Posts Categorized: Joint Committee on the Judiciary

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

RUFADAA Update: Testimony at Judiciary Committee Hearing and Podcast

In March, we updated you on the BBA’s endorsement, at the request of the Trusts and Estates Law Section, of the adoption of the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA) in the Commonwealth.

To briefly recap, RUFADAA was promulgated by the Uniform Law Commission in 2016 in response to a lack of guidance as to what happens to a person’s digital assets (think Facebook, Instagram, online banking) when they die or become incapacitated. Very few individuals leave clear direction on the handling of these assets and those companies in charge of the on-line accounts have varied and often difficult-to-locate policies, if they have any policies on the matter at all. RUFADAA helps to add clarity by creating a formal process to determine a fiduciary’s authority to access digital assets while also balancing privacy concerns and limiting unwarranted disclosure of private communications. Since its promulgation in 2015, at least 30 other states have adopted RUFADAA in some form. (Check out our previous blog post on this for a full refresher on the contents of RUFADAA.)

On Monday, the Joint Committee on the Judiciary (“the Committee”) heard testimony from three different panels on bills that deal with access to digital assets.

The Committee first heard testimony from the Ajemian siblings in support of, S.822, “An Act Relative to Access to a Decedent’s Electronic Mail Accounts,” sponsored by Senator Cynthia Stone Creem. As you’ll recall, the Ajemian siblings are parties to Ajemian v. Yahoo!, Inc., regarding the contents of an e-mail account established by their late brother.  There, the Supreme Judicial Court is currently determining whether the federal Stored Communications Act (SCA), 18 U.S.C. § 2702, prohibits disclosure of the contents of a deceased e-mail account-holder’s account to the administrators of his or her estate. In that case, the Ajemian siblings, the administrators of their brother’s estate, argue, in part, that they should have access under an exception to the Act, as agents for the decedent.

S.822 applies only to e-mail accounts but allows greater access to those accounts than the requirements set forth in RUFADAA. The bill allows personal representatives to gain access to the contents of an e-mail account upon a notarized written request by the personal representative or an order of the probate court that has jurisdiction over the estate of the decedent. Upon receipt of the request, the service provider has 60 days to comply, and this requirement supersedes provisions in e-mail service provider contracts, terms and conditions, or privacy policy unless the provider can show “by clear and convincing evidence, that it offered opt-out language, separate and distinct from the standard agreement or terms of service, whereby the decedent affirmatively declined to have the decedents electronic mail account released after dead.”

Next up, representatives from Facebook and NetChoice testified in opposition to S.822 and in support of Senator Lesser’s S.885, “An Act Relative to the Privacy of a Decedent’s Electronic Communication” (and Representative Livingstone’s identical H.3083, “An Act for Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets”). These bills are largely the same of RUFADAA, except the language limits the definition of “fiduciary” to a personal representative, while RUFADAA would cover personal representatives, conservators, trustees, and agents acting under the power of attorney. Notably, the Facebook witness also stated that they would be completely comfortable with the adoption of the full RUFADAA language instead of the more narrow S.885 or H.3083. These witnesses opposed S.822 because of the broader access to accounts the bill allows, as they worry it will push them to violate privacy guarantees, put them in conflict with the federal SCA, and tie them up in litigation.

This brings us to the final panel, which instead of testifying in support of any of the current bills, called for adoption of the full RUFADAA language, even though it hasn’t yet been filed in Massachusetts. BBA Trusts and Estates Section Co-Chair Joe Bierwirth, of Hemenway & Barnes, testified on behalf of the BBA, alongside Colin Korzec, of U.S. Trust, and Marc Bloostein, of Ropes and Gray, on behalf of the Standing Committee on Massachusetts Legislation Relating to Wills, Trusts, Estates and Fiduciary Administration (“Standing Committee”).

Joe Bierwirth, Colin Korzec, and Marc Bloostein (right to left) testify in support of RUFADAA at Joint Committee on the Judiciary hearing. 

