Posts Categorized: Legislature

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

BBA Budget Advocacy for FY2018

With the House Ways and Means Committee set to release their budget recommendation around April 12, the BBA is ramping up our own budget advocacy, calling for adequate funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) and the Trial Court, including statewide expansion of the Housing Court, and help for the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) in meeting their constitutional mandate to provide legal representation to the indigent. This week, we’re sending a letter to the Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Brian Dempsey, explaining why adequate funding in these areas is necessary.

Below, we offer an update on our budget priorities and share how you can get involved:

MLAC

Funding for MLAC and civil legal aid is as crucial as ever because legal aid directly touches so many of the biggest social issues impacting residents of the Commonwealth today, including homelessness and emergency shelter, immigration, domestic violence, and the opioid crisis. MLAC projections reveal that in 2017, MLAC-funded legal aid programs will receive over 89,500 requests for legal services. And, as indicated by the findings of the Investing in Justice Report by the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid, providers will be forced to turn away nearly two-thirds of those requests from qualified applicants as a result of a lack of resources.

These projections, of course, do not take into account the recent threats to federal civil legal aid funding. President Trump’s first proposed federal budget calls for the complete elimination of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and its $385 million in federal appropriations for civil legal aid. At the state level, this would mean MLAC would lose more than $5 million in federal funding and nearly 26,000 low-income Massachusetts residents would be left without legal assistance. Plus another $4 – $5 million in federal funding for civil legal aid would be lost by other programs, making the total civil legal aid funding lost in Massachusetts close to $10 million. The projected demand of 89,500 cases would likely rise significantly as well if that federal budget were enacted, as other social support services are likewise at risk of losing federal funding.

(You can learn about the federal budget and budget advocacy at the federal level by listening to this Federal Budget Process 101 podcast, and our earlier podcast on the state budget process focused on civil legal aid in particular.)

As we’ve reported many times before, the Investing in Justice Report also found that civil legal aid is a smart investment as it saves the state money on “back-end” costs such as emergency shelter, foster care, and health care. In fact, according to MLAC’s most recent report on the economic benefits of legal aid, legal assistance for low-income residents resulted in over $49 million of total income and savings for the Commonwealth in FY16 alone. Specifically, the report shows that legal aid led to $12.1 million in cost savings on social services for the state, $15.9 million in federal revenue entering the Commonwealth, and $21.2 million in benefits for residents.

The BBA supports MLAC’s ask for a $5 million increase in funding, for a total of $23 million in the FY18 budget, which would allow MLAC-funded civil legal aid programs to open at least 4,000 new cases, assisting an estimated 10,300 additional low-income clients and their family members. Be sure to check out MLAC’s helpful issue-specific breakdowns on the importance of legal aid in Housing, Employment, Immigration and Domestic Violence cases. We hope that you will join the BBA in supporting civil legal aid by reaching out to your State Senator and Representative to ask them to support MLAC’s budget request. If you don’t know your legislator, look them up here, and if you’re not sure what to say, refer to these handy talking points and keep an ear out for a future Issue Spot Podcast on How to Talk to Your Legislators.

Trial Court

The Trial Court, which is made up of seven court departments, handles the vast majority of cases in the Commonwealth, and as a result, acts as the primary point of contact for nearly all Massachusetts residents who are seeking resolution of a legal issue. In order to ensure the efficient operation of the judicial system and fair, impartial, and equal access to justice, it is essential that the Trial Court receive adequate funding.

Over the last few years, the Trial Court has made great strides in finding ways to work smarter and leverage technological advancements to get more done with less money and less staff. Their current request for maintenance funding of 6,359 positions represents a decrease of 161 positions below the FY2016 staffing and a 19% reduction since FY02. Despite these efforts, the Trial Court still has a major need for increased funding to sustain and continue the progress made in recent years.

As we’ve outlined, the Governor provided for about a 1% across-the-board increase in Trial Court appropriations, for a total of $646.8 million, which was slightly less than the court’s original maintenance budget request of $649.5 million but quite short of the revised request that accounts for the $11.7 million in pay raises that must be implemented as a result of the pay package that passed earlier this year. The Trial Court’s revised funding request for FY18, $661,368,224, would support a number of modules necessary to maintain a well-functioning court system, from IT updates to programs related to Alternative Dispute Resolution and Transition Age Probation. In addition, the Trial Court’s facilities are in dire need of security system upgrades, which are necessary to preserve the safety of court employees, users, and the general public, ensuring the Trial Court remains effective and accessible for all residents of the Commonwealth.

Statewide Housing Court

An especially striking example of the Trial Court’s work to improve both access and efficiency is the plan to expand Housing Court jurisdiction to the whole state. As we’ve mentioned in the past, Housing Court offers a number of key benefits, including operating as the only forum in the Commonwealth capable of handling all housing matters, from code enforcement to eviction proceedings, on a daily basis. Housing Court judges are exceedingly well-versed in all aspects of housing law, an area that can be quite complex, and have the specialized expertise to analyze federal, state and local laws on housing. Additionally, parties in the Housing Court have access to Housing Specialists, who mediate cases, facilitate settlements, and even provide on-site reviews to resolve issues with housing conditions. This, and programs like Lawyer for the Day, also make Housing Court especially adept at handling pro se litigants.

Currently, about one-third of the State does not have access to Housing Court, meaning litigants in those areas must take their matters to District Court, where they wait in line behind a full range of civil and criminal cases and eventually appear before judges who hear only an occasional housing matter. Some municipalities outside of Housing Court jurisdiction find that it’s not always worth sending code-enforcement officers into District Court because of the necessary time commitment. Parties also lack access to the Housing Specialists and therefore may miss an opportunity to settle and avoid the need, and expense, of trying the matter in court. In FY16, there were 27,487 eviction cases filed in the Housing Courts and a statewide expansion would allow the Court to increase its eviction caseload by approximately 6,000 cases.

