Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Massachusetts Transgender Equal Rights Bill to Take Effect July 1

As of July 1st, when the Transgender Equal Rights Bill takes effect, transgender people will have clear legal recourse if they face discrimination at work, in public housing, education or when they apply for credit.  This is a straightforward and perhaps simple piece of legislation that will have a monumental impact on the lives of the Massachusetts transgender community.

The issue of equal rights for the transgender community has been around for some time.  The original legislation was introduced in November of 2007.  Now almost five years later, Massachusetts joins 15 other states who have added gender identity to the non-discrimination laws in the areas of employment, housing, K-12 public education and credit.  The new law also adds “gender identity” to the Massachusetts hate crimes statutes.

Since the very beginning, the BBA has worked with the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition on this historic piece of legislation.  Among other advocacy measures, the BBA has participated at public hearings by testifying in support of the legislation both as an access to justice issue and as a diversity and inclusion issue.  As we’ve written before in Issue Spot, adding the term “gender identity” really is a basic civil rights protection.  But the acceptance of that term also signifies the recognition that diversity can be a major asset for society and businesses.

While this new law brings some protections to challenges faced by members of the transgender community, it does not expressly prohibit discrimination based on gender identity in public accommodations.  Existing Massachusetts laws do provide some support for claims brought in public accommodations cases, but the lack of explicit protections in regard to discrimination in public accommodations fails to clarify how these types of cases will be resolved.  For more information about the public accommodations aspect of this issue check out this recent, insightful Boston Bar Journal article.

So while we pause to celebrate this new law taking effect we realize there’s more work to be done in this area.  Advocates plan to revisit discrimination in public accommodations during the next legislative session.

-Kathleen Joyce
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association

BMC CORI Sealing Order Preserves Access to Justice

In May, Chief Justice Charles Johnson of the Boston Municipal Court (BMC) signed BMC Standing Order 1-09, as a permanent order.  The BBA received a grateful letter from Chief Justice Johnson once he had made the Order permanent.  The Order is an excellent example of how the courts are continuing to identify ways to make the public’s experience with the judicial system easier and more efficient.

Standing Order 1-09 permits the sealing of three or more dismissals and non-conviction criminal records from two or more court divisions of the BMC.  The proposal – and now the permanent Standing Order – would apply to dismissals without probationary terms, nolle prosequi or a not guilty finding.  In 2009, Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) proposed creating a procedure for interdepartmental determinations of motions to seal criminal records.  That year, GBLS brought this proposal to the attention of our Delivery of Legal Services Section and the BBA Council for the BBA’s support.  It was a no-brainer.  Since then the BBA has been working with Chief Justice Johnson’s office and urging the court to adopt the Order.  This started out as a one year pilot program and was extended twice before being made permanent in May.

So how does Standing Order 1-09 actually affect real people?  Here’s just one example…Imagine Jane Doe who lives in Roxbury has 6 charges that can be sealed in 4 divisions of the BMC – Dorchester, Roxbury, South Boston and Brighton.  She can file a single petition in the Roxbury division of the BMC to seal all her eligible BMC cases.  This means she can avoid paying a babysitter, save on bus and subway fares, and doesn’t have to lose hours at her minimum wage, part-time, graveyard shift job at a nursing home. Jane is stuck in this job that provides no vacation days because of her Criminal Offender Record Information and lives paycheck to paycheck.

Standing Order 1-09 allows multiple motions from different districts to be heard in one of the courts with jurisdiction over a case to be sealed.  This saves people like Jane Doe a great deal of time, energy and money, as well as giving people peace of mind.

Prior to Standing Order 1-09, the sealing process was cumbersome at best.  In addition to needing to travel to each district to have a record sealed, the former statute required two hearings before any individual motion to seal could be decided.  That meant that individuals would have to travel to each court twice to have the motion decided.

Thanks to GBLS for bringing this to our attention.  This was unnecessary and was not the best use of the court’s time and resources.  Many people seeking to seal their records are indigent and cannot afford a lawyer.  The BMC’s – thank you, Chief Justice Johnson– willingness to implement this innovative approach to case management and access to justice is to be commended.  This Standing Order promotes judicial efficiency and will save pro bono, legal services and other attorneys many hours of time, thereby permitting them to help more indigent clients.

– Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association

Con Con: No News is Good News

On June 6th, the MA Legislature convened a constitutional convention for the fifth time since the current legislative session began in January 2011.  During each two-year legislative session, members of the House and Senate meet jointly to consider proposed changes to Massachusetts’ Constitution.  The constitutional convention is presided over by the Senate President.  Senators and Representatives meet in the House Chamber to debate and vote on various proposals.  In order for a proposal to get on the constitutional convention’s agenda, proposals must be reported out of legislative committees with either a favorable or unfavorable recommendation.

Recent constitutional conventions – May 11, 2011, July 13, 2011, October 12, 2011 and March 14, 2012 – have recessed quickly without action on any of the pending proposals on the agenda.  At the constitutional convention on June 6th, House and Senate members agreed to recess for three more months indicating little appetite on the legislature’s part to debate or consider any of the amendments on the agenda.  Since constitutional amendments must win approval from two consecutive Legislatures before they advance, it is unlikely that we will see any changes to the state constitution soon.

The current constitutional convention’s agenda consists of 19 amendments – including a proposal for a two-year state budget process, a call for term limits for judges, three proposals that would prohibit eminent domain takings and four proposals that would permanently abolish the Governor’s Council.  Each of these proposals would be a drastic change to the state constitution.

The proposal relative to term limits for judges would require a judge to go before the Governor’s Council every seven years to be eligible for reappointment.  Whether this proposal is politically motivated or considered by some as sound policy is irrelevant.  Massachusetts needs its judges to be independent and impartial.  We want our judges to make fair decisions based on the facts and not on whether they might be up for review and reappointment.

The Governor’s Council – as we’ve written about in Issue Spot – continues to be a topic of much debate.  Some legislators have supported an amendment to abolish the eight-member Governor’s Council and transfer its functions to an independent commission.   Councillors are elected every two years, one each from eight districts.  Among other things, the Governor’s Council is tasked with vetting the governor’s judicial nominees and appointees to the state parole board.  Today, the primary function of the Governor’s Council is to review judicial nominations.  Many recent judicial nomination hearings have made headlines for their contentious nature and close votes.

Whether abolishing the Governor’s Council is a good idea or a bad idea, the Legislature would have to advance the proposal to the next legislative session in order for this amendment to succeed.   In fact, there is no indication that any of the amendments before the constitutional convention will be approved this session.  The process for amending the state constitution is deliberately arduous to preserve fundamental principles and prevent arbitrary changes.

– Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association

Cleaning Up Loose Ends

As of this writing, Massachusetts has just 23 days to finalize the $32.4 billion state budget.  With differences between the House (H  4101) and Senate (S 2275) versions of the budget, now is the time for negotiations conducted by the recently named budget conference committee. Serving on that committee are the House conferees Representative Brian Dempsey, Representative Stephen Kulik and Representative Viriato deMacedo, and Senate conferees Senator Stephen Brewer, Senator Jennifer Flanagan and Senator Michael Knapik.  As you may recall, the House budget was finalized in April and the Senate’s version was finalized at the end of May.  Once the conference committee has agreed on the details of the budget, it will be reviewed by Governor Patrick before he signs it.  The goal is to get this all done by July 1st.

Just for the record, the BBA has a particular interest in line item 0321-1600 – Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC).  MLAC’s request for fiscal year 2013 was $14.5 million – check out MLAC’s fact sheet.  Both the Governor and the House proposed funding MLAC at $12 million, while the Senate only appropriated $11.5 million.  The BBA will be working with our legal services partners to secure at least the $12 million provided by the Governor and the House.

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An update on another conference committee the BBA is watching with interest… For the past six months, the crime bill conference committee has been meeting to settle differences between a habitual offender sentencing reform bill that the House approved and a much larger crime package passed by the Senate.  Both sides have expressed optimism that a compromise bill will be ready before the end of July.

Among the issues still being negotiated and discussed by the crime conference committee are the list of crimes that would trigger a “three-strikes” elimination of parole, a reduction to the size of school zones that carry increased penalties for drug crimes and a reduction in mandatory minimum sentences.

While Massachusetts has a year round Legislature, formal sessions end on July 31st.  But, the Legislature will continue to meet about twice a week through December in informal sessions. There’s a push to get this crime bill (and many other bills too) completed by the end of July because it can be challenging to advance a major piece of legislation during an informal session.  During an informal session, if even one member of the Legislature raises an objection, this brings the informal session to a halt – thereby blocking the progress of any bill being considered.

We expect a lot of activity over the next few weeks as the Legislature works to complete a number of its priorities.  In addition to the work on behalf of MLAC and working to push for mandatory minimum sentence reform for nonviolent drug offenses, the BBA will continue to try to get our other bills over the final finish line for this session.

– Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association