Public Interest News Bulletin – August 10, 2012

courtesy of

By: Steve Grumm

Happy Friday, dear readers, from Washington, DC, where the sun is emerging after several hours of drenching summer rain.  Did you know that this day in history is a hugely significant one for the museum-goers among us?  On August 10, 1793, the Louvre opened its doors with its twofold mission of celebrating beautiful art and making non-French people feel uncultured.   But here in the US of A, on August 10, 1846 Congress chartered the Smithsonian Institution, which has since connected millions upon millions of people with art, science, and history.  

Speaking of history, unfortunately some of the history being written today concerns persistent economic hardships confronting families throughout the U.S.  Here’s an NPR story on the growth of poverty in the U.S. “According to a recent survey by The Associated Press, the number of Americans living at or below the poverty line will reach its highest point since…1964. Close to 16 percent of Americans now live at or below the poverty line. For a family of four, that’s $23,000 a year. On top of that, 100 million of us — 1 out of 3 Americans — manage to survive on a household income barely twice that amount. How is this poverty crisis happening?…”  (Full story.)

  • On a related note here is a slideshow – The Faces of Food Stamps – that looks at the stories of several food stamp recipients, including the economic circumstances that forced them to seek help for themselves and their families.  Just for some broad-brush context: over one in seven Americans benefits from food stamps (a/k/a the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) these days.

The week in access-to-justice news, in short:

  • report both criticizes and praises NOLA’s public defender in relation to a funding crisis the office is working through;
  • stricter standards for determining eligibility for indigent defense in the Bay State?;
  • a new initiative to make technology work for Washington State civil legal aid programs and clients;
  • a pro bono attorney is appealing sanctions in hopes of getting an en banc hearing from the 9th Circuit;
  • will the ABA roll out a legal job corps?;
  • legal aid funding woes in the Sunflower State;
  • ditto in Old Dominion;
  • staff reductions coming at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid;
  • on a brighter note, the Florida Bar Foundation is expecting a windfall;
  • public defenders must defend themselves from professional indignities;
  • Ohio legal aid providers face harsh fiscal realities;
  • same thing for a Northern California provider;
  • the St. Louis Post Dispatch calls for $ for the state’s indigent defense system;
  • Memphis gets help from the Public Defender Corps program;
  • DC law-firm associates raise almost a million bucks for the Legal Aid Society;
  • the vital role of pro bono lawyers in helping Chicagoans who face foreclosure;
  • Music!

The summaries:

  • 8.9.12 – “A new report on the Orleans Parish public defender’s office places most of the blame on the office’s leadership for a major budget crisis earlier this year that forced heavy bloodletting. But the review also praised Derwyn Bunton, the chief public defender, for helping to build a professional office from what was a bare bones operation comprised of part-time lawyers before Hurricane Katrina.  The 66-page report, commissioned by the Louisiana Public Defender Board, comes six months after a major fiscal crisis for an office that represents more than 80 percent of criminal defendants in Orleans Parish and handled 30,000 cases in 2011.”  (Full story from the Times-Picayune.)
  • 8.9.12 – a Boston Globe editorial argues for stricter standards in determining whether a criminal defendant should be financially eligible for a public defender’s services. The piece highlights the fact that the state’s high court has recently taken notice of what it sees as overly lax standards for assessing indigence.
  • 8.7.12 – some folks with the Northwest Justice Project (which is where I fell in love with the idea of being a public interest lawyer) talk about their work “creating a series of instructive videos for through the federal Communities Connect Network Project (part of the Department of Commerce’s Broadband Technology Opportunity Program) which aims to increase access to technology and improve legal literacy for unrepresented Washingtonians.”  The interview was conducted by the good people at
  • 8.7.12 – “A coalition of public interest groups and two law professors are supporting a call for en banc review of sanctions imposed on an Arizona pro bono attorney in a blistering opinion by a federal appeals court panel.  In a June 21 opinion (PDF), the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals made a personal award of costs against attorney Howard M. Shanker, finding that he ‘grossly abused the judicial process’ by pursuing a harassing, duplicative lawsuit on behalf of his clients.”  I don’t know anything about the merits of the case.  I include this in the Bulletin b/c some parties supporting the en banc review are worried about a chilling effect with respect to the willingness of pro bono counsel to bring cases if they fear the possibility of sanctions.  Granted, this is affirmative litigation, which is not the normal posture for a lot of pro bono cases.  Nevertheless the ABA Journal article is worth a read.   
  • 8.7.12 – speaking of the ABA, they may really get into the postgraduate employment business, and this could impact the public interest community: “ABA President-elect James R. Silkenat told of a plan to create a legal job corps to match unemployed lawyers with underserved communities during a speech to the ABA House of Delegates….  Silkenat, who becomes ABA president in 2013, said there is a need to find meaningful jobs for lawyers and to make sure all parts of society have access to legal assistance. ‘Access to justice is more than just a catchphrase,’ he said.  Silkenat told the ABA Journal that the job corps would operate in both cities and rural areas. A few law schools have tried to implement the idea, he said, but ‘the ABA is the only party that can put it together nationally’.”  Hmmm.  (Full article in the ABA Journal.)
  • 8.7.12 – this article is ostensibly about $4000 of county funding for Kansas Legal Services, but goes on to highlight how KLS’s funding has been hit in the recession’s wake and the challenges it faces at present.  (Story in the Hillsboro Free Press.)
  • 8.6.12 – Jacksonville Area Legal Aid is looking at a sizeable staff cut: “Funding declines for [JALA] will cause the organization to lay off about 20 percent of its staff in the coming weeks.  Including satellite offices, JALA employs about 85 people. A 20 percent cut would indicate a loss of 17 positions.”  IOLTA funding falloffs are the main culprit: “JALA received $1.2 million in 2011, and is projected to receive $550,000 in 2013 and $350,000 in 2014.”  (Story from the Jacksonville Daily Record.)
  • 8.6.12 – on a brighter note, almost half a million dollars is flowing to the Florida Bar Foundation: “Attorney General Pam Bondi today announced that ProVest, LLC, one of Florida’s largest service processing firms, has agreed to pay $462,500 to the Florida Bar Foundation to continue the legal aid program that assists low-income individuals facing foreclosure. The settlement with ProVest resolves allegations regarding improper service of process in foreclosure cases filed in courts throughout Florida.”  Here’s the press release.
  • 8.6.12 – former public defender and current law professor Jay Silver recounts the professional indignities suffered by those who choose careers in public defense.  Criticism can come from all quarters – family members, clients, etc. – so a thick skin and strong sense of commitment are necessary for defenders to succeed.  (Full story from the National Law Journal.)   
  • 8.5.12 – a look at the harsh funding climate in which Ohio’s legal services providers are operating.  Frightening quote: “The Legal Aid Society of Columbus employed 74 people in 2008. Now, it employs 42.”  (Full story from the Columbus Dispatch.)
  • 8.5.12 – from Northern California: “A local nonprofit that has helped represent nearly 10,000 clients in legal matters in Placer and surrounding counties over the past four years alone has lost $165,847 in grant funding over the past two years, along with vital state and federal funding.  In the wake of massive federal and state funding cuts, Northern California Legal Services Motherlode Region, based in Downtown Auburn, and its other offices throughout Northern California, have had to start turning away many low-income residents desperate for legal help. Now, the legal nonprofit can only help people covered under very specific grants.  As of July 26, there was no new intake of clients except for seniors over 60 and those with health-related legal matters. As of Aug. 6, intake for some emergency cases will continue through September and will be reevaluated after that. The free legal clinics offered by the organization will also continue, but the staff and attorneys have been cut nearly in half over the past few years.”  (Full story from Auburn Journal.)
  • 8.5.12 – following a state supreme court ruling about public-defender caseloads, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial laments the under-funding of the state’s indigent defense system and argues that funding the system adequately now will save the state money in the long term: “Judges, prosecutors and public defenders have met privately time and time again without results. Prosecutors have scoffed, saying they’re as overworked as the public defenders — although, of course, they choose which cases to prosecute. Judges say they’re caught in the middle.  The Legislature and governor deal with this problem the way they deal with so many others: They punt.  Not every problem can be fixed with more funding. This one can. Do the math.”  (Here’s the full editorial.)
  • 8.5.12 – Public Defender Corps attorneys are starting work in The River City.  “Memphis is joining a movement to reform how indigent defendants are treated — in and out of the courthouse.  The idea is that public defenders may be able to help curb recidivism by helping their clients address many underlying problems, such as mental illness, unemployment and drug or alcohol addictions. Memphis’ forward-thinking helped the city earn a part in the lauded national Public Defenders Corp. program, said Jonathan Rapping, founder and president of Atlanta-based Southern Public Defender Training Center. The center and the D.C.-based Equal Justice Works lead the program, which also receives funding from the U.S. Department of Justice.”  (Full story in the Memphis Commercial Appeal.)  Unfortunately DOJ is no longer going to fund the Public Defender Corps program.  My understanding is that Southern Public Defender Training Center and Equal Justice Works are hunting for other funding options now.
  • 8.3.12 – finally, some good funding news: “In a year fraught with financial uncertainty, the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia recently got some good news: the civil legal services group’s annual Generous Associates Campaign blew past its goal and previous fundraising highs, taking in a record $901,000…. Money earned from the campaign, which is run by associates at law firms across the city, makes up between 20 to 25 percent of the organization’s operating budget….” (Full story from the Blog of the Legal Times.)
  • 8.1.12 – the Chicago Lawyer reports on the vital role of pro bono attorneys in running a courthouse based foreclosure prevention program administered by Chicago Volunteer Legal Services.

Music!  Reading news stories from Memphis and St. Louis has got me thinking about the Mississippi.  So here’s some riverboat gambling music from Wilco, which, before becoming an art-rock darling, was a scrappy Illinois  rock band.

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