BBA Amicus Brief History Part I: Protecting Access to Lawyers and Attorney-Client Privilege

We are proud to be honoring our Amicus Committee at the 2016 Annual Meeting Luncheon, one of the largest annual bench/bar events in Massachusetts.  The keynote speaker will be Professor David B. Wilkins, the Vice Dean for Global Initiatives on the Legal Profession and Director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School. A prolific author and leading scholar on the profession, Professor Wilkins is well known for his research on the impact of globalization on the legal market, diversity in the profession and the various career trajectories of attorneys.

However, in this blog we would like to focus on our honorees, the BBA’s amicus volunteers, from Chairs and members of the Committee to the drafters of our many briefs.  For more than twenty years, the BBA has had a voice in some of the most important legal issues of our time through the filing of amicus briefs.  We look forward to honoring over 100 individuals who have given their time and talents to this work – the collective force of which has not only defended and protected individuals’ rights, but forever changed the legal landscape in which we live and practice.  This week and next, we will look at some of the most important themes covered in some of our most well-known briefs.

Access to a Lawyer

Tax on Legal Services

The BBA has long defended access to lawyers for those in need, both the constitutional right to a lawyer for indigent criminal defendants and much-needed representation for low-income civil litigants.  The first of these cases was in 1990, related to a then proposed tax on legal services.  On July 7, 1990, the Massachusetts General Court passed House Bill 5858, “An Act Establishing the Economic Stability and Recovery Compact.”  The legislation sought to impose a tax on certain services rendered by lawyers and consumed within the state.  Two days later, Governor Michael Dukakis, noting “grave doubts” about the constitutionality of the bill, asked the SJC to consider the issue.  The SJC requested amicus briefs specifically from the BBA and MBA, and we were happy to oblige.

A mere four days after this request, the BBA and MBA submitted a joint brief, authored by  lawyers from Choate, Hall & Stewart (today, Choate) and Hale and Dorr (prior to becoming WilmerHale) successfully arguing against the tax because it violated both the Massachusetts and United States Constitutions.  Specifically, it explained that the bill violated Article XXX of the Massachusetts Constitution regarding separation of powers by overextending legislative authority to the regulation of the practice of law and attorney conduct, which are regulated exclusively by the judiciary.  It also unconstitutionally infringed upon the SJC’s exclusive powers under the same Article by imposing administrative bookkeeping responsibilities upon the legal profession that conflicted with the ethical obligations embodied in the rules of professional conduct contained in SJC Rule 3:07.  Going a step further, in a footnote, the brief explained that enforcement of the bill would require lawyers to violate attorney-client privilege by disclosing confidential information regarding the nature of legal services rendered in particular transactions.  This level of reporting would “chill clients’ willingness to consult their attorneys and, ultimately, undermine public confidence in our legal system.”

The brief also argued that the bill violated the Fifth (limiting police procedures, outlawing unjust imprisonment and double jeopardy, and protecting a person from being compelled to be a witness against himself in a criminal case), Sixth (right to a speedy and public trial, impartial jury, and to know your accusers and the nature of charges and evidence against you), and Fourteenth (equal protection and due process of law) Amendments of the US Constitution.

As applied to legal services, the bill was argued to be unconstitutional under the Massachusetts Constitution for violating the Excise Clause and Article 11 of the Declaration of Rights, which states:

Every subject of the commonwealth ought to find a certain remedy, by having recourse to the laws, for all injuries or wrongs which he may receive in his person, property, or character. He ought to obtain right and justice freely, and without being obliged to purchase it; completely, and without any denial; promptly, and without delay; conformably to the laws.

The language in this Article has been applied to prohibit the “imposition of unreasonable charges” for access to the courts, which the brief argues such a tax would be.  The charges proposed by the statute at issue are unreasonable because they would not be uniformly applied and the difference in taxpayers’ liability was not rationally related to differences in the nature or degree of services provided by the Commonwealth to different taxpayers in connection with the administration of justice.  Also, unlike other court fees and costs, the revenue from the tax would be unrestricted in its use, whereas court fees typically must have a reasonable relationship to the administration of justice.

The legal services tax provision took effect on December 1, 1990, and two days later, Governor Dukakis signed legislation repealing the tax.  Yet this was not the end of the conversation.  In 2011, a Tax Expenditure Commission comprehensively reviewed the state’s then tax structure and considered new taxes, including this sort of tax on services.  The BBA took the opportunity to remind the public of this brief, and ultimately the Commission’s report did not recommend  this sort of tax.

