Another year is in the books for the BBA’s Government Relations Department. A couple of weeks ago we walked you through our 2015 comments to the courts. This week and next, we’d like to take a look at some of the other work we’ve done this calendar year…
January is always an exciting month, as it marks the official beginning of our budget advocacy for civil legal aid (under the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, or MLAC, line item), the Trial Court, and the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS). In 2015, because Governor Charlie Baker was new, his recommended budget, so-called “House 1,” which is normally released around the end of January (we anticipate next year’s budget, “House 2”, to come out on January 27) was delayed until early March. However, we were already hard at work on the budget campaign.
With the release of Investing in Justice in October 2014, after 18 months of study by the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, we were primed for a big year and, led by the Task Force’s chair, former BBA President J.D. Smeallie, we had already held meetings with a number of legislators, including Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, House Ways & Means Chair Brian Dempsey, and Will Brownsberger, Senate Chair of the Judiciary Committee, by the time January arrived.
On January 29th, the BBA held its annual meet-up breakfast (click here for information about the 2016 breakfast) and then President Julia Huston addressed hundreds of Walk to the Hill attendees (see photo above). She and current President (then President-Elect) Lisa Arrowood spent the morning meeting with their individual legislators (see photo below: Julia Huston and Lisa Arrowood with their Senator, Michael Barrett), explaining the importance of supporting legal aid through the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation’s line-item. We’re already getting set for Walk to the Hill 2016, which will take place on January 28. We hope you’ll join us for breakfast at the BBA and the main event at the State House!
This was a big month for amicus briefs at the BBA. The SJC ruled in line with our brief in the case of In re Guardianship of V.V., in which the BBA-supported brief argued for a right to counsel for indigent parents of minor children in private guardianship actions. The Court took the position, as the amicus brief argued, that this right to counsel — which already applied in adoption cases and when the state seeks to remove a child from a parental home — ought to be extended to privately-contested guardianship matters as well. In the case before the Court, a mother was unrepresented when her grandmother, who had her own attorney, won guardianship of her child.
The BBA agreed to join the brief in support of a right to counsel, in large part because of our longstanding commitment to the principle of access to justice for all. The amicus brief directly cites three BBA task force and working group reports, including, most recently, Investing in Justice, the report of the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts. (As you’ll see next week, when we cover the second half of 2015, the SJC’s ruling led to further BBA involvement later in the year.)
The BBA also drafted and submitted a brief in the case of Wong v. Luu, requesting clarification from the SJC on the scope of a court’s inherent authority to sanction an attorney for out-of-court conduct that was not in violation of a court order. In addition, it argued that, before resolving disputed facts in such cases, a trial court should ordinarily conduct an evidentiary hearing to try to establish a basis for finding prejudice to the administration of justice and bad faith.
Our brief was cited at length during oral argument, and the SJC’s holding confirmed that the trial judge did not have authority to sanction the attorney, and that the issue was more appropriate for review by the Board of Bar Overseers. The ruling provides valuable guidance, as our brief sought, on the court’s authority to sanction attorneys. (Read more about this case here.)
Only a few weeks later, we welcomed Lon Povich — the Governor’s Chief Legal Counsel, and a former BBA Council and civil legal aid Task Force member — to a BBA Council meeting (see photo below). Povich explained the whirlwind he’d experienced in his first two months, through the worst winter in Boston’s history and a gaping budget deficit. He broke down the Governor’s budget proposal for Council members, noting level-funding for the courts and civil legal aid (as well as for most areas), and explained the many difficulties the new administration faced in its preparation, including a short timeframe and major public transportation challenges, not to mention a mandate from the Governor not to raise taxes or fees.
We also stepped up our budget lobbying efforts at the State House, meeting with dozens of legislators.
April was a particularly busy month as we went national — to ABA Day in Washington, DC, that is! The BBA Director of Government Relations accompanied President Julia Huston and President-Elect Lisa Arrowood to our nation’s capital where they met with both of our Senators and seven of our nine Representatives. They were there to advocate for the ABA’s two main issues: increased federal funding for civil legal aid through the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), and federal legislation to get smarter on crime by reducing the impact of mandatory minimum sentences for federal offenses and diverting juveniles from the justice system.
We were quite fortunate in that we found near-universal support on both of these fronts from our legislators. It would be easy — and comforting — to assume the Massachusetts delegation is typical in this regard, but we were disabused of any such notion at a pre-lobbying breakfast briefing, where participants learned that many Congressmen have actually voted to completely de-fund LSC. But later in the year, Rep. Joe Kennedy III demonstrated his commitment by co-founding a bi-partisan Congressional caucus for civil legal services.
In the same month we welcomed SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants to address BBA Council (read more here) and saw the release of the House Ways & Means budget, which recommended a $2 million increase in the MLAC line-item. We were also particularly pleased to see the appointment of a number of BBA leaders to Governor Baker’s reconstituted Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC), including former BBA President Paul Dacier as Chair and former BBA Council Member Roberto Braceras as Co-Vice Chair.
This month we were excited to hear from Chief Judge Patti Saris of the U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts, at our Council meeting. Having previously worked for U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, and as a Magistrate and Massachusetts Superior Court Judge before her nomination to the federal bench, Judge Saris spoke with a wealth of knowledge from both legislative and judicial, as well as state and federal, perspectives.
In addition, she chairs the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency, established within the federal judicial branch in 1984, that’s tasked with establishing sentencing guidelines and practices for federal courts, advising and assisting Congress and the executive branch in developing effective and efficient criminal policy, and collecting, analyzing, researching, and disseminating a broad array of information on crime and sentencing issues to all branches of government, academia, and the general public. It is bipartisan by design in order to consider all viewpoints and to effectively gain buy-in from all legislators.
The Commission was a driving force behind the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which made a number of reforms to federal sentences for drug offenses, most notably reducing the disparity between sentences involving crack and those involving powder cocaine. Since the Act’s enactment, the Commission has studied outcomes, finding that the recidivism rate is no higher for people released from prison up to two years earlier than they would have been under the old sentencing regime. In addition, the rate of guilty pleas and plea agreements remained the same, suggesting shorter sentences did not have a negative effect on prosecutorial bargaining power or result in more trials.
In the middle of the month, we joined in the debate on online access to court records. The Trial Court Public Access to Court Records Committee held a public hearing on June 15 to receive the views of interested individuals and organizations with regard to the issues surrounding public access to court case files, including their availability on the Internet. The BBA weighed in with a letter urging the Committee to devise a rule providing broad online access to court dockets and documents, especially as a means to assure access to justice for pro se litigants, who had been barred from accessing the court’s then-recently updated website, www.masscourts.org, which was permitting only attorneys to see case information. The Court has since expanded access to this website and the Committee continues its work on the rules. We look forward to continuing the discussion on this issue in the coming months as the Committee completes its work.
At the end of the month, the Joint Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on probate and family issues, which included a number of bills of interest to the BBA, specifically to our Trusts and Estates and Family Law Sections. (Read more about the hearing and see pictures here.)
We provided testimony on three of the fifty-one bills on the agenda:
- H1291 – An Act making Corrections to the adopted children’s act (read our testimony here)
- S746 – An Act relative to the UCCJEA (read our testimony here)
- S748 – An Act relative to the elective share of surviving spouses (read more about our history with this issue here)
Next week, we’ll catch you up on the rest of 2015…
– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association