Celebrations in the Senate Before the Summer Recess

In the days and even hours leading up to the legislature’s unofficial summer recess last week, there was a flurry of activity in the State House.  In the hubbub of lawmaking that took place, there were a few no-brainer bills that passed, but more contentious ones – like the court reorg bill– came down to the wire.  Among the bills passed was the long awaited and widely supported alimony reform law.  Sailing through with unanimous support in both branches of the legislature, it will make its way to the governor’s desk once agreement is reached between House and Senate differences in the bill.  Also receiving a unanimous vote in the Senate was the bill to provide post-conviction access to DNA.

To an outside observer, or any of the tourists trying to peek their heads inside the jam-packed upper gallery of the Senate Chamber last Thursday, it may have seemed like just another formal session in the Senate.  Senators milled around the chamber, staff came and went.  At 1 p.m., the Senate convened and immediately went into a recess.  Thirty minutes later, Senate President Murray was at the rostrum long enough to recite the pledge of allegiance before recessing again for a few moments.  Over the next hour, after a whirl of activity on various Senate bills, alimony reform was finally taken up and engrossed by a roll call vote of 36-0.  Applause broke out in the Senate Gallery and in the hallway outside.

Next up: access to DNA.  Senator Cynthia Creem took the floor and spoke in support of the bill.  She recognized Betty Anne Waters and the BBA for their contribution to this legislative effort, drawing members of the Senate to stand and applaud their work.  Seven amendments to the bill were then taken up.  Of those seven, two were withdrawn, one was rejected, and the remaining four were adopted.  When the roll call was taken, the bill passed 37-0.

It may have looked easy and effortless, but it actually felt chaotic.  The day before, Senate Ways & Means released the access to DNA bill with improvements and changes.  After reading through the revised bill, the BBA had a few suggestions and asked Senator Creem to file an amendment, to which she agreed.  On the morning of the scheduled Senate debate, other senators filed even more amendments to the bill.  These last minute amendments sparked discussions in the Senate hallways and on email.  Even in the moments before the start of the Senate session we were still trying to fix loopholes that the additions to the bill had opened up.

Then, finally…a signal from the Senate floor.  A senior Senate staffer looked towards the gallery and flashed a thumbs up. Just like that, it was over.  The bill had passed unanimously, capping off a monumental afternoon for those who had labored for years on this issue.  While pausing to take in what had just happened, it was nice to see the House sponsor, Representative John Fernandes, waiting one floor down outside the Senate Chamber.  Rep. Fernandes indicated that he is looking forward to taking this issue up on the House side once the legislature comes back from its summer recess.

 

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

Long Overdue Alimony Bill Hits Gov.’s Desk

**UPDATE 9/26/2011 – Governor Patrick signed The Alimony Reform Act of 2011**

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Today the Senate picked up where the House left off last week — passing the long awaited Alimony Reform Act of 2011.  Advocates of alimony reform packed the Senate gallery, wearing red shirts as a sign of solidarity and as a visual reminder of the legislation’s numerous supporters.  Tucked into the cramped viewing area, members of the legislative task force on alimony patiently waited to witness their hard work come to fruition.

Getting to this point, with comprehensive alimony reform on the verge of enactment, has not been easy.  For years lawyers have shared anecdotes of clients forced to pay alimony indefinitely, regardless of circumstances.  They have also pointed to inconsistent rulings leading to forum shopping, and the need to consider cohabitation as a factor in modifying existing alimony agreements.

These past few weeks we have witnessed the culmination of years spent analyzing Massachusetts’ antiquated alimony laws and offering recommendations in the form of legislative proposals.  The process has had starts and stops.  It has been protracted and often contentious.  Yet now, thanks to the perseverance of the BBA and other organizations, the bill is on the Governor’s desk awaiting his signature.