Lavallee v. The Justices of the Hampden Superior Court and Carabello v. The Justices of the Holyoke District Court

Fourteen years later, we were having a similar discussion, this time specifically for attorneys representing indigent criminal defendants.  In Lavallee v. The Justices of the Hampden Superior Court and Carabello v. The Justices of the Holyoke District Court, the BBA submitted a brief by three Choate, Hall & Stewart (today, Choate) attorneys, Jack Cinquegrana, Michelle Dineen Jerrett, and Terrence Schwab.  The case arose out of necessity – thanks to the Gideon decision, all criminal defendants have a right to counsel.  If they cannot afford one, the state has a responsibility to provide one.  In Massachusetts, this has been provided under statute since 1983 by a combination of Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) staff attorneys and contracted bar advocates.

As of summer 2004, the hourly compensation scheme for bar advocates had not changed since 1986.  Due to the low rates ($30 to $54 an hour depending on the case) there was an increasing shortage of lawyers, particularly in western Massachusetts.  In early May, 2004, no attorneys reported for duty in Hampden County court to accept new criminal court case assignments, resulting in at least 19 indigent defendants being held in custody without counsel.  CPCS and the ACLU filed a petition in the SJC on behalf of those defendants.

The BBA stepped up to file a brief arguing that the state needed to adequately fund public defenders in order to attract a sufficient number of competent counsel and thatthe state had been underfunding indigent defense services since their inception.  On July 28, 2004, the SJC found that the defendants in these cases were being deprived of their right to counsel under the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights and urged all three branches of government to work together to fashion a remedy.  In August, the Legislature passed a bill to increase hourly rates for certain types of cases through a $16.3 million supplement to the fiscal year 2005 budget and create a commission to study indigent criminal defendant representation.  The final report recommended further increases over a multiyear period.  (For a more comprehensive history of CPCS and bar advocate compensation, see here).

A familiar debate continues today, and the BBA is continuing to weigh-in, most recently advocating for pay raises for CPCS staff attorneys and Assistant District Attorneys so that their base pay equals that of executive-branch attorneys.

Attorney-Client Privilege

The BBA frequently uses the amicus brief platform to argue for the preservation of the attorney-client privilege.  Attorney-client privilege is one of the oldest privileges recognized under law, with the intent of encouraging open and frank communication between attorneys and their clients to promote the broad public interest in the observation of law and administration of justice (see Upjohn v. United States).  The Ninth Circuit has called the privilege “perhaps the most sacred of all legally recognized privileges and its preservation is essential to the just and orderly operation of our legal system (see United States v. Bauer).

RFF Family Partnership v. Burns & Levinson

Two recent cases best illustrate our commitment to this principle.  In 2013, Bob Buchanan of Choate and also a long time member of the BBA’s Ethics Committee and Board of Bar Editors, led the team authoring our brief in RFF Family Partnership v. Burns & Levinson.  “Of Counsel” drafters included Harold Potter, Jr. of Holland and Knight LLP and William Southard of Bingham McCutchen LLP (now Morgan Lewis).  The case concerned whether confidential communications between law firm attorneys and a law firm’s in-house counsel concerning a malpractice claim asserted by a current client of the firm are protected from disclosure to the client by the attorney-client privilege.  In the case, the law firm Burns & Levinson was accused of malpractice in its representation of plaintiff RFF Family Partnership, LP in a commercial foreclosure property transaction.  After the attorneys on the case received a letter laying out the malpractice allegations, they consulted with Burns & Levinson partner, and BBA Council member, David Rosenblatt, who was designated to respond to ethical questions and risk management issues on behalf of the firm and had not at the time worked on any issues in the RFF matter.  Burns & Levinson did not bill RFF for any of the time devoted to these internal communications.

The BBA brief asked the court to state a clear rule applying attorney-client privilege when a lawyer consults with in-house ethics counsel, arguing that clients benefit when lawyers promptly consult in-house ethics counsel, that there is a sound legal basis for applying the privilege in these circumstances, and there is no basis for carving out a “fiduciary exception” to the privilege.  Specifically, the brief lays out a test for immediate application of attorney-client privilege in these sorts of consultations:

  1. In-house counsel has been formally or informally designated to provide advice to the law firm…
  2. In-house counsel does not work on the particular client matter that presents an issue; and
  3. The time spent by in-house counsel on advertising the law firm is absorbed by the law firm and is not billed or charged to any client.

The SJC concluded that confidential communications between law firm attorneys and in-house ethics counsel concerning malpractice claims of a current client are not subject to different standards under a “fiduciary exception” and are protected from disclosure by the attorney-client privilege “provided that (1) the law firm has designated an attorney or attorneys within the firm to represent the firm as in-house counsel, (2) the in-house counsel has not performed any work on the client matter at issue or a substantially related matter, (3) the time spent by the attorneys in these communications with in-house counsel is not billed to a client, and (4) the communications are made in confidence and kept confidential.”  Look familiar?

This decision and the, shall we say, slightly modified BBA test, have been cited by other states considering the same sorts of issues.  We are proud that our brief had such an impact and feel strongly that these are the sorts of issues on which the BBA must be a thought leader given the import of the privilege to the legal profession.