Plus, the Housing Court is a model of efficiency, featuring the lowest cost per case of any Trial Court department. The Housing Court also offers programs like the Tenancy Preservation Program (TPP) – a unique intervention that enables trained counselors to assist with services in cases involving persons with disabilities, ultimately helping in preventing homelessness. Currently, conservative estimates show that the TPP saves the state from spending between $4 million and $8 million in shelter costs annually, and if Housing Court is expanded statewide, the TPP could save the state an additional $1.8 million.

While the $1 million earmarked to cover the expansion in the Governor’s budget is a good start, an allocation of $1.2 million would ensure the successful statewide expansion. Earlier this month, Representative Chris Walsh sent a letter to the House Ways and Means Committee, signed onto by 42 other Representatives, urging them to include the full $1.2 million in the FY18 Budget. In addition, Senator Spilka and Representative Walsh have refiled bills, both referred to the Judiciary Committee, for the Housing Court expansion.

If you want to join the BBA in advocating for the statewide expansion of Housing Court, refer to these resources and reach out to your legislators! Listen up for a future podcast on the Housing Court where we’ll take you behind the scenes with a visit to Lawyer for the Day and a conversation with a Housing Court Judge.

CPCS

As the agency responsible for representing those unable to afford an attorney in all matters where the right to appointed counsel attaches, CPCS plays a huge role in our justice system. The way that their state funding is appropriated adds to that burden, requiring them to seek additional money each year to cover shortfalls.

This year, CPCS is seeking $244 million to provide maintenance-level services in the coming year, plus $14.3 million to cover additional initiatives, with most of that earmarked for much-needed increases in the hourly rates paid to private assigned counsel, which have not been changed in 12 years, and increases to the base salaries of CPCS staff attorneys, as recommended in the recent report of a gubernatorial commission (on which the BBA sat).

We encourage you to contact your elected representatives on Beacon Hill regarding all of these BBA budget priorities. As noted above, we’ll be posting a podcast shortly on How to Talk to Your Legislators.

We’ll be checking in with more budget updates as the process unfolds, and if you need a refresher on the budget process generally, head over to our Geeking Out on the State Budget Podcast.

—Alexa Daniel
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

 

BBA Government Relations Year in Review: Part II

Hopefully you enjoyed part I of our Year in Review, discussing our efforts on amicus briefs and criminal justice reforms.  Part II will discuss our comments on proposed rules changes, efforts at increasing diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, civil legal aid funding advocacy, and legislative victory!  2016 was a great and productive year and we’re looking forward to doing even more in 2017!

BBA Rules Comments

One component of the BBA’s policy function that sometimes goes overlooked is the work of our Sections in reviewing and commenting on proposed amendments to rule changes.  This is a great benefit to our members as it empowers them to be involved in making positive changes that directly impact their practice areas.  This is especially true because the courts do a great job of listening to the concerns of practitioners and frequently make changes based on our comments.  Here are links to some of our coverage:

Diversity, Civil Legal Aid, Legislation and more!

Given space and time constraints (we’ve got to get going on all our 2017 work!!), I’m going to lump together everything else including our posts on the courts, diversity and inclusion, civil legal aid funding, and more.  Here are a few highlights:

  • December 15: ‘Tis the Season to Focus on Civil Legal Aid – Advocating for civil legal aid funding is one of the BBA’s main priorities every year. We work on the issue year round, but the campaign really starts moving in earnest with the kickoff event, Walk to the Hill, held this year on January 26.  The event brings together hundreds of lawyers who hear speeches from bar leaders including our President and the Chief Justice of the SJC and then encourages them to spread throughout the building to visit their elected officials and spread the word about the importance of legal aid funding.

As explained in this year’s fact sheet, the needs are still massive (around 1 million people qualify for civil legal aid by receiving incomes at or below 125% of the federal poverty level, meaning about $30,000 for a family of four), the turn-away rates are still too high (roughly 64%, due to under-funding), and civil legal aid remains a smart investment for the state (it returns $2 to $5 for every $1 invested).  In FY16, MLAC-funded programs closed over 23,000 cases, assisting 88,000 low-income individuals across the state.  And this is only part of the picture as they provided limited advice, information, and training to countless others.  More funding will enable them to take on more cases, represent more people, shrink the justice gap, and return more money to the state.  It will also ease a massive burden on the courts which are bogged down by pro se litigants as illustrated in this video from Housing Court.

We hope to see you on January 26 at the Walk and that you will stay engaged throughout the budget cycle, which stretches to the spring.  For more on that, check out our latest podcast!  We will keep you updated here with all the latest developments and may ask that you reach out to your elected officials at key times to again voice your support.  Last year we shared six posts  throughout the budget, updating you on all of our priorities, including legal aid, the Trial Court, and statewide expansion of the Housing Court.  Our final budget post from August 4 shows where everything wrapped up.  For anyone interested in the process, check out our older budget posts from April 14, April 21, May 5, May 19, and June 30 as well.

  • August 9: BBA Clarifies Zoning Law and Promotes Real Estate Development – More traditionally, the BBA is known for its work on legislation. We support a number of bills of interest to our practice-specific Sections as well as the organization as a whole.  On August 5, the Governor signed into law H3611, An Act relative to non-conforming structures.  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.  During the current legislative session we were pleased to receive help and support from Council member Michael Fee, who testified on the bill at a legislative hearing in May 2015.  We look forward to more legislative successes this session!

As you can see it’s been quite a year.  This doesn’t even touch on dozens of other posts on things we were or are involved with.  We hope you’ll keep reading through the new year for all the latest news from the BBA’s Government Relations team and give us a follow on twitter for even more late breaking news!

I want to end on a personal note to say that this will be my final Issue Spot post.  I have drafted hundreds over the last 3.5 years at the BBA and loved being able to be part of all the incredible work of the Association and its members.  I am excited to be moving to a new position, but will certainly miss the BBA and hope to stay involved.  Thank you for reading!

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

BBA Government Relations Year in Review: Part I

As 2016 draws to a close, we wanted to take a quick look back at our year in Government Relations.  If you want to see a Boston Bar Association and Boston Bar Foundation-wide view of the world, I highly recommend checking out Our Year in Review, which provides both a look back and a look ahead at some of our biggest initiatives.

