Monthly Archives: November 2011

Mid-Session Legislative Update

The Legislature’s winter recess began last Wednesday evening – but not before some important pieces of legislation passed in both the House and Senate.  The reason for the winter recess?  Legislative rules require the House and Senate to break from formal session during non-election years as a way of preventing action on major bills so close to the holidays, a time during which the public may not be as attentive.  If two-thirds of members agree, the Legislature can return to session during their scheduled break.  This recess gives legislators time to spend in their districts and affords others a chance to do additional lobbying on bills expected to move next year.  Here’s a quick update on the progress of transgender civil rights, sentencing reform and important trusts and estates bills that the BBA is working on…

A victory for transgender rights!  When the House and Senate approved a bill to include gender identity and expression in the Commonwealth’s nondiscrimination statute and existing hate crime laws, Massachusetts joined 15 other states – along with Washington, D.C. – that already provide these protections for transgender people.  Governor Patrick, who supports the legislation, is expected to sign the bill soon.   While the final version of the Transgender Equal Rights Bill does not include protections within public accommodations, this is a historic and important victory for transgender equality in Massachusetts.

We have more work to do on sentencing reform. We had hoped that a bill denying parole for repeat violent offenders would also eliminate mandatory minimum drug sentences for non-violent offenders. While we were pleased to see some elements of sentencing reform in the Senate version of the bill, we were disappointed that the House version only contained parole denial for repeat offenders.  We’re still hoping that a conference committee will be able to restore the Senate reforms relative to reduced mandatory minimum drug sentences.

Having just passed the midpoint of the 2011-2012 session, legislative rules now require that bills pending at the end of the first annual session carry over into the second annual session.  But let’s not forget that the portion of the Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code dealing with estates goes into effect on January 2, 2012. Two important housekeeping proposals, the MUPC technical corrections and the Massachusetts Uniform Trust Code, are still pending and we cannot wait until the beginning of the next session to act.   A delay in passing these bills will put greater strain on an already overburdened Probate & Family Court.

While the House and Senate will continue to meet over the next few weeks in informal sessions, the second leg of the 2011-2012 begins in January and will continue until through July.

-Kathleen Joyce
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association

Pro Hac Vice Proposal Aims at Bolstering Legal Aid Funding

The news about IOLTA revenue, a key source of funding for legal aid to the poor, is grim and getting worse.  Enter the pro hac vice admission fee proposal of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission (AJC).

This week, the BBA Council voted to support the AJC’s proposal that would boost funding for legal services programs.  If approved by the Supreme Judicial Court, Massachusetts would join 41 other states and the District of Columbia in instituting a pro hac vice admission fee.  While the Board of Bar Overseers will retain a portion of each fee to cover administration costs, the remainder of the $300 will go to the IOLTA Committee.  IOLTA will then distribute it in the same proportions as other IOLTA revenue – to the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), the Massachusetts Bar Foundation and the Boston Bar Foundation – for use in providing civil legal assistance to low-income residents of Massachusetts.

The reason for instituting a pro hac vice fee is twofold.  It will help create a central listing of these types of filings and maintain records relative to the number of pro hac vice filings.  More importantly, it will help legal aid by plugging a little of the funding gap.  Though it’s difficult to predict exactly how much money the pro hac vice fees will bring in, based on the experiences of Texas and Pennsylvania, Massachusetts could collect between $300,000 and $500,000 annually.

Take a look at the frightening facts.  IOLTA revenue is down – way down.  So far in calendar year 2011, IOLTA has only collected $7 million.  This is a $24 million drop from the revenue collected in 2007.  And, in the last 3 budget cycles MLAC has been funded at the FY2008 level of $9.5 million, which has not prevented large-scale reductions in staff and service capacity for legal assistance organizations.  The average MLAC-funded civil legal aid program has had to cut 25% of its attorneys – some have lost up to 40%.  Meanwhile, demand for these services has increased dramatically.  In the past year, 94,000 more individuals and families became eligible for civil legal aid.

And the federal landscape for legal services is even bleaker.   A Congressional agreement for FY2012 being taken up on the House floor this week would provide $348 million to the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a 13.9% cut to LSC’s overall funding.  There’s also the Supercommittee that needs to find ways to cut $1.5 trillion before itsNovember 23rd deadline.  If the Supercommittee can’t work out a deal, automatic cuts would be made to defense and domestic programs equally.  Any reduction to LSC in this process would guarantee that more Massachusetts residents in need of legal services will be turned away.

