Congress Ponders Less Civil Justice ‘Rationing’

Adjusted for inflation, the federal Legal Services Corporation budget is at a 40-year low just as the hundreds of state-level offices it funds are facing more people needing legal assistance in the face of foreclosure, family stress and other non-criminal justice issues. A piece in the Hill newspaper’s “Congress Blog” by James R. Silkenat outlines the issue and profiles specific examples of how the programs work.

The Hill reports that “… with more than 63 million (1 in 5) Americans qualifying for pro bono legal assistance, a major justice gap exists in the U.S. Those at the poverty level simply cannot afford to hire an attorney. Their only hope is a pro bono lawyer, but because of high demand for legal aid and lack of funding, these groups already turn away more clients than they can help.”

Beyond individual stories, Silkenat notes that failure to provide lower income people with civil legal aid can consume “alarming” amounts of court time and result in procedural problems with good cases. He also explains the LSC: “… funded by the U.S. government, the LSC-associated legal aid offices that exist in every state contributed to the 2.3 million low-income Americans helped in 2011.”

President Obama’s is seeking $430 million, a level supported by the American Bar Association, up from $365 million this fiscal year and closer to the $420 million appropriated in fiscal 2010. Read more here.

Kansas Latest To Tie Cash To ‘Reform’

 Kansas legislators are following the national trend to tie state judicial reform to funding, leading the Wichita Eagle to editorialize against the changes as eroding court independence. The newspaper writes that “Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton R. Nuss warned this was coming, objecting in an Eagle commentary last month to ‘the diffusion of the unified court system’s centralized authority in exchange for money to keep courts open.'”

The funding-linked legislation, pending a decision by Gov. Sam Brownback, would allow the chief judge of each of the state’s 31 judicial districts to submit and control his own budget. The Eagle fears that “… the new legislation also allows judges to select the chief judge for their own district court, further eroding the Supreme Court’s authority.”

You can read a detailed argument on the Kansas argument here.

Clients Need a ‘Bill of Rights’ argues CCM Publisher in HuffPo

California Courts Monitor publisher, Sara Warner, makes an argument for a “Client Bill of Rights” to protect clients in civil litigation today in the Huffington Post.

Sara Cocoran Warner, Founding Publisher of our state publication, California Courts Monitor

Sara Cocoran Warner, Founding Publisher of our state publication, California Courts Monitor

In her post, she states:

“We hear about personal injury cases being “bundled” with other cases to increase settlements, often without client knowledge. We hear that some attorneys distribute settlement money based on which client arrangements benefit them most. We hear about lawyers creating companies, like document courier services, that they use to drive up the “expenses” they can deduct from client payments…Hopefully, if true, these are rare events. A solid bill of rights might help keep them that way.”

Read the HuffPo piece here and join in the conversation.

Obama Picks Prosecutor For Fed Bench

High-profile U.S. Attorney André Birotte Jr. has been nominated for a federal judgeship in the L.A.-based Central District of California. He currently is head of a division that works on criminal, civil and tax cases. His nomination by President Obama follows a recommendation by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and faces confirmation by the senate.

Most recently, Birotte’s office led the investigations the brought indictments against California state Senator Ron Calderon on public corruption charges. The story is being reported by public radio station KPCC here.

Follow the reporter, Sharon McNary: @KPCCsharon on Twitter

N.C. Essay Notes CA Juvenile Justice

A Charlotte, NC, newspaper essay is citing a pair of California cases – one famous and historical, the other less famous and current – as examples why and how young African-American men have “skeptical” feelings about the justice system. Corey Arvin, writing in the Black Voice News and carried by The Charlotte Post, asserts that “today’s young African-Americans are not more skeptical of their value” in the justice system, they are just the latest to be aware of that disparity.

Arvin cites recent high-profile national cases like Trayvon Martin and the Michael Dunn “loud music” case, quoting University of California Professor Brenda Stevenson saying “… these aren’t just the opening of new wounds, it’s a combination of fresh and old wounds for African Americans.”

Stevenson is the author of a book about the killing of Latasha Harlins, a; 1991 case from South Los Angeles. She says such cases just continue the generational culture, noting that the Harlins case is among those recalled during events like the Martin trial.

In a state where the judicial system is choosing to close important community courthouses including facilities vital to juvenile justice, the essay should make your weekend reading list. Click here to read the essay.