So what was on our minds in GR?  By the numbers, amicus cases ruled the day.  Roughly grouping our 63 Issue Spot posts of 2016 by subject matter, the numbers look like this:

  1. Amicus Cases (including Commonwealth v. Wade and Bridgeman v. District Attorney): 12 posts
  2. Criminal Justice Reform: 9 posts
  3. Rules Changes and BBA Comments thereon: 7 posts
  4. A three-way tie between: Court News, Diversity and Inclusion, and Budget Advocacy: 6 posts a piece
  5. Civil Legal Aid: 5 posts
  6. The remaining 12 posts cover an array of topics including the future of the legal profession, legislation of interest to certain Sections, and programs at the BBA.

Amicus Committee

So let’s start with the top – 2016 was a huge year for the BBA’s Amicus Committee.  Led by Co-Chairs Tony Scibelli, Barclay Damon, and Liz Ritvo, Brown Rudnick, the Committee celebrated the release of three major decisions in-line with our briefs, filed another brief in one of the most important currently pending cases, and received a BBA award that honored its history, marking 20 years of taking part in seminal cases.

  • March 10: BBA Seeks Justice for Vulnerable Youths Through a Two-Pronged Strategy – In early March, the SJC released its full opinion in Recinos v. Escobar. The ruling held in line with our brief, which we signed onto with a coalition of concerned organizations and individuals, and which was drafted by former BBA President Mary Ryan along with her team at Nutter, McClennen & Fish, LLP – BBA Business and Commercial Litigation Section Steering Committee member Cynthia Guizzetti (now at E Ink Corp.) and Mara O’Malley. It argued that the Probate and Family Court has equity jurisdiction over abused, abandoned, and neglected youths up to the age of 21 to enter the necessary findings as a predicate for status as special immigrant juveniles (SIJ’s).  It also made the case that the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights supports this sort of equitable remedy. The brief further argued that such individuals are “dependent on the court” to make such a finding because they have been mistreated and because such a finding is required to qualify for SIJ status.
  • June 23: Increasing Diversity in Legal Practice at the US Supreme Court – In June, the US Supreme Court released its decision in Fisher v. University of Texas (II), upholding the school’s race-conscious admissions policy with a finding that it does not violate the Equal Protection Clause. The Court reached the outcome we argued for in our amicus brief, drafted by BBA Secretary Jon Albano (who had previously drafted our brief in the related case known as Fisher I) and Sarah Paige, both of Morgan Lewis, that experimentation in admissions is necessary to balance the pursuit of diversity with constitutional requirements of equal treatment.  This ruling means that the University of Texas, as well as other schools across the country, may continue to experiment with admissions policies intended to create a more racially inclusive classroom, and society.

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 safeguarding one of the most important tenets of legal practice in attorney-client privilege.

  • October 26: BBA Amicus Advocates for Resolution in Dookhan Scandal – On October 24, we filed a brief, written by our Amicus Committee Co-Chairs, arguing for a so-called global remedy in Bridgeman v. District Attorney (SJC-12157), the latest case related to the Annie Dookhan/Hinton Drug Lab scandal. The remedy proposed in our brief would place the burden on the Commonwealth to re-prosecute within a set time period (to be determined by the Court) any Dookhan cases with dispositions adverse to the defendant that have not been re-adjudicated since 2012, when the scandal first came to light.  If cases are not re-prosecuted within that time period, the brief calls for their dismissal with prejudice, barring further prosecution.  The brief explains that the BBA’s interest in the case is twofold: to facilitate access to justice for all defendants in criminal cases and to ensure the timely, fair, and efficient administration of justice.  Not only will this global solution secure justice for the defendants, but it will also start to relieve the significant burden on the justice system, currently facing the prospect of addressing more than 20,000 unresolved cases individually.  Oral argument was held on November 16 and we look forward to a ruling from the court in the coming months.

Criminal Justice Reform

Always a major issue for us, criminal justice reform was the subject of frequent discussions in the Sections and amongst leadership, and this is likely only the beginning as we look forward to playing a large role in advocacy related to the forthcoming criminal justice reform package anticipated this legislative session.

  • February 4: Focus on Reducing Recidivism – In late January, we used the honoring of Roca, a community based non-profit organization committed to helping 17-to-24-year-olds succeed in re-integrating to society, at the 2016 BBA Adams Benefit (Reminder: please join us on January 28 for the 2017 Adams Benefit, honoring former SJC Chief Justice Margaret Marshall), as a springboard to discuss the BBA’s own efforts toward reducing recidivism. We discussed our longstanding opposition to mandatory minimums, and the possibility of bail reform, evidence-based risk assessment tools to help determine the security classifications of inmates behind bars, and their appropriate level of supervision upon release; as well as ways to reduce recidivism and promote successful re-entry of the 90-plus percent of those currently incarcerated who will ultimately return to society.
  • April 7: BBA Recommends Modernization and Reform of Wiretap Statute – Responding to concerns expressed by the SJC in decisions in both 2011 and 2014, and by the Attorney General in a 2015 statement, and to the simple fact that the wiretap statute, L. c. 272 §99 has existed in substantially the same form since 1968, even as technology has undergone revolutionary changes, the BBA’s Criminal Law Section, along with the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Section drafted a statement of principles for the Legislature, making a number of recommendations for potential revisions to the wiretap statute. In a May post, we detailed how a redrafted bill (H1487) incorporated many of these proposals.  The bill (final number H4313) ended session tied up in the House Committee on Ways and Means.  We will continue to advocate for amendments to the statute to incorporate the recommendations in our principles.
  • December 8: Discussing the Death Penalty – Recently, we reaffirmed our position in opposition to the death penalty in a new medium – a podcast that shares the same Issue Spot name as this blog. This post discusses our 40-year history advocating on this issue, including our 2013 report opposing the federal death penalty.  Our position is, and always has been, based on principled analysis:
    • The inevitability of error in criminal cases makes it overwhelmingly likely that reliance on the death penalty will lead to the execution of innocent defendants;
    • In practice, the death penalty has a disproportionate impact on members of racial and ethnic minorities; and;
    • Death penalty prosecutions are more expensive, more subject to prolonged delays, and unlikely to produce a different result than cases where the prosecution seeks life without parole.

