Monthly Archives: January 2011

Briefs, Bills, and Budgets

Last Friday, January 21st, the Boston Bar Association filed an amicus brief in a case now pending before the Supreme Judicial Court, Fathers & Families, Inc. v. Chief Justice for Administration and Management. Our brief argues that the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines are constitutional, and that Striking down the Guidelines would lead to uncertainty, instability, and inefficiency in awarding child support, and could jeopardize Federal Funding for the Commonwealth’s Public Welfare Programs. Amicus briefs are just one of the ways in which the BBA articulates its positions on matters of public policy.

Last Friday was also deadline for filing bills with the Massachusetts legislature.  After a little scrambling and some starts and stops, we proved successful in securing sponsors on both the House and Senate side of the Legislature for each of the BBA’s proposed pieces of legislation. .

All in all, almost 5,400 bills were filed for the new 2-year session. As legislators review the bills that have been filed, and determine their priorities for the new session, they are waiting for the Speaker of the House to announce his leadership team and committee assignments.   The Senate President has already announced her new team, renaming Senator Cynthia Creem as Senate Chair of the Judiciary Committee and promoting Senator Stephen Brewer to Chair of the Senate’s Ways & Means Committee.

Making our case for issues that are important to the private bar starts with filing our bills and with reaching out to the people in the legislative and the executive branches that can be our voice on these and other issues.  Traditionally, the governor’s Chief Legal Counsel is the person that provides legal guidance for the governor and serves as a trusted advisor on issues that affect the courts and legal services.  We met with Governor Patrick’s new Chief Legal Counsel Mark Reilly this week to discuss the BBA’s priorities for the legislative session and ways in which the BBA can work with his office on common interests.  This was a productive meeting and Mr. Reilly understands how important it is for him to be a voice for the courts and for the people who use the courts.  We look forward to having him join us at one of the next BBA Council meetings.

Also this week, Governor Patrick released his budget and unveiled his criminal justice reform package which includes a repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses that do not involve guns or children.  The governor’s bill also allows non-violent drug offenders to become eligible for work release, to earn good conduct credits, and includes a provision to allow offenders to become parole eligible after serving ½ of their maximum sentence.

Other bills to repeal mandatory minimums have been filed by Senator Creem, Senator Steven Tolman and Representative Benjamin Swan.  The BBA supports reforming the mandatory minimum sentencing laws in Massachusetts and this issue will continue to be a priority for the BBA this session.

Amid the painful budget cuts, there was some good news in the governor’s budget.  The governor level funded legal services. While this is great news for legal aid in Massachusetts, we hope that as the House and Senate prepare their own budgets they will also recognize the importance of legal services.

As noted in this space last week, on Wednesday, February 2, the BBA is co-sponsoring the annual Walk to the hill for Civil Legal Aid at the State House. Chief Justice Roderick Ireland of the Supreme Judicial Court will join us.

Given the importance of public policy issues concerning access to justice and the administration of justice, we count on you for your support.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

Why Walk to the Hill?

February 2nd will be the 12th annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid.   Walk to the Hill is a powerful and symbolic statement from the Massachusetts legal community that demonstrates the profession’s dedication to the principle of “justice for all.”

But after 11 years it’s natural to ask if this event is even necessary.  Do legislators pay attention?  Has it gone stale?  Do we make a difference in the outcome for funding for legal services?

Your state legislators absolutely do pay attention.  How can they not when last year nearly 700 lawyers flooded the hallways and stopped by their offices?   In fact, Governor Patrick was paying attention too.  He made a cameo appearance and announced in front of the crowd that he had level-funded the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) line item in his budget which was released earlier in the day.

Walk to the Hill has improved year after year making it easier for lawyers to participate.    Just as the Boston Bar Foundation’s John and Abigail Adams Benefit (January 29th) switched its format to a free-flowing event at the Museum of Fine Arts after decades of formal sit-down dinners, the Equal Justice Coalition’s Walk to the Hill has evolved as well.  Now there are projection screens and audio to stream the speeches outside of the Great Hall because of the overflow crowd.  Staff is on hand to help lawyers find their legislators’ offices.  Comment cards are available for participants to fill out and leave with the legislators or staff they visit.

Today, Walk to the Hill is more important than ever before. The need for civil legal aid has skyrocketed as the funding for it has plummeted.  The number of those eligible for legal aid grew by 91,000 between 2007 and 2009.  At the same time, since FY 2008 MLAC has been forced to cut grants to the legal aid programs it funds by 55% because of the precipitous decline in revenues from IOLTA accounts.

The symbolism of 700 attorneys congregating on Beacon Hill is profound, the speeches offered by the bar presidents are important, and the story shared by a client of legal services is heartfelt.  But at the end of the day legislators want to know what their constituents want.  They will look at phone logs and sign-in sheets to see who in their district participated.

So you need to do your part.  The event is not about meeting friends or having your picture taken with your firm; it’s about making the case for why legal aid is important and beneficial for Massachusetts.  All of the pageantry is wasted if participants do not take the time and stop by their legislators’ office.

Walk to the Hill asks the legal community to personally deliver one simple message: Funding for legal services is more important now than ever before. Make sure you visit your state representatives and senators to ask them to support level funding for legal aid.  This year (FY 2012), level funding is $9.5 million.  Even if legislators are not available to meet with you, it is critical to stop by and leave your name and contact information.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

More Relief for Consumers

More good news! An update increasing the dollar amounts for bankruptcy exemptions in Massachusetts made its way to the Governor Patrick’s desk just before New Years Eve. Even though January 5th marked the end of the 2009-2010 session, the governor still has 10 full days to act on the bills on his desk.  Any bill that goes without action for more than 10 days will receive a so-called pocket veto.  Today is day 7.

As Issue Spot noted just weeks ago, personal property exemptions have long been in desperate need of modernization.  According to the Massachusetts statute, MGL Chapter 235, section 34 —last updated more than 30 years ago — the intent of the original law was to balance the legal rights of creditors against a debtor’s need for basic necessities in order to maintain a home and earn a living.

The present law exempts from seizure things like 2 cows, 12 sheep, 2 swine and 4 tons of hay, and this is almost laughable in the context of how most people earn their livings or look for employment in 2011. Updating this law would increase the value of property, earnings and savings exempt from seizure during debt collection, and also permit debtors to keep computers. As families and communities continue to struggle with the impact of the economic downturn, the process of debt collection needs to change to one that is fair, at the same time facilitating the ability of debtors to fulfill their obligations.

The BBA had filed a bill several years ago that would update exemptions. Not surprisingly many bankruptcy attorneys eventually came to view the dollar amounts in that original bill as obsolete. During the summer of 2010 the BBA’s Bankruptcy Public Policy Committee identified key exemptions in our draft that could be revised to better reflect the needs of today’s household.  It was their work this summer which really brought this issue into focus for us and kept it on our radar in the final days of session.

The BBA’s Bankruptcy Public Policy Committee had urged us to work with the National Consumer Law Center, and to adopt the exemption amounts that were in the NCLC’s bill.  As we revised our own bill we learned that the NCLC’s bill had already made enormous progress.  Working with NCLC on this issue proved to be successful.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association