Overall, the panel presented the reasons for adoption of the complete RUFADAA language, including the balance it strikes in allowing access while also protecting privacy, and the clarity and certainty it will offer for fiduciaries, digital account users, and digital account service providers. The witnesses also stressed the unified support this language has achieved, both nationally, with adoption by more and more states in rapid succession over the past two years, and locally, with the BBA, the Massachusetts Bar Association, and the Massachusetts Bankers Association having all officially endorsed the RUFADAA language. (The written testimony offered by the panel also included the Standing Committee’s Massachusetts-specific analysis of RUFADAA, complete with proposed edits to the ULC’s model language in order to ensure it complies with the Massachusetts General Laws).

One thing all witnesses agreed on is that this is an issue crying out for action from the Legislature, in order to provide some clarity to what is now quite a grey area. As always, we’ll keep you posted on RUFADAA throughout the legislative session!

In related news, the BBA isn’t just sticking with legislative testimony to get the word out about RUFADAA. You won’t want to miss our podcast featuring Trusts and Estates co-chairs, Joe Bierwirth and Andy Rothstein, of Goulston & Storrs.

—Alexa Daniel
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

2016-17 Program Year Begins!

Welcome to the new program year!  As Section Steering Committee meetings enter full swing, and the BBA again hums with activity, we wanted to take the opportunity to review some of our public-policy procedures while taking a look back on some highlights of our work from last year.

We are always interested in getting involved with matters of public policy to:

  • Increase access to justice
  • Provide fair and efficient administration of justice; and
  • Enhance the quality and practice of the law

While this sometimes entails the BBA taking a formal position in support or opposition of a bill, policy, or rule, more often than not we take a more nuanced stance.  Be it through amicus briefs, comments to the courts, or work on legislation, the BBA strives to represent reasoned positions of legal experts and to offer a unique perspective.  Sometimes that means we present conflicting views together, and we are comfortable with that.

For example, in April, BBA Council approved submission of comments from the Association and a number of Sections to the Trial Court Committee on Public Access to Court Records regarding the Proposed Uniform Rules on Public Access. We have documented our involvement with this issue a number of times here on the blog.  In brief, we have been involved with this issue for over a year, and called together a special working group to scrutinize the proposed rule over a three month period early this year.  What may have been lost in the shuffle is that our comments reflect the existing oppositional views of the bar.  While practitioners in some areas had specific concerns, the major divide was between those wanting broad online access and those focused more on the privacy concerns that elicits.  We strove to adequately present both views to the courts for their consideration in drafting the rule and were pleased with the results, as the final rules appear to contain a number of amendments based on our suggestions.

In our policy work, one of the biggest consistent challenges we face is timing.  Our policy procedures have at times generated frustration, because it can sometimes take months for us to reach an official position.  We believe, however, that a process allowing us to get input from all our interested Sections, and to register viewpoints that may not initially have been apparent, helps us come to the best outcome.  This is especially important because one of our hallmarks is to stand by our positions, often for decades.  Therefore, we urge you to bring your policy or amicus requests to us with as much time as possible – it makes the process better for everyone.  However, that’s not to say we can’t speed things up when our voice is needed…

In mid-October, when we learned of Recinos v. Escobar, we knew it was a case that aligned with our principles, and that we had something to add to the discussion.  The case was taken up sua sponte by the SJC in expedited fashion to address the jurisdiction of the Probate and Family Court to hear the case of a 20-year old woman seeking federal Special Immigrant Juvenile status before her 21st birthday in December.

Since 1990, the federal government has provided for Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status to children, defined by federal law as unmarried persons under the age of 21, as a pathway to seek legal permanent resident status.  SIJ status requires a finding of abuse, abandonment, or neglect by a specialized state court, and a determination that the child is dependent on the state court, in order to merit SIJ consideration by a federal immigration agency or federal immigration court. However, because the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court generally does not have jurisdiction beyond age 18, some judges felt constrained from making such findings for individuals who are 18, 19 or 20.

Thus, in Massachusetts, there was a very small class of young people that would otherwise qualify for SIJ status, but could be barred from doing so since the Probate and Family Court would not make a finding because they were aged 18 to 21.  According to immigration law practitioners, anecdotally, the Probate and Family Court sometimes extended equity jurisdiction to hear these cases, but that was not uniform and judges had no guidance on the matter.