Stay tuned for part two next week when we look back at the role we played in promoting diversity in the legal profession, advocating for civil legal aid funding, and improving legislation and practice rules!

Happy New Year!

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

‘Tis the Season to Focus on Civil Legal Aid

Aside from being the “most wonderful time of the year,” it’s also time to start ramping up our efforts surrounding civil legal aid!  As you may know, the BBA has long played an integral role in raising awareness and advocating for increases in the state budget appropriation to fund lawyers that provide essential representation to people who would not otherwise be able to afford their services.  These lawyers work on issues such as evictions or foreclosures, veterans or other federal benefits, or needing protection from domestic violence.  As part of that push, we have been talking and listening to some of the leaders of this movement and wanted to report on a couple of presentations we observed this week.

On Tuesday, we were excited to be joined at our Council meeting by Equal Justice Coalition (EJC) Chair, WilmerHale Partner Louis Tompros.  Louis is in his first year as Chair of the Coalition, which consists of the BBA, Massachusetts Bar Association (MBA), and Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC).  The group advocates for MLAC funding, which in turn provides the bulk of the state’s civil legal aid through a dozen organizations including most notably in our area, Greater Boston Legal Services.

Louis Tompros Speaking to BBA Council

Tompros is a partner at WilmerHale, focusing on intellectual property litigation, but he has also represented numerous clients on a pro bono basis, including local nonprofit organizations, public housing tenants facing eviction, and employees in unemployment claims and appeals. For the past few years, Tompros has led the EJC’s efforts to engage the private bar, and particularly young attorneys, in the campaign to increase funding for civil legal aid.  In August of this year, he became Chair of the EJC, succeeding the esteemed John Carroll of Meehan, Boyle, Black, & Bodganow, who had served as Chair for three extremely fruitful years.

Shortly after Tompros assumed the Chair position, the EJC also appointed a new Director, Laura Booth, replacing Deb Silva, who has taken her considerable talents to the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.  We were sad to see Deb go after she led the EJC to new heights, but are excited to welcome Laura who is already hard at work implementing some new ideas, including expanding the network of people involved in legal aid advocacy, such as in-house legal departments and social services providers.

We are excited for this year’s civil legal aid funding campaign, kicking off very soon.  Things are already gearing up, as Tompros explained to our Council.  MLAC will be seeking a $5 million increase in the state appropriation this year, from $18 to $23 million, building on the $3 million increase the Legislature and Governor have provided over the past two years, even in very difficult fiscal times.  EJC leaders have already begun meetings with key Legislators and Executive branch officials to make the case.

As explained in this year’s fact sheet, the needs are still massive (around 1 million people qualify for civil legal aid by receiving incomes at or below 125% of the federal poverty level, meaning about $30,000 for a family of four), the turn-away rates are still too high (roughly 64%, due to under-funding), and civil legal aid remains a smart investment for the state (it returns $2 to $5 for every $1 invested).  In FY16, MLAC-funded programs closed over 23,000 cases, assisting 88,000 low-income individuals across the state.  And this is only part of the picture as they gave more limited advice, information, and trainings to countless others.  More funding will enable them to take on more cases, represent more people, shrink the justice gap, and return more money to the state.  It will also ease a massive burden on the courts which are bogged down by pro se litigants as illustrated in this video from Housing Court.

We hope you will join our President, Louis Tompros, and hundreds of your colleagues at Walk to the Hill on January 26, the legal aid funding advocacy kick-off event at the State House.  There will be more information to come, but the event usually runs from roughly 12:00-1:00 in the Great Hall and features speeches from the Presidents of the BBA and MBA, SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants, and a legal services client as well as special guests such as the Attorney General and other state leaders.  Following the speeches, grab a boxed lunch and then go visit your legislators to tell them how much legal aid means to you and make the case for increased funding.  Don’t know your elected representatives?  That’s perfectly fine – look them up here and make the introduction.  They’ll be glad to hear from you.


Andrew Cohn Speaking on Legal Aid

Relatedly, on Wednesday, we were happy to hear from retired WilmerHale partner Andrew Cohn, President and CEO of Longwood Medical Energy Collaborative, on his forthcoming article for the spring issue of the University of Florida Law School’s Journal of Law & Public Policy: Reducing the Civil “Justice Gap” by Enhancing the Delivery of Pro Bono Legal Assistance to Indigent Pro Se Litigants–A “Field” Assessment and Recommendations.  It will discuss the four major aspects to reducing the justice gap – increasing legal services funding, expanding the participation of private attorneys in pro bono work, reducing justice system barriers for pro se litigants, harnessing emerging technology to help facilitate those initiatives.

On his final point, Cohn talked at length about a new initiative we’ve discussed here beforeMassLegalAnswers Online – an internet-based virtual help-line.  The site was born out of an online program that started in Tennessee at OnlineTNJustice.org and is quickly spreading to other states.  The sites have been a huge hit both for clients and lawyers, spawning the catch-phrases “pro bono from home” and “pro bono in your pajamas.”  The American Bar Association (ABA) has recognized their effectiveness and is working to spread the site nationally.  Over forty states are currently committed to participating, a number of others are discussing the issue, and a handful have already launched their sites.  The ABA is helping states to adopt similar versions of the Tennessee website, though each state has some options to make tweaks in order to satisfy local ethics rules and to maximize its effectiveness for their populations.  The ABA is also providing malpractice insurance for all lawyers who answer questions through the database.

The site requires both lawyers and litigants to register, with clients submitting income information to prove they qualify, at less than 250% of the federal policy level.  Litigants who meet these qualifications are able to post questions, forming a client question queue which registered lawyers can peruse for cases of interest.  They can also search questions based on urgency and practice area, as well as subscribe to certain practice areas of interest to be alerted of new questions they may be interested in answering.  Once a lawyer selects a question, it is removed from the general pool and enters the lawyer’s private queue for their answer in 72 hours.  The questions will be monitored by a site coordinator who will also perform quality control checks of answers provided.

