BBA Testimony at Judiciary Committee Hearings

We’ve recently reported on our testimony in support of H.2645 (tax basis for certain decedents’ beneficiaries), at the Joint Committee of the Revenue (which later reported the bill favorably to the House Committee on Ways and Means) and our testimony in support of full RUFADAA language (access to digital assets) before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.  Lest you think our public hearing participation is limited to Trusts and Estates issues, we’ve also had the opportunity to present testimony on three other legislative items at Judiciary Committee hearings held the past few weeks.

Housing Court Expansion

On Tuesday, May 2, the Judiciary Committee heard from the public on bills related to Court Administration, including legislation that would expand jurisdiction of the Housing Court to the full state, which the BBA supports.  We’ve spoken often in the past on the importance of this expansion, identified this as a budget priority, and even recorded a podcast on the matter.

Two identical bills were before the committee, H.978 sponsored by Representative Chris Walsh, and S. 946, sponsored by Senator Karen E. Spilka. These bills would expand access to the Housing Court, and all its accompanying benefits, to all residents of the Commonwealth, including the close to one-third who currently lack such access.

Interestingly, H.978 and S.946 were two of the most highly testified-upon bills at the hearing. Representatives Paul J. Donato and Jay R. Kaufman, Senator Sal N. DiDomenico, and Chief Justice of the Housing Court Judge Tim F. Sullivan all testified in support of the bills.  In addition to these public officials, the Committee heard testimony from a number of key advocates, including Annette Duke of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, Elizabeth Soule, Executive Director of MetroWest Legal Services and Laura Rosi, Director of Housing and Advocacy of Housing Families.

We were lucky enough to have Julia Devanthery, Attorney and Clinical Instructor in Housing Clinic of the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School and member of the BBA Delivery of Legal Services Section, presenting testimony on behalf of the BBA as part of a panel, alongside Jeff Catalano of Todd & Weld, president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, and James T. Van Buren, Commissioner of the Access to Justice Commission.

Attorney Devanthery offered specific insight from the perspective of her extensive work supervising the Lawyer for the Day Program in Housing Court, which, since 1999, offers advice, mediation, and case litigation for unrepresented tenants and landlords on Eviction Day at the Housing Court.  She spoke to the importance of expanding this service statewide given the complexity of housing cases, the lack of alternative affordable housing options, and the vulnerability of many pro se tenants and landlords.  She also spoke movingly about her experience representing victims of domestic violence, noting that this clientele, which is uniquely vulnerable, is able to have their cases adjudicated by Housing Court in a manner which takes into account abuse, while taking advantage of the specialized legal protections in place to defend survivors and their children.

We’ll keep you updated on the report of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary on H.978 and S.946, and be sure to watch this space for our soon-to-come Senate budget update (Spoiler Alert: Unlike the House Ways and Means Budget proposal, the Senate Ways and Means budget does include funding and authorizing language for Housing Court Expansion).

UCCJEA

Earlier this week, the Committee held its second day of hearings on Probate and Family matters, this time taking up two topics on which the BBA has worked for a number of years. First up, An Act relative to the Uniform Child Custody Justice Enforcement Act (UCCJEA), S.806, filed once again by Senator Cynthia Stone Creem.  As we’ve outlined in the past, enactment of this bill would remedy conflicts that occur under current Massachusetts law when one of the parents of the child moves to another state. Currently, Massachusetts is the only state in the US which has not enacted the UCCJEA!

As it stands now, Massachusetts law cedes jurisdiction over our own custody orders to the home state of the custodial parent and child after six months of their residency in the new venue.  But under the UCCJEA, once a state has exercised jurisdiction over custody, that state retains exclusive jurisdiction as long as a parent, the child, or someone acting as a parent remains in the original issuing state. Overall, adoption of the UCCJEA would help to prevent one parent from forum-shopping by seeking a more favorable outcome in another state and also prevent the problem of dueling lawsuits in different jurisdictions.

A panel with representatives from the BBA, MBA, and the Women’s Bar Association (WBA), all of whom support passage of the bill now that domestic-violence concerns have been addressed with new language in the bill, presented testimony on behalf of the UCCJEA.  Judge Edward Ginsburg spoke on behalf of the BBA, and as usual offered compelling reasons for Massachusetts adoption.  If you’ll recall, Judge Ginsburg has spent nearly twenty years advocating for Massachusetts to change the law.

Stay tuned to find out if this will finally be the year that Massachusetts becomes the 50th state to adopt the UCCJEA!

Shared Parenting

Finally, Jessica Dubin of Lee & Rivers, our Family Law Section co-chair, spoke about a number of bills being heard that would amend Section 31 of Chapter 208 of the Massachusetts General Laws, dealing with child custody and shared parenting.  While the BBA has not specifically endorsed any of the bills pending in the Judiciary Committee, in 2015, the Family Law Section Steering Committee worked hard to develop principles related to shared parenting that would guide the BBA’s analysis of all related legislation. For example, the principles call for the availability of alternative terminology such as “parenting time”, “residential responsibility” and “decision-making responsibility,” in place of the divisive and outdated terms, “visitation” and “custody.”  The principles also offer support for provisions that provide increased guidance on the content to be included in parenting plans and oppose any provision that takes any focus away from the best interests of the child or ties the hands of judges.

Attorney Dubin offered the BBA’s appreciation to the Judiciary Committee for its consideration of the similar legislation last session and its openness to the input of the bar on the pending bills.  She expressed a hope that the BBA would have the same opportunities this session and relayed the current work being done to study Senator Will Brownsberger’s bill, S.775, An Act relative to determining the best interest of children in Probate and Family Court.

As usual, watch this space to find out what happens!

Many more hearings are set to be scheduled for the coming months, and we’ll report back on our continued activity!

—Alexa Daniel
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association