We activated our Amicus Committee to promptly review the case and were able to get their affirmative recommendation and approval from BBA Council within a week to add our voice to the amicus brief just in time for the November 4 filing deadline.  The brief, which we signed onto with a coalition of concerned organizations and individuals, argued that the Probate and Family Court had equity jurisdiction over youths up to the age of 21 to enter the findings needed to be eligible for SIJ status.  Specifically, it argued that the pathway to permanent legal residency for immigrant youths required the state courts to play an essential role and that the Probate and Family Court had equity jurisdiction over these cases.  First, it argued that the Court’s equity jurisdiction was not limited by statute and made the case that the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights supported this sort of equitable remedy.  The brief further argued that children who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected were dependent on the court to make such a finding since they had been mistreated and because such a finding was required to qualify for SIJ status.

On November 9, the SJC released its order, ruling in line with the brief – that the Probate and Family Court had equity jurisdiction to decide the case – and remanding to that court for further proceedings on an expedited basis, so that the appellant could have time to apply for SIJ status before her 21st birthday.  Four months later, the SJC released its full opinion, making clear that the Probate and Family Court has equity jurisdiction over youths between the ages of 18 and 21 for the purpose of making the necessary SIJ findings.

In addition to signing onto amicus briefs, we sometimes draft our own.  Two such cases that we’re especially proud of from this past year are Fisher v. Univ. of Texas (supporting affirmative action in higher education) and Comm. v. Wade (defending attorney-client privilege and access to post-conviction forensic testing). Of course, this requires even more time and work on our part.  Which brings us to…

Finally, we urge you to be flexible.  Especially when working with the Legislature, we only have so much control over the process and outcome.  We will do our best to streamline things as much as possible, but sometimes this means long waits to testify or last minute changes to legislation.  Or both, as was the case with our zoning reform bill, H3611, An Act relative to non-conforming structures.  We were very pleased when the Governor signed the bill into law on August 5, but that was only the final step in a long history.  The BBA has supported this bill in various forms since 1995, behind the leadership of its Real Estate Law Section, as a means of improving the clarity of Massachusetts zoning laws and thereby promoting economic and real estate development.

This bill amends Section 7 of Chapter 40A, concerning the enforcement of local zoning regulations. In particular, Section 7 spells out the circumstances under which violations of Chapter 40A, or a zoning by-law or ordinance, or a variance or permit, can lead to a “non-complying” building being ordered to be removed, altered, or relocated.  Prior to the passage of this bill, the law prohibited a municipality from taking such enforcement action more than ten years from the date after the commencement of the alleged violation.

However, Section 7 was incomplete, and did not explicitly provide that a building which had survived the statutory limitations period became a valid non-conforming structure.  As a result, if a structure which did not comply with current zoning laws was destroyed after ten years, it was not grandfathered under the zoning laws in effect when it was built, and it had to be rebuilt under new zoning requirements, which could be more restrictive or prohibitively expensive.

H3611 corrects this problem by granting legal status, subject to the provisions of G.L. c. 40A §6, as well as local ordinances or by-laws, to non-conforming structures that have survived the applicable statute of limitations.  This will provide clarity and thus offer protection to property owners and their lenders.  In limited circumstances, those structures, as they existed on the date they were erected or altered, would be deemed compliant with Chapter 40A (and any ordinance or by-law adopted in accordance with it) and thus valid, legally non-conforming structures.  By lifting the cloud of uncertainty created by the current law, H3611 will help real estate owners more freely convey or encumber property containing older non-complying buildings or building additions.

At the same time, the measure will have no adverse effect on municipalities, since it leaves unchanged their power to enforce their ordinances in this regard within ten years of the violation.  In fact, Section 3 of the newly enacted bill includes language intended to give municipalities an additional six months to take action on non-conforming structures that have been in existence for between nine and ten years as of the new law’s effective date in November.

But we could not have achieved this success without the devoted efforts of last year’s Section Co-Chairs, Hannah Kilson and Matthew Lawlor, along with Council member (and former Section Co-Chair) Michael Fee.  After the Real Estate Section Steering Committee reviewed the bill and decided to refile it around this time in 2014, we waited until mid-May 2015 for a Judiciary Committee hearing, at which Mike Fee testified.  In June 2015, the bill was reported out of the Judiciary Committee and referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means and shortly thereafter reported to the floor of the House, where it passed 151-0 before being delivered to the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.  There, the bill underwent further review and over the course of a number of emails, phone calls, and meetings, BBA staff and Mike Fee heard legislators’ concerns and worked with them to craft amendments in order to win the support of the full Senate for final approval.  On May 5, the bill was debated and amended on the floor of the Senate and ultimately passed unanimously.  From there it was back to the House, which in late July concurred in the Senate amendment, finally being laid before the Governor on July 26, 2016.  Ten days later it was enacted – with a few tweaks and 20-plus years after initial endorsement by the BBA.  It was a long road, but well worth it.