This site has essentially replaced the old “hotline” model and is a great improvement.  It removes long phone wait times and provides for clearer communication from both the client and lawyers as questions and answers have to be written out.  The site is also more convenient as the questions can be asked and answered at any time of day as can follow-ups.  The volume is not limited by the number of people manning phone lines and it is easier to pre-screen users.  Finally, the site offers a great opportunity for private bar involvement by lawyers who may want to perform pro bono work but who are not comfortable with taking on the uncertain time commitment inherent in traditional full representation scenarios.

At this point, masslao.org has been operational for about one month and has already provided answers to around fifty questions.  We encourage our readers to check it out and sign-up!

We’ll keep you updated with all the latest news on our efforts to increase civil legal aid, through both funding and expanding pro bono opportunities, and we hope to see you at Walk to the Hill on January 26.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Discussing the Death Penalty

As you likely know, the BBA has long opposed the death penalty, for more than 40 years to be exact.  Our reasoning is based on sound and practical principles – that the death penalty simply too fraught with peril, too likely to lead to the execution of the innocent, too likely to result in discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities, and too expensive and time-consuming—to play any role in our criminal-justice system.  We recently reaffirmed this stance and extended it to the federal death penalty with our 2013 report, The BBA and the Death Penalty and now we are proud to announce the release of the BBA’s first ever podcast, which takes the discussion of this position to the next level. With conviced murderer Gary Lee Sampson currently facing the death penalty at the Moakley Courthouse, the Co-Chairs of the BBA’s Death Penalty Working Group that produced that report, Martin Murphy (Foley Hoag) and retired Superior Court Judge Margaret Hinkle (now at JAMS), discuss their experiences with the death penalty and on the Working Group, and BBA President Carol Starkey shares her thoughts.

We have advocated against the death penalty through public education, such as in the aforementioned report and our 2015 press release urging the Department of Justice to seek a life sentence without parole instead of the death penalty for Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  We have made the same point when the Legislature has considered reinstating the death penalty and in amicus briefs including:

  • 1975 –Commonwealth v. O’Neal – Commonwealth v. O’Neal concerned the constitutionality of a law mandating use of the death penalty for a murder committed in the course of rape or attempted rape. The brief argued that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent for a rapist-murderer because such defendants would not consider variations in punishments, given their twisted and psychotic mental state. The brief also established mainstays of the BBA’s arguments against the death penalty: the possibility of mistake, the disparate impact on minorities, and the massive expenses inherent in pursuing the punishment. The Court rejected the state’s unconstitutional mandatory death-penalty provision.
  • 1984 –Commonwealth v. Colon-Cruz – Our brief challenged the constitutionality of a 1982 amendment to Article 26 of the Massachusetts Constitution, permitting the death penalty in the state, and related statutes providing for the imposition and execution of the death penalty in certain murder cases. In addition to reiterating our major tenets, the brief explained the major fiscal, emotional, and professional impacts of the death penalty cases on members of the bar:

Historically, the vast majority of capital defendants have been indigent. The immense defense costs thus fall on the Commonwealth and the private bar, especially through pro bono contributions.  It is unfair to impose the extraordinary burden of capital defense, often involving 8-10 years of complex litigation, on only a small segment of the bar, and life is too precious to be left to the defense of underpaid volunteers.

The psychological and emotional burdens on counsel, particularly on the defense, are immense. Aside from the onerous length and complexity of cases, defense lawyers are torn between close relationships with their clients and wanting to distance themselves in case of a death sentence.  In addition, prosecutors and defense counsel alike face unique community pressures.

Death’s severity and finality as a penalty and defense counsel’s failure to understand the nature and use of a bifurcated trial regularly lead to claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. Such claims degrade the bar, but are inevitable when death is at issue, a client poor, and an attorney court-appointed and dependent on the judiciary for a fee.

The SJC invalidated the constitutional amendment and statutes, in line with our brief, finding that they violated Article 12 of the Declaration of Rights of the Massachusetts Constitution by impermissibly burdening a defendant’s right against self-incrimination and his right to a jury trial.

  • 2005 –S. v. Darryl Green – The BBA submitted an amicus brief in this case that combined our opposition to the death penalty with advocacy in support of both access to justice and diversity. This brief on the federal death penalty, eight years before our aforementioned Report formally declaring opposition to the federal death penalty, was drafted by David Apfel and Julie Wade of Goodwin Procter LLP (now Goodwin).

The brief explains that African-American defendants in the Eastern Division of Massachusetts are likely to face an all-white jury, given population statistics, and that social-sciences statistics show that African-American defendants are far more likely to be convicted and sentenced to death when facing an all-white jury.  It details how African-American jurors simply bring a different perspective to their role – they are more likely to: believe minority witnesses are credible, harbor lingering doubts about defendants’ guilt, view defendants as remorseful, and consider mitigating evidence.  Furthermore, the brief opposes the District’s proposed solution – the empanelment of two separate juries: one to determine guilt and the other, totally different in composition, to determine whether to impose the death penalty.  It states that this “remedy” is “a mere baby step” and “little more than a modest gesture” that does not in any way guarantee fairness.

The Court ruled in line with this argument, finding that the District Court’s suggestion of multiple juries relied on a misinterpretation of the Federal Death Penalty Act, but it did not address the concerns over disparate racial impact, as expressed in the brief.

Despite a general trend away from capital punishment recently, in the last few days, the death penalty has again made headlines.  Georgia executed its U.S. leading ninth inmate of the year.  The Georgia case described in the article suffers from some of the hallmarks we’ve highlighted in our opposition.  For example, the crime took place in March 1990, but the defendant was not sentenced to death until his second trial eleven years later.  Even more concerning, the case raises major due process issues:

[Defendant William Sallie’s] lawyers argued that he should, once again, be granted a new trial because a woman who ultimately ended up on the jury during the second trial lied during jury selection and failed to disclose her own history of domestic violence, messy divorces and child custody fights — traumatic events that they said were “bizarrely similar” to Sallie’s case.

But no court ever properly considered the alleged juror bias, his lawyers argued in a recent legal challenge, because the issue wasn’t discovered until more than a decade later, and courts had ruled that Sallie’s petitions raising that evidence were procedurally barred because he missed a filing deadline by eight days at a time when he didn’t have a lawyer.

