report, there were 9059 full-time staff working with LSC grantee programs.]
    • 32,101 private attorneys accepted pro bono cases through LSC-funded programs.
    • Cases closed: 899,817, including 79,578 with the involvement of pro bono attorneys.
    • 117,595 clients were at least 60 years old.
    • 637,426 were women.
    • 105,090 of the cases involved domestic violence.
    • Total number of people in all households served: 2,284,162.
  • 7.31.12 – “On Tuesday [7/31/12], the Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission hosted a public hearing to learn more about that challenge.” The committee is hosting a total of six hearings throughout the Badger State, and intends to produce a report based on the data and stories it gathers.  (Full story from WQOW.)
  • 7.30.12 – From Contra Costa County in N. California: “Contra Costa supervisors voted Tuesday to impose a labor contract on [unionized] county prosecutors that includes deep pay cuts, despite District Attorney Mark Peterson’s assertion that he can find savings the county needs elsewhere in his budget…. The District Attorney’s Office is the most understaffed, overworked prosecutorial unit in the Bay Area, and cutting compensation further will hurt morale and likely lead to more attorneys leaving, Peterson said…. The supervisors said they were only able to pass a balanced budget this year because the county’s employee unions have made sacrifices, and that deputy district attorneys need to do the same…. The prosecutors say they have been discussing striking, and could challenge the contract in labor court.”  (Full story from the Silicon Valley Mercury News.)
  • 7.30.12 – Westmoreland County (PA) officials are mulling a plan to cut the number of private lawyers appointed to represent criminal defendants. Court administrators estimate that about $150,000 a year can be saved by retaining a staff of five attorneys earning an annual salary rather than the current system in which dozens of lawyers are appointed and paid on an hourly basis. ‘Other than personnel, this is the courts’ largest line item,’ said court administrator Paul Kuntz.  Last year, judges appointed more than 50 private lawyers who represented about 330 defendants. The county paid $368,000 for those lawyers.  Attorneys are appointed by the courts to represent criminal defendants when there is a conflict of interest with the public defender’s office. For the last several months, court officials have explored methods to reduce these costs.  Kuntz surveyed 33 counties throughout Pennsylvania and found that most — 25 — used independent staff to deal with these cases.  (Full story from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.)
  • 7.30.12 – Garden State pro bono numbers.  “New Jersey’s top 20 firms racked up 100,746 pro bono hours in 2011, breaking 100,000 for the second time but leaving intact last year’s record of nearly 104,000 hours.  Still, the 2011 figure represents an impressive average of more than 33 hours for each of the 3,027 attorneys at the top 20 firms.  And the proportion of those who did 20 hours or more of pro bono went up in 2011, from 25.7 percent to 28 percent.  Leading the pack once again were the same firms that have held the top four spots since 2008: Lowenstein Sandler in Roseland, Gibbons and McCarter & English, both in Newark, and Porzio Bromberg & Newman in Morristown.”  (Full story from the New Jersey Law Journal.)
  • 7.30.12 – funding available for state access-to-justice commissions: “With funding from the Public Welfare Foundation, the ABA Access to Justice Commission Expansion Project is making grants to strengthen the Access to Justice commission movement nationally by facilitating development of new Access to Justice commissions and expanding agendas and promoting innovative initiatives in existing commissions.”  (Here are grant application process/timeline details from the ABA.)  Tip of cap to Richard Zorza’s Access to Justice blog.
  • 7.29.12 – here’s an article looking at the pressures weighing upon Kentucky’s indigent defense network (the Department of Public Advocacy), with particular focus on the very busy Bowling Green office.  (DPA just released its 2011 annual report.)  From the article: “The picture of the overworked public defender buried in casework is rooted in fact, particularly in the Bowling Green office….  The Bowling Green office handled 5,437 new cases, the fifth-highest total among the 30 trial offices. The average caseload of 515.1 new cases per attorney in the local office is the third-highest average in the state, and when ongoing criminal cases are factored into a public defender’s caseload, the Bowling Green office had the highest average attorney caseload, with each attorney responsible for 799.8 cases….  Overall, Kentucky’s public defender caseload, which includes the Trial and Post-Trial divisions, has increased by about 43.5 percent from 2002 – when 108,078 new cases were assigned to the DPA – to last year, according to the DPA’s annual report.”  (Full article from the Bowling Green Daily News.)
  •  7.28.12 – Prof. Peter Edelman, chair of the D.C. Access to Justice Commission and longtime supporter of civil legal aid, asks why we cannot end poverty in the U.S.  Edelman IDs federal programs that have helped the poor – Social Security, food stamps, and the Earned Income Tax Credit, and then asks: “With all of that, why have we not achieved more? Four reasons: An astonishing number of people work at low-wage jobs. Plus, many more households are headed now by a single parent, making it difficult for them to earn a living income from the jobs that are typically available. The near disappearance of cash assistance for low-income mothers and children — i.e., welfare — in much of the country plays a contributing role, too. And persistent issues of race and gender mean higher poverty among minorities and families headed by single mothers.” (Read the full New York Times op-ed.)
  • In Louisiana, “Calcasieu Public Defenders Office announced it must cut back services due to budget shortfalls and that the office will withdraw as counsel for about 400 felony cases it’s now appointed to handle.  A spokesman says they will work with the judges to assign new attorneys from the private bar.”  The positions being cut are four of the office’s six conflict attorney slots.  (Full story from KPLC.)  

Music!  Hard to withstand The Temptations if you want to smile on a Friday morning. (Edit: link fixed.)

Space!  Check out this extraordinary time-lapse footage of Earth as seen from the International Space Station.  As trite as this notion may seem, perspective is everything, and viewing Earth from above is somehow humbling, frightening, and tremendously satisfying at once.

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