Hopefully this has given you a bit of a window into the work we do and how it happens.  Patience, flexibility, and nuance are all key aspects of successful policy development at the BBA.  With that, welcome back one and all – we hope to be seeing you around the BBA and look forward to working with you on policy issues!

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Repairing the World through Judicial Innovation and Evolution

On Tuesday, Chief Justice Ralph Gants gave his annual State of the Judiciary Address at the MBA’s Bench Bar Symposium in the Great Hall of the John Adams Courthouse.  Attendees such as Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo, Judiciary Committee Co-Chairs Representative John Fernandes and Senator William Brownsberger, Attorney General Maura Healey, Governor’s Chief Legal Counsel Lon Povich, and a host of SJC Justice and Chiefs of the Trial Court departments were there.

Chief Justice Gants began with high-minded principles.  He explained that he sees every court – not just specialty courts — as a problem solver, which he defines as meeting an obligation to repair the world, an obligation met by saving even one life.  No one, he noted, comes before our courts unless they have a problem that cannot otherwise be amicably resolved.  All courts seek to repair the world, one problem at a time – a task that can be accomplished only with the support and assistance of the two other branches of government.

Gants SotJ

The Chief went on discuss two main issues, civil case reforms and justice reinvestment.

Civil Case Reforms

The Courts are intent on changing civil cases, making them more affordable and cost efficient at all levels.  “Slow, expensive litigation,” he said, “is the way of the dinosaur.”  Three changes are coming this winter:

  • A menu of options in Superior Court – parties will soon be able to choose from a number of resolution options. The top option will be the “three course meal” of full discovery and a jury trial.  However, there will be a sliding scale of other options, available only upon the agreement of all parties, which will attempt to bring cases to resolution with greater speed and less expense.  We expect to have an opportunity to circulate these proposals for comment within the BBA before they take effect.
  • More efficient cases – judges will monitor cases more closely to assure that they stay on track. In addition, the SJC Standing Advisory Committee on the Rules of Civil and Appellate Procedure will be revising Rule 26 of the Rules of Civil Procedure.  Using the recently revised federal rule on discovery as a model, the Committee will tweak our state rule to encourage discovery proportional to case costs.  We look forward to being part of the review and comment process on Rule 26 as well.
  • Increased number of dedicated civil sessions – the District Court and Boston Municipal Court will, at least partly in response to our comments, introduce more sessions dedicated to civil cases, so that these will no longer be the third priority behind criminal and domestic abuse cases. They will also delay implementing the proposed increase in the procedural amount at these courts until these new sessions are running well and demonstrating that they can more efficiently handle civil cases.

Justice Reinvestment

The Chief Justice shared a number of ways the courts are working to improve criminal practice, with a focus on decreasing recidivism, helping individuals become productive members of society, and using the state’s criminal-justice budget more wisely to help achieve these twin goals.

  • Trial Court departments with criminal jurisdiction have been studying best practices in sentencing and hope to use this information to improve sentencing practices starting this winter. The BBA was represented by Thomas Peisch, Conn Kavanaugh, on the Superior Court Working Group; Daniel Dain, Dain, Torpy, Le Ray, Wiest & Garner PC and Michael Fee, Pierce & Mandell PC on the Land Court Working Group; and Thomas Beauvais and Nigel Long, Liberty Mutual on the BMC Working Group.
  • Chief Justice Gants is committed to following the findings and recommendations of the Council of State Governments, which he, along with the Governor, Speaker, and Senate President, invited to examine the Massachusetts criminal justice system. He cited a fact that the Council had already found – in 2012, 46% of those released from state prison in the Commonwealth went back to the street without either parole or probation supervision.  This is one of the highest unsupervised release rates in the country and may have the effect of increasing recidivism rates.
  • The Chief offered a number of ideas on justice reinvestment such as increasing the availability of good time credits, promoting step-down and re-entry programs, and removing mandatory minimum sentences, or at least their prohibition on the aforementioned programs. He also expressed the belief that the Commonwealth may benefit from decreasing sentence lengths and enhancing post-incarceration supervision.  Even though the Commonwealth’s incarceration rate is amongst the lowest in the country, it still does not compare favorably to history (the incarceration rate now is three times higher than it was in 1980 despite the fact that the rates of violent crime are now 22% lower and property crime are now 57% lower), or the world (if Massachusetts were a separate nation, it would have the eighth highest incarceration rate).
  • We need to reconsider all of the fees we are imposing on criminal defendants. We are charging them each hundreds, and sometimes thousands of dollars – fees that amount to more than $30 million per year, when many of these individuals have little or nothing to spare.  In addition, the task of collecting these fees has fallen to probation officers, which distracts them from their far more important function of helping probationers succeed in re-entering society.