The defense team also made those arguments in a clemency petition to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, urging it to act as a “fail safe” against a miscarriage of justice. But the board, the only authority in Georgia with power to commute a death sentence, declined to spare Sallie’s life after a clemency hearing Monday.

Earlier in the week, Florida appealed the state Supreme Court’s interpretation of a US Supreme Court decision finding unconstitutional the state’s system of allowing judges, instead of juries, to find the facts needed for a death sentence.  The US Supreme Court held that this gave judges too much power, violating the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.  From the Miami Herald:

At the time of the January [US Supreme Court] ruling, Florida’s system allowed jurors by a simple majority to recommend the death penalty. Judges would then make findings of fact that “sufficient” aggravating factors, not outweighed by mitigating circumstances, existed for the death sentence to be imposed, a process known as “weighing.”

Florida lawmakers hurriedly rewrote the law this spring, requiring jurors to unanimously find that at least one aggravating factor exists before a defendant can be eligible for a death sentence and requiring at least 10 jurors to recommend death for the sentence to be imposed.

The Florida Supreme Court then found the new law unconstitutional, because it did not require unanimity in imposing the death penalty (something Judge Hinkle experienced firsthand in a Florida death penalty case and discusses in the podcast).  The state’s attorney general is appealing the ruling to the US Supreme Court for discretionary review.

As always, we’ll be on the lookout for latest developments in capital punishment and continue our advocacy in opposition.  We hope you enjoy the podcast and we’ll keep you posted on the forthcoming second episode which will cover our role in a major state scandal…

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

BBA Meets with the Chief Justices

We do it every fall.  Because of the primary importance to the BBA of the judicial system in Massachusetts, the incoming BBA President meets each year with the chief judges at every level—the heads of the SJC and the Appeals Court, the US District Court, Bankruptcy Court, and Circuit of Appeals, the Chief Justice and Administrator of the Trial Court (together), and the leaders of each of the Trial Court’s seven departments: Superior Court, District Court, Boston Municipal Court, Housing Court, Juvenile Court, Land Court, and Probate & Family Court.

As you can imagine, these thirteen meetings take up a great deal of the President’s time.  But the effort is always worthwhile, for the opportunity it provides to discuss our mutual plans priorities for the coming year and where they overlap, to reaffirm our commitment to adequate funding and other support necessary to enable the Massachusetts courts to maintain their preeminent position in the nation, and to promote a free-flowing back-and-forth throughout the year.

BBA President Carol Starkey recently wrapped up her chief-judge meetings, and, as usual, some common themes emerged:

Budget funding

Funding for the Trial Court is always one of the BBA’s top priorities and a focus of our advocacy at the State House.  The Court has recovered well from the budget setbacks that were necessitated by the Great Recession, becoming leaner and more efficient.  But recent years have found budget-writers in the Governor’s Office and the Legislature tightening their belts once again, and the courts have not been entirely spared.

For the current fiscal year (FY17), the Trial Court’s final budget of $639 million represents $15.4 million less than what they would have required to maintain level services.  As a result, they are making do by putting off some hiring, launching an early-retirement program, and accelerating efforts to do more with less, such as by shifting staff among courthouses, sessions, and responsibilities.

This budget crunch is taking its toll throughout the system, and we heard from several chief judges about its impact in their courts.  Chief Justice Paul Dawley, who oversees 62 courthouses in the District Court system—many of them aging badly—knows as well as anyone how urgent the need is for adequate court funding.

Online access to court records

This past year, the Trial Court issued a new rule on public access to court records on-line.  The process was challenging, as these debates are always fraught with tension over the competing interests of transparency and privacy.  The rules seek to strike the proper balance by creating limited exceptions to the general rule providing for accessibility.  Criminal cases, for instance, come with their own set of concerns, and the Court took steps to ensure that access to information on those cases did not undermine either the letter or the spirit of recent changes to laws on criminal offender record information (CORI)—changes designed to promote successful re-entry of ex-offenders.

Beyond that, the Court recognized that on-line access rules are a work in progress and that a one-size-fits-all approach will not succeed: The new rules provide for both a working group to oversee and study their implementation and for standing orders within each department that address their unique concerns.  (In fact, just this week, the Probate & Family Court followed up with a standing order rendering both docket entries and parties’ addresses in a broad range of cases unavailable through the on-line portal.)  Both the opportunity and the challenge presented to the judiciary, and court users, as records move on-line are clearly on the minds of many of the chiefs we met with.

Vacancies on the bench

We’ve written here before about how critical it is that qualified candidates apply for judgeships—and that lawyers who work with such people encourage them to do so.  Right now, several court departments are facing significant shortfalls on their benches, and getting more applicants is one piece of the puzzle in filling those seats.

With 7 vacancies (out of 49) expected by the end of this year, Chief Justice Angela Ordoñez of the Probate & Family often has to place herself on special committees, rather than ask one of her overburdened judges to take on such work as well.  At the Superior Court, Chief Justice Judith Fabricant has 13 openings and sees 7 more coming by the end of 2017.

In all, the Trial Court has more than 50 judicial vacancies at the moment.  And while nearly half of that gap is being filled, for now, by recall judges, the need is still great.  The Governor’s office, the Judicial Nominating Commission, and the Governor’s Council are all hard at work, playing their respective roles in nominating, vetting, and confirming qualified candidates, but we will need to keep an eye on the situation.

One aspect of the process that all players are focused on is diversity among judges—racial and ethnic diversity, as well as geographic diversity, gender balance, and a mix of backgrounds in terms of practice area and setting.  Several chiefs told us they, too, are keeping a close eye on the diversity of their judges.  Chief Ordoñez is taking on the problem by addressing the early end of the pipeline—pairing small groups of lawyers as mentors with minority students at not only local law schools but also colleges and even high schools, to help them see the law as a potential career path.

Judicial evaluations

Each year we hear the same appeal from multiple chief judges: Please urge practitioners in their courts to fill out and submit judicial-evaluation forms!  The information they produce can be invaluable in helping judges improve and making the chiefs aware of topics for continued trainings.