Commonwealth v. Wade

More recently, we defended attorney-client privilege in the case of Commonwealth v. Wade, in addition to arguing for the correct interpretation of the Commonwealth’s new post-conviction DNA testing law.  Followers of this blog know this case well – see our coverage throughout the case: December 2015 brief filed, January 2016 oral argument, August 2016 breaking down the SJC decision.  For those of you who may have missed it, the case revolves around interpretation of Chapter 278A, in particular, Section 3(b)(5), which permits new forensic testing if a defendant can show, inter alia, that the evidence has not already been subjected to the requested analysis.  The BBA advocated for passage of the law establishing this language, starting with our 2008 Task Force to Improve the Accuracy and Reliability of the Criminal Justice System, which published its Getting It Right report in 2010.  In 2012, the Governor signed a law that sets out five reasons why it would be justifiable for the requested analysis not to have been pursued, such that it should be pursued now:

(i) the requested analysis had not yet been developed at the time of the conviction;

(ii) the results of the requested analysis were not admissible in the courts of the Commonwealth at the time of the conviction;

(iii) the moving party and the moving party’s attorney were not aware of and did not have reason to be aware of the existence of the evidence or biological material at the time of the underlying case and conviction;

(iv) the moving party’s attorney in the underlying case was aware at the time of the conviction of the existence of the evidence or biological material, the results of the requested analysis were admissible as evidence in courts of the Commonwealth, a reasonably effective attorney would have sought the analysis and either the moving party’s attorney failed to seek the analysis or the judge denied the request; or

(v) the evidence or biological material was otherwise unavailable at the time of the conviction.

These prongs are nearly identical to the corresponding recommendation contained in Getting It Right.

The trial judge in the Wade case interpreted Ch. 278A, Section 3(b)(5) to require a lawyer to prove all of the prongs, rather than applying the disjunctive reading, as our brief argues and we believe the Legislature intended, that a lawyer must prove only a single prong.  Furthermore, the trial judge interpreted the fourth prong to require the attorney to show the “primary cause” or “actual reason” that DNA testing was not pursued at trial, applying a subjective standard to the “reasonable attorney” test.  Based on this interpretation, the trial judge required the defense attorney to violate attorney-client privilege by testifying on why the now requested DNA testing was not sought at the initial trial.

Our amicus brief, authored by a team from K&L Gates including former BBA Council member Mike Ricciuti, Kathleen Parker, and Patrick McCooe, argued that the fourth prong calls for an objective standard and that the law does not actually require a “primary cause” finding – the test is not to determine why the defendant’s attorney did not seek a different type of DNA testing at the time of trial, but rather, whether a reasonably effective attorney would have sought the requested analysis.  Thus, the judge erred in violating attorney-client privilege, and, in doing so, frustrated the purpose of the law in a way that could potentially chill future claims, denying wrongfully-convicted individuals a pathway to establish their innocence.

The SJC heard oral argument on January 11 (watch the video here).  The Justices pushed both sides to explain where to draw the line on protecting attorney-client privilege.  Counsel for the defendant argued, much like our brief, that an attorney should never have to violate the privilege to testify, because the law’s standard is objective, asking only what a reasonably effective attorney would do, and not whether the attorney in a particular case was or was not reasonably effective.  In her words, “The piercing of the attorney-client privilege was extreme judicial overreaching. It was excessive.”  While she conceded that it would be appropriate for the court to ask the lawyer about his or her decision making, the “attorney-client privilege should be sacrosanct.”

We couldn’t agree more.  And the SJC apparently feels the same, as the 6-0 decision issued July 29 held in line with the arguments of our brief, that it was an abuse of discretion for the trial judge to deny Wade’s motion for DNA testing based on his misinterpretation of the statute requiring the attorney to demonstrate the “primary reason” he did not seek the requested analysis. The decision makes clear that the statute’s plain language means each of the five prongs in the statute “provides a moving party with alternate pathways to establish that he or she is entitled to the requested [DNA] analysis . . . . Indeed it would be nonsensical to attribute a conjunctive meaning to the word ‘or’ as used in this section… ” (p. 12-13).  On the trial judge’s requirement of finding the “primary reason” or “actual reason” why DNA testing was not pursued at trial, the Supreme Judicial Court decision explains that this language does not appear in the act, and there is no other language indicating such a requirement (p.15).  Instead, the statute’s “reasonably effective attorney” test “is an objective one” (p. 16).  Thus, the trial judge erred when finding that attorney-client privilege had been waived, forcing trial counsel to reveal privileged communications, and denying Wade’s motion to strike those answers.  The “reasonably effective attorney” test “does not require testimony or an affidavit from trial counsel” (p.20).

The court reversed the rulings denying scientific testing and the motion to strike the protected attorney-client privileged testimony and remanded the case to the Superior Court for an order permitting the requested testing.

