PSLawNet Public Interest News Bulletin – August 17, 2012

By: Steve Grumm (with help from John Kapoor)

Happy Friday, dear readers.  The week’s most well-travelled public-interest news item deals with a Legal Services Corporation announcement that its grantee organizations may cut 8% of attorney and support staff positions as those organizations struggle with depleted funding sources.  There’s a tendency, I think, to take some comfort in the idea that the worst of the Great Recession has passed (notwithstanding the precariousness of the present recovery).  But the longer-term fiscal challenges spawned by the recession are in some ways hitting the legal services community hardest now.

At best, one may hope that LSC funding can creep back into the high $300 millions, given budget-cutting propensities on Capitol Hill.  IOLTA funding is dependent mostly on interest rates, which remain at historic lows as policy-makers hope that loose credit will contribute to economic stimulus.  And legal services providers who had financial reserves have by and large exhausted them at this point.  There is less federal money, a whole lot less IOLTA money, and the rainy-day funds are dry.  Not a pretty picture.

Sorry to begin on a down note. There is some good public-interest news below.  Before moving into that, here are two other interesting items:

  • a PAC for nonprofits.  From the Chronicle of Philanthropy: “CForward, a political-action committee that was set up last year to promote candidates who pledge to stand up for nonprofits, has made its first endorsements.  They include five contenders for state legislatures and one each for city council, mayor, and the U.S. House of Representatives ‘Our choices are not based on any single issue, or geography, gender, or political party,’ the group said in a statement. With governments cutting budgets across the country, it looked for candidates that would ‘promote our role in creating jobs, attracting investment dollars and maintaining the civil society required for traditional business to thrive’.”
  • the ABA Journal’s annual Ross Essay contest, announced yesterday, is looking for haiku poetry.  Frequent readers of this weekly blog – all six of you – may recall that just two weeks ago I graced the blog’s pages with my haiku about a baseball player trade.  Sadly, and somewhat unfairly in my view, the ABA is looking only for submissions on themes of: “Innovation, Inspiration, Law Practice, On Being a Lawyer or the U.S. Supreme Court.”  Haiku’s tough.  It is not easy to condense thoughts into seventeen syllables.  (Guess how many syllables that previous sentence was.  Yes!)

On to the public interest news.  The week in very short:

  • the New York State 50-hour pro bono requirement for attorney licensing is back in the news again;
  • funding in NYC for legal services providers to assist illegal immigrants with the federal “Deferred Action” program;
  • an increased pressure on already-strained Florida public defenders;
  • the job-cuts forecast from LSC;
  • bill introduced in Michigan to create indigent defense commission;
  • two good-news items on law school clinics (NOLA and NC);
  • funding for a pro se assistance attorney in the Gem State;
  • the development of Boston’s alternate adjudication track for nonviolent, homeless offenders;
  • an editorial on how the NOLA public defender’s office has weathered a fiscal storm;
  • OLAF (one of my favorite legal services acronyms) releases its 2011 annual report. 

The summaries:

  • 8.16.12 – “When New York’s Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman first revealed his intention in May to require all newly minted New York lawyers to perform 50 hours of pro bono work, it looked like the burden would fall directly on New York law schools. But with details of the measure still spare, deans around the country are saying they’re worried the proposal could have a much wider impact, affecting not only local institutions but law schools nationwide and abroad that send their graduates to practice law in New York….  Some [New York-based law school administrators applauded Lippman for tackling what he has dubbed the justice gap…. Others voiced concern that the measure would pose financial and administrative burdens on their schools. Most simply asked for details, which Lippman has said he will provide in late fall after an advisory committee reports back to him with feedback from legal services providers, schools and students. As word of New York’s novel approach to pro bono has spread, deans and administrators from out-of-state schools have begun to weigh in, asking what kind of administrative and financial obligations the measure might pose for their institutions.” (Story from Thomson Reuters.)  
  • 8.16.12 – legal services providers throughout the U.S. will be assisting illegal immigrants to participate in the Obama Administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.  Here’s some good funding news out of NYC: “The New York City Council is spending $3 million on legal services for young illegal immigrants who want to apply for the right to work legally in the U.S…. Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced Wednesday that the city funding will go to the Legal Aid Society and other community-based organizations.”  (Full story from CBS Moneywatch.)
  • 8.16.12 – an increased pressure on already-burdened Florida public defenders’ offices: “Public defenders are being ordered by local courts to fill a role they haven’t had to play in decades, if ever. Jim Purdy, public defender for the circuit that includes Volusia and Flagler counties, said the local court has begun appointing his office to help death row inmates ask the governor’s office for clemency. Purdy said his office is ‘critically short on manpower…. None of the elected public defenders in the state ever remember being appointed to (a clemency hearing) until this year and many . . . have been in office for 20 to 30 years,’ Purdy said.”  (Story from the Daytona Beach News-Journal.) 
  • 8.15.12 – “The nation’s providers of civil legal assistance predict that funding cuts will leave them no choice this year but to lay off about 8 percent of lawyers and support staff, close branch offices and narrow the types of services they provide, Legal Services Corp. announced on August 15.  A survey of the 134 agencies depending on grants from LSC, the largest source of funding nationwide for civil legal aid, shows they are on pace to lay off 350 attorneys and 400 support staff this year because of budget cuts from Congress and other funding reductions….  About one of every six programs expects to close offices in 2012.” (Story from the National Law Journal.)
    • And here’s the news release from LSC.
    • Some coverage out of Colorado: “Whether Colorado’s program would be affected wasn’t immediately clear. Colorado Legal Services has seen its total budget cut by nearly 30 percent in recent years. The group has received a reprieve of sorts when the Colorado Supreme Court earlier this year approved a request for a one-time transfer of $1.5 million from the attorney registration fees fund to CLS.  However, the underlying funding mechanisms haven’t been fixed, and how to remodel that funding structure remains at the top of many bar association’s priorities.”  (Story from Law Week Colorado.)
  • 8.15.12 – in Michigan, the members of the state house introduced a bill “to create the Michigan indigent defense commission and to provide for its powers and duties; to provide for constitutionally effective assistance of counsel to represent indigent defendants in criminal cases; to provide standards for the appointment of legal counsel; and to provide for certain appropriations.”  Here’s some filing information and here’s a copy of the bill.
  • 8.13.12 – good news on the law school clinic front in both NOLA and North Carolina:
    • Four grants totaling $557,000 to Loyola University’s College of Law will help its law clinic educate and represent low-wage workers in the New Orleans area. The grants will underwrite three years of work by the Workplace Justice Project, which is part of Stuart H. Smith Law Clinic and Center for Social Justice.”  (Story from the Times-Picayune.) 
    • Elon University School of Law announced plans to open an Elder Law Clinic in the Fall 2012 semester. This clinic will serve the growing elderly population of the area in need of free legal services while simultaneously providing students with experience in the practice of elder law, an area of law that has will see exponential growth in the future.  (Story from WFMY.)
  • 8.12.12 – in keeping with the trend of trying to accommodate increasing numbers of pro se litigants in local courthouses, “Canyon County [Idaho] commissioners approved a preliminary budget Thursday that includes $60,000 from the Idaho Supreme Court to hire an attorney to help people who are serving as their own lawyer in civil cases.”  (Story from the Idaho Press-Tribune.)   
  • 8.12.12 – here’s a feature-length piece on the evolution of Boston’s “Homeless Court,” which offers an alternative adjudication system for nonviolent, homeless offenders: “Launched in late 2010, the program aims to serve the unique needs of Boston’s homeless defendants, who often find themselves cycling through the court system for minor, nonviolent offenses, or in contempt for failing to respond to court summonses they often don’t receive because they’re living on the streets. It’s a gentler form of justice, but no quick fix. Defendants…who volunteer for Homeless Court are required to make a yearlong commitment. During that time, they get mental health and substance abuse counseling and a bed at the Pine Street Inn, or, for those with more severe mental health or addiction issues, at Shattuck Hospital. Defendants without a high school diploma are offered tutoring and GED prep classes. All are required to brush up their job skills or learn new ones.”  (Full story from the Boston Globe.) 
  • 8.11.12 – in NOLA, a Times-Picayune editorial argues for more prudent budgeting by the Orleans Parish public defender’s office. Budget volatility forced large cuts in the Orleans Parish public defender’s office earlier this year. But a report commissioned by the Louisiana Public Defender Board has concluded that a lack of fiscal prudence and other management mistakes aggravated the circumstances.  But management was not the only issue.  Public defenders in New Orleans have a staggering case load. Attorneys assigned to Municipal Court each handled 2,500 cases last year. That’s more than six times the national standard of 400 misdemeanor cases.  The editorial concludes arguing for more sustainable funding streams for the defender to avoid future volatility. 
  • 8.10.12 – “The [Ohio Legal Aid Foundation (OLAF)] says it’s saved more than 2,300 homes since 2008 using both its own lawyers and volunteer attorneys in private practice. And calls for free legal help have jumped about 60 percent over those four years. But funds — which come from federal grants, donations and court fees and interest – are drying up.”  (Short piece from WKSU.  And here’s a link to OLAF’s 2011 annual report, released earlier this month.)

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