We know that some lawyers have concerns about the forms—that they aren’t used by the courts, that responses that could be read as criticism will make their way back to the judge in question with enough particulars to reveal the respondent’s identity.  But the chiefs take pains to stress to us, time and again, that they do indeed rely on the forms, and that they make every effort to maintain confidentiality by scrubbing details before sharing them.

We have pledged to the chief judges that we will continue to help them with the evaluation process.  At the same time, we are always interested in any questions or hesitations you may have about it, so please let us know!  The chiefs are eager as well to hear informally, through the BBA, of any problems that have come to our attention, whether with individuals or more generally.

LAR

Another topic that came up time and again was limited-assistance representation (LAR), through which an attorney can take on a client for discrete parts of a case, without being tied to the client for the entirety of the case.  The BBA is a strong supporter of LAR as a way to bridge the justice gap that leaves too many litigants without the means to pay for counsel yet unable to qualify for assistance from legal-services providers.  It can also help new lawyers establish and grow a practice.

We are always seeking ways to help educate attorneys on LAR; we’ve conducted many trainings on it, and we are planning more.  (We also recently submitted comments on new rules bringing LAR to Superior Court for the first time.)  Our meetings with chief judges are a chance to assess how well LAR is working in their courts, to learn which types of cases are best suited for LAR in each court, and to ask how the BBA can further promote the program.  We have also relayed fears shared by some would-be LAR practitioners that they will be unable to extricate themselves from a case after they’ve finished the limited work they signed on to handle.

According to Chief Justice Roberto Ronquillo, the Boston Municipal Court sees many cases (e.g., collections matters) that can be settled in one day with the assistance of counsel—yet often at least party is unrepresented.  He also offered insight into LAR from a trial judge’s perspective, giving us useful advice on how to increase their awareness of LAR as an option to suggest to parties.

At the Land Court, where Chief Justice Judith Cutler presides, judges frequently recommend LAR.  Yet they’ve encountered some problems in how it’s worked in practice—problems they were keen to get our help with.  Specifically, they’d like to see LAR attorneys help with a case earlier in the process.  A simple consultation with an LAR attorney at the outset can help prevent further problems down the line.  Too often, pro-se litigants fail to even respond to motions, only to seek counsel late in the game.  There is simply too much at stake in cases before the Land Court for that be a beneficial approach, and Chief Cutler is eager to see such problems averted.

Beyond these broad themes, the judges raised issues that are affecting their courts individually.  For example, Chief Justice Amy Nechtem of the Juvenile Court spoke with pride about the work they’re doing to address racial disparities.  Chief Justice Timothy Sullivan thanked us for our advocacy on behalf of expansion of his Housing Court to statewide jurisdiction—a battle that will continue in the new year.

From Chief Justice Scott Kafker, we learned of his initiatives to help Appeals Court justices work through their caseloads more efficiently and to get cases ready more quickly.

When we sat down with SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants, it was clear that the state’s on-going effort to study our criminal-justice system, in conjunction with the Council of State Governments (CSG), was occupying much of his thinking.  Chief Gants, along with Governor Charlie Baker and the Legislature’s two leaders, was a signatory to the letter inviting CSG to assist in this broad review of policies and practices, and, like the others, he is a member of the steering committee that is guiding their work.

CSG anticipates filing a report with recommendations by the end of this year, in time for legislation to be filed at the start of the 2017-18 legislative session, and Chief Gants foresees a role—as do we—for the BBA to play in analyzing and commenting on the report and resulting bills.

Our meetings with the chief judges in the federal system tend to highlight different issues.  The Bankruptcy judges (whom we met with as a group, led by Chief Judge Melvin Hoffman) were proud of their new local bankruptcy rules and asked us to spread the word.  Chief Judge Patti Saris told us the US District Court is looking into developing its own local rules of civil procedure.  At both of these meetings, we heard laments about the difficulties new lawyers face in first passing the bar and then establishing themselves in their careers.  And Chief Judge Jeffrey Howard of the First Circuit Court of Appeals shared with us that while his court has made advances in technology, it’s difficult to keep up.  As a result, some attorneys bring their own equipment, which can put pro-se litigants at a disadvantage.

Finally, we had a bittersweet meeting with Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey and Court Administrator Harry Spence, because the latter will be retiring this April.  He will clearly be racing through the finishing line, however, and he and Chief Carey updated us on a variety of projects they have before them, including training for staff on implicit bias, a restructuring of personnel to upgrade security, and the Court’s 20-year plan for capital spending to set priorities for new construction.

These annual meetings provide a window into the thinking of the leadership at the judiciary, and we will continue to share with you what we learn.

— Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association

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

Welcome Back SJC

 

The start of our program year coincides with the start of the new session of the Supreme Judicial Court, which runs until May 2017.  The Justices held their first oral argument on September 6, when Chief Justice Ralph Gants welcomed three recently confirmed justices to the bench for the first time – Frank Gaziano, David Lowy, and Kimberly Budd who replace retired Justices Frank Spina, Robert Cordy, and Fernande Duffly.  They join returning justices Barbara Lenk, Margot Botsford, and Geraldine Hines, the latter two of whom face mandatory retirement in 2017.

Here are some cases we’ll be keeping a close eye on this session:

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

The first case of interest, Commonwealth v. Laltaprasad (SJC-11970), was actually argued last session, but the Court waived its 130-day rule, which requires it to issue a written opinion within 130 days after argument (or submission without argument), and still has not issued its holding.  The case revolves around Superior Court Judge Shannon Frison’s departure from the mandatory minimum sentence for drug crimes of which the defendant was convicted.  On July 23, 2015, the defendant was convicted of possession with intent to distribute heroin, subsequent offense, under G.L. 94C §32(b), and possession with intent to distribute cocaine, subsequent offense, under G.L. 94C, §32A(d).  At sentencing, the Commonwealth recommended 3.5 to 5 years in state prison.  The court departed from the mandatory minimum of 3.5 years in state prison required by G.L. 94C, §32A(d), and G.L. 94C §32(b), and instead imposed a sentence of 2.5 years in the house of correction, explaining in its memorandum of sentence departure:

(1) The defendant does not have a prior conviction for drug trafficking at seriousness levels 7 or 8; and

(2) The facts and circumstances surrounding this matter warrant a lesser sentence.  Specifically, the defendant was arrested with less than 1 gram of the controlled substances.  Further, the defendant was severely injured when the other individual shot a firearm at him.  He suffered 11 gunshot wounds and endured 21 surgeries prior to trial.  Given both the relatively small amount of contraband involved in this arrest and the extreme medical condition of the defendant, the Court will depart downward and impose a sentence of 2.5 years in the House of Correction.