The outcome was truly a victory for access to justice and the practice of law.  We are proud to have played a role in helping to protect access to post-conviction DNA testing, a major tool in overturning wrongful convictions, and again safeguarding one of the most important tenets of legal practice in attorney-client privilege.

And these two cases are merely the tip of the iceberg.  The BBA has protected attorney-client privilege in each of the following cases as well:

  • 2007 – Bismullah v. Gates – The BBA signed onto a brief drafted by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and filed on behalf of a group of detainees at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D. C. Circuit. The brief sought a protective order governing proceedings against Respondent Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates in order to reasonably protect access to classified information while addressing communications between the detainees and their counsel. The brief argued that legal representation is impaired if lawyers are not able to visit their clients as they find necessary to obtain the information they need and to consult with and inform their clients, as well as to establish the trust necessary to effective representation. On July 20, 2007, the appeals court ruled in line with our brief, that the Guantanamo captives’ attorneys should be allowed to review all the classified evidence in their clients’ cases.
  • 2007 – Hanover Ins. Co. v. Rapo & Jepsen Ins. Svcs., Inc. and Arbella Mutual Ins. Co. – This interlocutory appeal from the entry of a discovery order in an automobile dispute between insurers presented issues regarding attorney-client privilege and work product doctrine in the context of a joint defense agreement: whether Massachusetts law recognizes a joint defense privilege and whether an oral joint defense agreement is enforceable. The brief, authored by John Shope and Katherine Schmeckpeper of Foley Hoag, supported the appellants’ position that Massachusetts recognizes the common interest doctrine, sometimes known as the joint defense privilege. This doctrine, which is recognized in the majority of other states and federal law, permits parties with common interests to share communications protected by attorney-client privilege or the attorney work product doctrine without waving applicable immunity from disclosure. This facilitates the efficient resolution of litigation by increasing the sharing of information and division of labor among counsel working towards a common goal.  The SJC decision recognized the use and validity of joint defense agreements, and the exception to waiver of the attorney-client privilege under the common interest doctrine.
  • 2006 – ACLU v. NSA – the BBA signed onto this brief behind the leadership of then Amicus Committee Chair Deborah Birnbach, Goodwin. The brief challenged the National Security Agency’s wiretapping program on the grounds that it violated attorney-client privilege.  The issue arose out of a classified NSA foreign intelligence program, in existence since at least 2001, which was used to intercept international telephone and internet communications of numerous people and organizations within the United States without warrants, allegedly because of their history of communicating with people in or from the Middle East.  The amicus brief argued that the surveillance program undermined attorney-client privilege because the individuals accused by the government of wrongdoing should have access to legal advice, but such advice can be effective only if lawyer-client communications are conducted in confidence, uninhibited by fears of government wiretapping.  The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the brief, finding that the plaintiffs could not show that they had been or would be subjected to surveillance personally, and therefore lacked standing before the court.  One year later, the US Supreme Court turned down an appeal from the ACLU.
  • 2006 – Suffolk Construction Co. v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Division of Capital Asset Management – in a brief authored by Edward Colbert III, then of Looney & Grossman LLP, now with Casner & Edwards, the BBA supported DCAM’s position that government attorneys and their clients should not be exempted from attorney-client privilege. The brief argued on policy grounds that documents of government agencies/employees should enjoy protection from disclosure under the public-records law if the documents are subject to attorney-client privilege.  Aside from the hallowed position of the privilege in the history of law, the brief argued that clients of government attorneys include members of the public served by public agencies who deserve the privilege.  In addition, public officials and employees would be unfairly disadvantaged if their attorney communications were not protected.  Finally, the public interest is served by placing government attorneys on equal professional and intellectual footing as private attorneys, promoting the highest standards of legal excellence among all attorneys, whether they are engaged in public or private practice.  The SJC ruled in-line with our brief, protecting attorney-client privilege for government lawyers.
  • 2000 –U.S. v. Legal Services of New York City – the BBA signed onto a brief defending attorney-client privilege for legal services recipients. The case revolved around a dispute on whether the Inspector General could subpoena legal-services lawyers at Legal Services for New York City (LSNY) about their clients’ particular needs, in order to link clients’ names to their needs.  The brief argued that forced disclosure of this information would violate attorney-client privilege, harming clients and deterring them from seeking legal counsel, especially in sensitive cases such as domestic abuse, public benefits, child abuse or neglect, or mental health and disability rights.  The District of Columbia Court of Appeals held against our amicus brief, permitting enforcement of the Inspector General’s subpoena.

As you can see, the BBA’s appellate advocacy through amicus briefs has had a major impact on the law in Massachusetts and beyond.  Stay tuned for more amicus highlights next week, when we will cover briefs on diversity and inclusion and opposition to capital punishment.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association