It is remarkable how far we have come.  This outcome is an example of what can be accomplished when individuals with different perspectives identify a common goal.  By working collaboratively and cooperatively, stakeholders approached the problem rationally and hammered out an agreement in which everyone sacrificed something for the common good – the sign of a successful negotiation.

Session after session, alimony bills have been filed, many of which have garnered the BBA’s support.  One such bill added the words “and duration” to the current alimony statute, a simple addition thereby giving judges the discretion to place durational limits on alimony awards.  Pushing for a small change like this can have the advantage of quietly accomplishing a revision without causing as loud a clamor as sweeping change tends to do.  Yet in hindsight, it takes more than just a couple of words to fix the Commonwealth’s broken alimony system.

Last session, the Legislature finally saw the full scope of the problem.  After years of study and advocacy, how could they not?  The Judiciary Committee brought all of the stakeholders together to reach a fair and realistic consensus.  This bill goes beyond the BBA’s initial concerns; it tackles the broken system of alimony head-on in a clear and concise manner.

This entire process has broadened our view of a systemic problem in the administration of justice.  It has also opened our eyes up to just how much can get done when all of the stakeholders in an issue put everything aside to focus on the problem at hand.  The Alimony Reform Act of 2011 is the culmination of years of hard work and will be a victory for justice in the Commonwealth.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

Taking Care of Those Who Protect Us

In this past Sunday’s New York Times, a moving article described an Army veteran who, after returning home from Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder, became involved in a confrontation with police.  While experiencing a post traumatic episode, this particular veteran found himself holding and firing a pistol in the woods behind his Michigan home as law enforcement attempted to defuse the situation.  After being subdued and arrested, he was charged with five counts of assault with intent to murder a police officer.

Unfortunately, this story has become all too typical for veterans with PTSD.  Thankfully in the Michigan case, the judge, police officers, and prosecution worked together to create a plan for the veteran to get treatment for his PTSD through a Veterans Administration hospital and, with good behavior, have a chance for the charges to be dropped.  The answer to this particular case, and to countless others like it, lies not in a lengthy prison sentence, but rather in an alternative, holistic solution.

Here in Massachusetts, Norfolk County District Attorney William Keating, now a U.S. Representative, spearheaded efforts to educate local police officers and first responders about the need to recognize signs of PTSD.  At our 2010 Law Day Dinner, the BBA presented the Norfolk County District Attorney’s Office with the President’s Award for Public Service for its work in developing responses to averting tragedy and serious criminal conduct.

In that same spirit, the BBA has furthered its resolve to provide for the legal needs of veterans.  The Committee on Legal Services for Military Personnel, Veterans, and their Families – – with the active participation of our partners at the Volunteer Lawyers Project and Shelter Legal Services – – has continued to staff numerous Yellow Ribbon events, the most recent of which took place last Sunday.

Yellow Ribbon events occur on weekends at area conference hotels, in the months preceding troop deployment and after troops return.  Using their expertise, BBA volunteers give presentations on basic legal issues that military families might potentially face, in addition to manning tables to answer specific questions.  The Committee has also been active maintaining its referral network that operates as a partnership between the Legal Advocacy Resource Center and the BBA’s Lawyer Referral Service.  This military referral network has been successful at connecting military families to attorneys in Greater Boston, and has served as a national model for the American Bar Association.

With only one attorney and one paralegal employed at the legal assistance office of the Massachusetts National Guard, hundreds of deployed service members and their families are at risk of not having access to legal representation.  For military personnel, common legal issues relating to evictions, foreclosures, domestic violence, and employment, are magnified by lengthy deployments, multiple tours, and distance from home.  The BBA is committed to stepping up and providing for the legal needs of our military families.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

Cash-Strapped Courts Cut Again

How any organization can absorb almost $100 million in cuts to its funding over a period of three years seems unfathomable.  But, we’re not talking about just any organization here.  We’re talking about the branch of government responsible for interpreting and enforcing the laws of our Commonwealth.