Chief Justice Gants ended his speech with some notes on access to justice and jury voir dire.  On the former issue, he touted the recent opening of four Court Service Centers and the adoption and beginning implementation of a language access plan to help non-English speakers understand court processes, forms, and procedure.  The Courts are constantly exploring ways to assure that everyone can meaningfully access their services.

Finally, he talked about how the SJC responded to the bar with the adoption of attorney voir dire.  We were pleased to be involved in this process, as current BBA Vice-President Mark Smith, Laredo & Smith, LLP, served on the SJC Committee on this issue.  Over the past year, the Court issued a standing order governing lawyer participation in voir dire and designed a pilot project on panel voir dire, which is in use by 15 Superior Court judges.  They also recruited 30 Superior Court judges to study attorney-conducted voir dire.  The Courts have trained judges and gathered data on the impact of the new measures.  In all, the Courts continue to develop, grow, and adapt to this new aspect of practice.

As always, Chief Justice Gants clearly has his finger on the pulse of the judiciary.  We are excited to learn of the changes that are coming and to reflect on the strides the Courts have made in the last year.  We look forward to working with the judiciary to bring the Chief’s visions to reality, as the Courts innovate and thrive.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Judiciary, Access to Justice, and Mass Incarceration All on the Menu at Annual Meeting

Late last week we held our Annual Meeting Luncheon and many of the themes we discuss here featured prominently.  From civil legal aid to mass incarceration to the judicial nomination process, we heard first-hand from some of the state’s top leadership about their work with the BBA and the important role the BBA plays for them.

First up was Speaker Robert DeLeo who received our Presidential Citation.

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The Speaker has been a staunch supporter of both the judiciary and civil legal aid over his 25-year tenure in the State House.  The Speaker helped shape our Investing in Justice report, urging former BBA President J.D. Smeallie, Chair of the BBA Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, to include stories from civil legal aid recipients in the Task Force’s report, in addition to statistical analysis of those turned away and reports on potential cost savings to the state from increased investment.  We have always been impressed with his ability to see the human side of issues.

Speaker DeLeo began his speech by noting his pride in the state’s rich legal history, saying we had repeatedly “set the foundation for justice in America”.  He recognized the work of former Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick Ireland and thanked Chief Justice of the Trial Court, Paula Carey, and current Chief Justice of the SJC, Ralph Gants, for their work on court reform and their advocacy in the Legislature.  Having led the push for court reform and the judicial pay raise in recent years, the Speaker boasted that our judiciary remains one of the best in the country, and he assured the crowd that the House remains committed to making justice a priority and to adequately funding the courts.

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Next, he moved onto the BBA’s work on civil legal aid.  After praising the BBA for leadership in the legal community and partnership on Beacon Hill, he singled out J.D. Smeallie and acknowledged that the $2 million increase for legal aid in the FY2016 budget was “not what we hoped it could have been,” but represents only a starting point.  He pledged that continued investment – and ensuring that the most vulnerable, such as domestic-violence survivors and the homeless, receive legal assistance — remains a priority for the House.  Even though Massachusetts is at the forefront of providing legal aid by almost any metric, the Speaker reiterated his commitment to maintaining the high standards we have set as a national leader on both administering and providing access to justice, saying that, as our Task Force demonstrated, it is not only the right thing to do but also fiscally prudent.