The Commonwealth appealed this decision, arguing that the judge had no discretion to depart from the mandatory minimum sentence because the Legislature has exclusive power to prescribe sentencing penalties, and that separation of powers principles preclude a judge from disregarding the Legislature’s directive.  The Commonwealth also argued that sentencing guidelines recommended pursuant to G.L. c. 211E, which permit a judge to depart from a mandatory minimum sentence, have never been enacted by the Legislature, and thus could not be applied in this case.

In late December, the SJC solicited amicus briefs on “Whether a sentencing judge has discretion to depart from the mandatory minimum terms specified in G. L. c. 94C, § 32 (b), and § 32A (d), under the sentencing guidelines recommended pursuant to G. L. c. 211E or otherwise.”  A large number of organizations submitted amicus briefs making various arguments opposing mandatory minimum sentences, including separation of powers in government, the need for judicial discretion, individualized  and proportional sentencing, and the disparate impact of mandatory minimum drug laws on minority populations.  They also explained that mandatory minimums did not adequately serve the primary purposes of sentencing and argued for safety valves, similar to those in the Federal system and a number of other states, that permit judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentencing schemes under certain circumstances.

Until the decision is issued, it remains unclear why the SJC chose to take this case.  On one hand, it seems clear that the lower-court judge did not follow the law in her sentencing memorandum.  Or did the SJC see here an opportunity to make changes to the current state of mandatory minimum sentencing in the Commonwealth?  From a policy perspective, the BBA has long opposed mandatory minimum sentencing, so we are particularly interested to see if the Court uses this case as a vehicle to move the ball on this issue.

Drug Lab Scandal Solutions

Bridgeman v. District Attorney (SJC-12157) is the latest in the string of cases related to the Annie Dookhan/Hinton Drug Lab scandal, in which convicted chemist Annie Dookhan tainted tens of thousands of drug samples submitted for analysis in criminal cases.  This story broke publicly around 2012, and since then, the Court, CPCS, and the seven District Attorneys (DAs) with affected cases have all struggled with how to handle the voluminous issues that arose.  First, there was the issue of case identification.  Attorney David Meier was assigned the task of gathering information from the drug lab records.  He found that roughly 40,000 samples were affected by Dookhan’s actions.  Over time, that list has been translated into a list of more than 20,000 individuals whose cases remain in limbo.  While the SJC has chipped away at this case slightly, such as through the hard work of a number of retired judges, including BBA Council member, Judge Margaret Hinkle, conducting special drug lab hearings, the remaining numbers are still considerable.

In 2014, the SJC held in Commonwealth v. Scott (SJC-11465) that every person convicted with Annie Dookhan serving as either the primary or secondary chemist was entitled to a presumption of government misconduct tainting their case, meaning that they wouldn’t have to prove that Dookhan acted illicitly in their specific cases.  In their brief for this case, CPCS recommended a “global remedy” to presumptively vacate all convictions of the impacted defendants, with exceptions in a small number of certain cases.

The current case, Bridgeman has been addressed in pieces.  In May 2015, the SJC issued its decision on one issue – whether Dookhan defendants who wanted to withdraw guilty pleas could face additional sanctions.  The Court created an “exposure gap” to prevent chilling of defendants bringing their cases, such that defendants seeking post-conviction relief could not be convicted of more serious offenses or face harsher sentences than previously imposed.  The remaining issue to be addressed in the still pending Bridgeman case (SJC-12157) is whether there has been unconstitutional delay in dealing with the class of cases impacted by the Dookhan scandal, given that this case was filed in 2015, nearly 15 years after the misconduct began, and four years from the public revelation.

We are very interested to see how the Court deals with this case.  Will they adopt a “global solution”?  Or will they opt to handle the more than 20,000 cases on a case-by-case basis?  If the latter, how will the justice system (courts, appointed counsel, DAs, …) handle a potentially unwieldy number of these appeals by Dookhan defendants?  How will impacted defendants be given notice of this outcome and of their rights?  This case seems to carry even greater potential significance given the revelations of evidence issues in the Sonia Farak drug lab scandal and, most recently, the Braintree Police Department.

Bail Considerations

The third case on our radar is Commonwealth v. Wagle (SJ-2016-0334), on whether it is a violation of the state and federal constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process of law to hold  an impoverished defendant in jail before trial because she cannot afford money bail (see the Petition for Relief here).  The case is the latest in a series of cases (see, e.g. Commonwealth v. Henry) and discussions on costs and fees in the criminal justice system generally.

In this case, a Single Justice (Hines) issued an interim order, decreasing the bail amount and granting leave to her attorneys to file a revised petition in 30 days (by September 24, 2016), making arguments for “systemic relief” for the class of similarly situated individuals.  Justice Hines requested that the amended petition focus “specifically on the terms of the Massachusetts bail statute and how it is being applied by Massachusetts judges, and why the defendant claims that our statute and its application are unconstitutional.”  After reading this petition and a response from the Commonwealth, and permitting both sides to be heard on the question of reservation and reporting, the Single Justice will consider whether this case should go before the full panel of the SJC.

We’ll be keeping a close eye on this case and the discussion of fees in the criminal justice system generally.  It is important to remember that the courts are only one player here, as we are also looking forward to seeing the criminal justice reform proposals in the Legislature emerging as a result of the forthcoming Council of State Governments report.

Those are just three of a number of cases we are watching, and we can’t wait to see what other issues the SJC takes on this session, as well as what impact, if any, the changing personnel on the Court will have.  We look forward to following up with you on these cases of interest and telling you about more throughout this SJC session.

– Jonathan Schreiber
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