Earlier this week, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick Ireland and Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert Mulligan issued a joint statement responding to the Judiciary’s Fiscal Year 2012 appropriation.  Describing the impact that the state budget will have on court operations, the statement included a list of eleven potential courthouse relocations.  The Chief Justices also asked Governor Patrick to stop appointing Trial Court judges for FY12, citing that for each new judge appointed, three members of the court’s staff will have to be laid off.

The issue of adequate funding for the state courts is not new.  The Judiciary has responded admirably to the fiscal pressures of the past three years, but it cannot absorb any more reductions without undermining its constitutional obligation to protect the safety and welfare of our citizens.

If the court consolidations as outlined by Chief Justice Ireland and Chief Justice Mulligan become a reality, there will be undeniable economic and social consequences.  Courthouses are hubs for local businesses that thrive on the thousands of people who use Massachusetts’ courts every day.  Inexorably tied to their surrounding communities, courthouses often harness the power of the justice system to address local problems.  They form creative partnerships and relationships with residents, merchants, churches, schools, and community groups.

Relocating and consolidating courts can also present serious accessibility and public safety issues.  This will mean some people will no longer have access to public transportation even to appear in court.  Court relocations will require litigants to take more time off from work just to settle disputes.

We cannot continue to cut the Judiciary’s budget and expect our court system to deliver the same standard of justice to which we have become accustomed.  It is our responsibility – as lawmakers, judges, and citizens of the Commonwealth – to work together to ensure that justice continue to prevail in Massachusetts.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

BostonBar Association

Budget and Policy

Last week, the House and Senate sent the $30.6 billion state budget for FY 2012 to Governor Patrick. According to State House News, the 314-page budget included 218 outside sections, which affect current policy and provide for studies on a variety of issues that will set the stage for future policy.  One in particular establishes a Commission on Criminal Justice that will include an appointee from the Boston Bar Association.  The purpose of the Commission is to examine a variety of areas related to criminal justice, including mandatory minimum sentences and sentencing guidelines.  This was a subject of conference committee debate. The Senate’s version of the budget included only elected officials as members, while the House’s version of the budget didn’t even include such a commission. In the past few weeks, the BBA reached out to conference committee members urging them to include bar association leadership and ultimately they did. 

Here’s a snapshot of some of the budget accounts the BBA has been following:

District Attorneys’ Offices received a 5% increase

Masachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation was level funded at $9.5 million

Trial Court:

Funding:  The level funding request was $544 million; alas the Trial Court was funded at $519.8 million.  According to the CJAM, who testified at a Judiciary Committee hearing this week, the appropriation is actually closer to $509 million.  This $11 million shortfall is a result of the way the Trial Court’s retained revenue accounts were set up.  The CJAM also testified that this is $35 million less than the current year’s appropriation of $544 million and $96 million (almost 16%) less than FY09 and could mean up to 750 layoffs, court relocations, etc.

Transferability: The budget increased transferability powers for the CJAM, but did not grant him full transferability over all accounts under his management.  The CJAM can transfer only up to 5% of funds from Probation and Community Corrections.

CPCS:

Staff increase: The budget plan is for full-time public defenders on staff to handle 25% of indigent defense by the end of FY 2012 compared to 10% now.  Currently, the state contracts with almost 3,000 private lawyers to provide legal work for the indigent, and employs 230 staff public defenders.

Indigency eligibility: Requirements to verify that someone cannot afford to hire a lawyer have been strengthened, and utilize standards already established by the Department of Revenue, the Department of Transitional Assistance and the RMV.

Cap on hours: The yearly cap on billable hours for private lawyers has been reduced to 1,650 (down from the current cap of 1,800 hours) and private lawyers are prohibited from accepting new cases after billing 1,350 hours (down from 1,400).