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We then presented Chairman John Fernandes with our Distinguished Legislator award, honoring him for his work as a member of that civil legal aid task force, as House Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, and as a leader on alimony reform and on post-conviction access to forensic testing.  He humbly noted that when we honor him with a personal award, we are intrinsically honoring as well the countless others who are always necessarily involved in the process of getting legislation enacted.  On the alimony statute, for example, he cited the work of Chief Justice Carey and members of the bar.

Chairman Fernandes thanked the BBA for calling attention to the growing access to justice gap and for working to get the attention of legislators, especially non-lawyers who may not have witnessed first-hand the struggles of either pro se litigants or the courts in handling them.  The BBA, he said, is unlike self-interested single-issue advocates, because we involve ourselves with issues such as these.  He praised the BBA for being relentless on civil legal aid, and for helping him make the case to the non-lawyers among his colleagues.  And he promised that “we will not rest until there is access to justice for all who need it.”

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Finally, our keynote speaker, Governor Charlie Baker, addressed the more than 1,300 attorneys in attendance.  Though he is not a lawyer, the Governor spoke fondly of the many lawyers he has worked with and learned from over the years, including his current Chief Legal Counsel, Lon Povich – another member of the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts.  He then discussed his theory of governing, an overarching theme of his speech.  He explained that being a Republican Governor in a Democratic state is rife with challenges, but also that he embraces working with others, even those with vastly different opinions.  He cited the letters of BBA founder John Adams and his wife Abigail, adults who found ways to disagree without being disagreeable, as a model for the way government should function — the ideal outcome being a “combo platter” that draws from everyone’s ideas.  In his own words, governing is finding solutions.

He offered as an example the opioid epidemic, an issue on which the Governor teamed up with Attorney General Maura Healey (also in attendance that day), and the Secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, Marylou Sudders, to issue his task force report earlier this year.  He is looking forward to continuing his work with the Legislature, health care community, legal community, and justice system to address the many facets of this complex and overwhelmingly large issue.

That same philosophy of governance also carries into civil legal aid.  The Governor acknowledged the inadequacy of relying, to a great extent, on IOLTA to fund civil legal aid.  That program, explained in more detail in our Investing in Justice report, collects the interest on all funds lawyers hold on behalf of clients, such as while conducting deals, that sits in a bank account for a brief period of time, and directs it to legal aid.  This has been an invaluable funding source for civil legal aid over the years, but has plummeted from nearly $32 million in 2007 to only around $5 million annually today due to a decrease in the number of deals and a collapse in interest rates following the 2008 recession.  This experience has revealed a fundamental flaw – when times are toughest, and therefore the need is greatest, funding for civil legal aid from this extremely important source is generally at its lowest.  The Governor described his hope to begin an open-minded dialogue on finding a way to improve legal aid funding and stabilize its sources.

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The Governor thanked former BBA President Paul Dacier for serving as Chair of the Judicial Nominating Commission. As we have stated here in the past, the key to continuing our proud history of great and diverse judges is to begin with great and diverse applicants, and both the Governor and the JNC are committed to this outcome.  “I may not be a lawyer,” he stated, “but I want to be remembered for appointing great judges … with your help.”

He then discussed justice reinvestment, the theory that we can use the savings from reducing incarceration rates toward keeping people from entering, or returning to, the justice system through alternative programming.  He noted that, although Massachusetts ranks well nationally, incarcerating people at roughly ½ the national rate – which he described as a tribute to many in the room — we can still learn from other states.  For this reason, he teamed with Chief Justice Gants and legislative leaders to request a review of Massachusetts policies by the Council of State Governments.  They hope to learn what works well in the Commonwealth and what they should change to help reduce recidivism and assist people in re-entering society.  The Governor said he looks forward to examining all the potential solutions and took the opportunity to highlight his willingness to consider a measure to end the practice of suspending driver licenses for drug offenders whose crimes weren’t motor-vehicle related – one that he hopes and expects to be able to sign into law.

Finally, the Governor closed by seizing the opportunity of our Annual Meeting – and capitalizing on its theme of civil legal aid – by continuing the tradition of declaring October to be Pro Bono Month in Massachusetts.

In all, it was an impressive afternoon and we look forward to seeing the solutions these fine leaders devise to the issues they identified.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association