In today’s economic climate, everyone is hurting and the government is no exception.  But civil legal assistance is a vital safety net for families facing foreclosure and eviction, victims of domestic violence, veterans returning from combat, residents affected by recent natural disasters and other vulnerable members of our communities.  While the adoption of a pro hac vice admission fee will not alone solve the problem, it will help offset some of the devastating losses in funding for legal services that have recently occurred.

-Kathleen Joyce
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association

BBA Signs on to Amicus Brief Challenging DOMA

It’s been nine years since the BBA staked out its position on same-sex marriage in its amicus brief filed in the landmark Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health. The BBA reiterated its position on same-sex marriage when the organization signed onto an amicus brief last week.   The latest brief – filed in the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit – challenges the federal Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”).  The BBA joined 30 other groups – the ACLU, the National LGBT Bar Association, the Human Rights Campaign and the Equal Justice Society to name just a few – on this brief that involved a constitutional challenge to DOMA.

Section 3 of DOMA provides that for the purposes of all federal laws, “marriage” and “spouse” are defined to exclude married same-sex couples, even if those marriages are legal under state law.  In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state in the country to end the exclusion of same-sex couples from civil marriage.  The BBA has approached this purely as an issue of civil rights and universal access to justice.  Consistent with the BBA’s commitment to ensuring equal protection for all people, the amicus brief argues that classification based on sexual orientation must be subjected to heightened scrutiny.

Why now?

The legal challenge to DOMA in the two federal cases, MA v. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services and Nancy Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, sparks a seminal moment in the evolution of the same-sex marriage issue.  The BBA continues to lead on the issue and believes that it can be uniquely persuasive as a legal organization through filing amici.

Back in February 2011, as discussed in Issue Spot, the Obama Administration decided to no longer defend DOMA – leading Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley to file a lawsuit challenging the law that bars federal recognition of same-sex marriage.  In the absence of the Department of Justice defending the law, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the House of Representatives announced it would intervene to provide the defense.  What has followed has been a protracted process.

The fate of DOMA is now in the hands of the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.  DOMA should be found unconstitutional.  We look forward to the day when Massachusetts does not belong to a small list of states recognizing same-sex marriage, but rather is part of a nation that fully supports the idea of equality under the law.

-Kathleen Joyce
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association

Let’s Not Revisit the Tax on Legal Services

The new Tax Expenditure Commission, created by Outside Section 160 of the FY12 budget and chaired by Secretary of Administration and Finance Jay Gonzalez, will meet regularly over the next six months to study the Commonwealth’s $24 billion tax expenditure budget.  The process includes reviewing all tax breaks, tax credits, sales tax exemptions and corporate deductions in an effort to measure the effectiveness of these carve-outs.  The recommendations of the Tax Expenditure Commission are due by April 30, 2012.

In addition to reviewing the current tax expenditure budget, the Commission has been charged with issuing recommendations regarding any changes to the current tax expenditures and criteria for new tax expenditures.  Since there has been no increase in broad-based taxes since the sales tax hike in fiscal year 2009, this could potentially mean a renewed interest in adopting a tax on legal and other professional services.

This would not be the first time Massachusetts has experimented with the misguided idea of instituting a tax on legal services.  The idea of a services tax was first proposed in 1975 but ultimately not adopted by the legislature.  Soon after, a coalition in favor of the tax sought to have a referendum put on the ballot.  In conjunction with other professional groups, the BBA launched a campaign to educate the public about the economic effects of such a tax – that clients, rather than firms, would absorb the overwhelming majority of the burden.  A legal services tax would fall disproportionately on those least able to afford legal representation, thereby limiting access to justice.

In the early 1990’s the issue came to a head when a sales tax on legal services actually passed in the state legislature and was signed into law.  Amid revelations that this tax would apply not just to services  provided by attorneys, accountants and other professionals — but also to such services as lawn mowing and snow plowing — support for repealing the tax increased.  The BBA, joined by the MBA, mobilized its members and focused its efforts on informing the legislature and incoming Governor Weld of the economic and legal flaws in a services tax.  Groups representing other segments of the professional community worked on this too and, two days after the tax took effect, Governor Weld signed legislation repealing the services tax.

Of primary concern for the BBA is the constitutionality of such a proposal.  The right to obtain the services of an attorney is a natural right guaranteed by the United States Constitution and is immune from the imposition of an excise tax.

There are also other compelling arguments to be made against a legal services tax.  A sales tax would compromise the attorney-client relationship by requiring an attorney to act as a tax collector and submit sensitive client information to the Department of Revenue.   Rather than serving as an advocate in a confidential relationship, an attorney would be forced to share privileged information with third parties.

We’ll watch closely now as the Tax Expenditure Commission continues to meet.

-Kathleen Joyce
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association