CPCS governing board changes.  The budget reconstitutes the board of CPCS, and requires that the governor nominate two members to one-year terms, that the Senate president and House speaker each nominate two members to two-year terms, and theSupreme Judicial Court nominate nine members to four-year terms.  For their nine appointees, the SJC shall consider nominations from the Boston Bar Association and other appropriate bar groups.  While serving on the board, private bar advocates may not be assigned or appointed to a person with a case before CPCS.

Now the House and Senate are waiting for Governor Patrick, who can either sign the budget or send it back to the Legislature with suggested amendments or vetoes.  The ball is now in Governor Patrick’s court; he has ten days from last Friday to act.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

BostonBar Association

Behind the Budget — Important Business Law Updates

As of this writing, it looks like Massachusetts will finally have a budget just in time for Fiscal Year 2012.  The budget conference committee needs to file the final budget bill by 8 p.m. tonight in order to bring the budget to the House and Senate floor for final approval Friday.  With a big focus on the state budget, progress on other important bills could be stalled. As you know, an essential component of the BBA’s work is improving the quality of Massachusetts’ laws. Take, for example, a piece of legislation providing technical corrections to the Business Corporations Act of 2004.

A little background. . . In 2004, the Legislature completely rewrote the corporate business laws, which had not been updated for more than 30 years.  Simply put, chapter 156B was replaced by chapter 156D.  But chapter 156B was not repealed, nor did the legislature update all of the cross-references in the Massachusetts banking statute.  The unfortunate upshot is that today, a lawyer planning a corporate transaction for a Massachusetts bank must now refer to at least three chapters of the General Laws to decipher the cross-references in the banking law.

The proposed technical corrections bill, originally drafted and filed in 2008 by lawyers at Pierce Atwood as a pro bono project, was referred to the Joint Committee on Financial Services and placed into a study order last session.  In April 2010, the proposed technical corrections legislation was endorsed by the BBA Council.  We’re now working together on this with Pierce Atwood and our partners at the Mass Bankers Association.

And there’s even more work to do on chapter 156D.  Stan Keller, an original drafter of chapter 156D and a partner at Edwards Angel Palmer & Dodge, has asked the BBA to assist in his efforts to make other corrections to chapter 156D that will clarify various sections, reconcile inconsistencies, and fix omissions found in the current statute.  These technical corrections are contained in H 2774.

The difficulty here isn’t convincing the legislature that the two housekeeping proposals are beneficial to the Massachusetts business climate. The real challenge is drawing the legislature’s attention to these common sense and important updates.

– Kathleen Joyce
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association

Myths of Mandatory Sentencing

It seems everyone agrees that Massachusetts’ criminal sentencing laws need improvement.  Public safety, crime prevention, and punishment are important things to consider when contemplating any reforms in this area.  Yet it’s also important to understand that laws aimed at significantly lengthening prison sentences and making them mandatory, or changing parole eligibility, will impose more costs on our criminal justice system.

For the first time, the Legislature may be debating a habitual offender bill this session.  Earlier this week, we learned that these habitual offender bills, though seemingly losing steam after an emotional hearing before the Judiciary Committee in March, have been actively considered behind the scenes.

At the public hearing on March 16th, there were three bills under consideration that dealt with mandatory minimum sentences for serious crimes, including one that would eliminate parole for repeat violent criminals, with no regard to the facts of an individual case.  The other two bills, as currently drafted, would expand mandatory minimum sentencing to non-violent offenses including drug crimes, check fraud, and even tax evasion.  Although well-intentioned, these proposals capture crimes that, while being harmful to society, do not present a danger to the general public.

Because of time constraints, the BBA did not analyze the details of each of the bills.  But the BBA does oppose mandatory minimum sentences, with the exception of crimes mandating life imprisonment for murder.  The bills are overly broad, do not exclude nonviolent drug offenses, and would undoubtedly result in lengthy and costly sentences.  Here are some of the reasons the BBA opposes mandatory minimum sentences:

  • they have caused prison and jail overcrowding;
  • they have resulted in an increase in court congestion;
  • they have not reduced our serious crime problem;
  • criminal sentences need to correspond with each offender’s individual culpability and still give judges discretion.

Mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases are notoriously unjust because the laws do not differentiate between the drug kingpin and the first time drug offender.  As a result, prisons are being filled with low-level drug offenders serving protracted sentences.

Currently in Massachusetts, convicted felons are eligible for parole after serving half of their sentence, except for first-degree murderers, who are not eligible for parole.  Those convicted of second-degree murder must serve 15 years of a life sentence before they are eligible for parole.

By failing to take a nuanced approach we could end up with very serious and unintended consequences.  Massachusetts needs to be both tough, but also smart, on crime.

Any habitual offender law that the Legislature considers needs to be drafted so that only the most violent offenses are targeted.
– Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

All Politics Really is Local

Tip O’Neill once said “all politics is local,” when asked to describe how the problems and concerns of towns and cities around the country affect the actions of their Congressmen and Senators in Washington, D.C.  This remains as true today as it was then.

Big-city politics start with small-town political issues.  Or said another way, what may seem important to only a discrete group of people – like lawyers – can actually end up being good policy for everyone.  For example, the new Massachusetts Homestead Reform Act is good consumer policy for all.  Similarly, this year’s effort to keep the probation department in the judicial branch where judges can closely monitor probationers is important to every city and town in Massachusetts.  But the wisdom in the late Congressman’s phrase isn’t limited to how politics works on Capitol Hill or Beacon Hill.  The phrase can also apply to building an effective campaign strategy.

On June 22nd, the BBA’s Public Interest Leadership Program (“PILP”) will host their annual “All Politics is Local” program.  Every year PILP participants put this program together to inspire and encourage attorneys to run for office.  Panelists often talk about what it means to be a lawyer and to be actively involved in local politics.  They’ll describe the basics of starting a campaign and the challenges of balancing an active law practice with what it takes to run for office.  This year’s panel includes: the Honorable Maura Doyle, the clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County; William Kennedy, a former chief legal counsel to the Office of the Speaker of the House and now a partner at Nutter, McClennen & Fish; Joseph Driscoll, a former state representative and now a senior vice president at O’Neill and Associates; and Michael Day, an associate at Mintz Levin who ran for state senate in 2010.

A race for public office at the local level does not usually depend on huge campaign budgets, prime time television ads, or highly publicized debates.  It’s more common to hear stories of worn out shoes, scoured rolodexes and hours spent knocking on doors.  Running for office is daunting, but serving in public office can be gratifying.  A campaign provides only a limited amount of time to capture the imagination of voters and differentiate your vision from that of your opponents.

While the practice of law has long been seen as a launching pad for political candidates, that’s no longer true. This past election cycle saw a 20 percent drop in lawyer-legislators at the State House.  The number fell from 65 to 53 out of a total of 200 legislators.  Still, lawyers need not run for office in order to be involved in local politics.  After all, part of being a lawyer is being an active citizen.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

State House Update

With less than 8 weeks left for formal legislative sessions, the Legislature’s focus has shifted away from the state budget and onto other, significant policy issues.  Last week two conference committees were named to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions of the state budget and the court reorganization bill.  This week the Judiciary Committee heard testimony on two bills of importance to the BBA.  Here’s a snapshot of some of the things we’re keeping our eyes on.

Court Reorganization Bill in Conference

The Court Management Conference Committee has been appointed to come up with a single version of H 3395 and S 1911.  In May, both the House and Senate advanced the court reorganization bills with unanimous votes.  While both bills would split trial court oversight between civilian court administrators and judicial managers and impose stricter hiring standards with wide reforms relative to job recommendations, there are differences between the bills.  For instance, the Senate’s bill eliminates several new management positions proposed by the House bill.  The six members of this conference committee are Senators Creem, Joyce and Tarr and Representatives O’Flaherty, Dempsey and Winslow.

State Budget in Conference

With budget deliberations complete in both branches, the Budget Conference Committee, the group tasked with negotiating the differences into a single budget bill, met for the first time on Wednesday.  The final budget has to be in place by July 1st, but their work must be resolved before that in order for Governor Patrick to have the required statutory 10 days to review the budget proposal and offer amendments and vetoes.  The six members of the Budget Conference Committee are Senators Brewer, Baddour and Knapik and Representatives Dempsey, Kulik and deMacedo.

June Judiciary Hearing

Yesterday the Judiciary Committee held a public hearing lasting nine hours in a packed Gardner Auditorium.  The BBA participated in the hearing by supporting two bills on the agenda.  The BBA submitted written testimony in support of the Transgender Equal Rights bill, joining with advocates from theMassachusetts chapter of the ACLU.  The Transgender Equal Rights bill will extend explicit protection in discrimination and hate crimes cases to transgender people.

The second piece of legislation, S 753 and H 2165 the Access to DNA bill, will provide post conviction access to DNA evidence.  David E. Meier, Martin F. Murphy, Gregory J. Massing, and David M. Siegel, all experts in the criminal justice system and members of the BBA Task Force to Prevent Wrongful Convictions, testified on behalf of the BBA in support of legislation that would put in place a mechanism for post conviction DNA evidence testing.  The panel discussed their work on the Task Force, presented the need for this statute and set the stage for a group from the New England Innocence Project which followed with compelling stories of how Massachusetts’ lack of an access to DNA testing statute has harmed them.

Betty Anne Waters shared her story.  Her brother Kenny was wrongfully convicted of murder and robbery in 1983, and spent 18 years in prison while Betty Anne earned her college and law school degrees in order to represent and exonerate him.  The Committee also heard from Dennis Maher who was wrongfully convicted of two rapes and an attempted rape.  Dennis was sentenced to 20 to 30 years in prison but was finally released after DNA proved he did not commit those crimes.  Dennis’ Op Ed describing what happened to him appeared in yesterday’s Boston Herald.

Alimony Reform Moves Favorably from Judiciary

The Alimony Reform Act, S 665, was reported favorably by the Judiciary Committee last week.  It is expected that the House will debate the bill next Wednesday.  The bill will move on to the Senate soon after the House finishes its debate.  You can read more about the BBA’s efforts on the Alimony Reform Act from our coverage here on Issue Spot.

Human Trafficking Bill Moves to the Senate

One bill that the BBA is watching but has not yet taken an official position on is the Human Trafficking bill.  This bill would establish state crimes of human trafficking and has already passed the House.  Attorney General Martha Coakley and Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley have been champions of this legislation.  Our Criminal Law Section began discussing this issue after the AG outlined her legislative priorities at a BBA program held in early April.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

Let’s Extend Equal Rights to Everyone in Massachusetts

Think about it!  EMC, Harvard University, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, and John Hancock – to name just a few – are among the growing number of Massachusetts employers providing equal opportunities and protections to transgender people.  Shouldn’t our state laws do the same?

Since legislation was first filed in 2007, the BBA has supported adding “gender identity and expression” to the state’s civil rights laws and to the list of offenses that are treated as hate crimes. A simple update to the Massachusetts discrimination laws, An Act Relative to Transgender Equal Rights really is a civil rights bill that would provide explicit protection to transgender people. Current Massachusetts civil rights laws prohibit discrimination only on the basis of age, race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, sex and marital status.

Isn’t it about time that Massachusetts joins the growing number of states that already have laws protecting transgender people? A June 8th Judiciary Committee hearing is the next step in that process.  The Judiciary Committee will hear testimony on H 502 and S 764, filed in the House by Representative Carl Sciortino and in the Senate by Senator Benjamin Downing.

We have made progress in this area.  The Boston City Council passed a transgender protection ordinance nine years ago and earlier this year Governor Patrick signed an executive order banning discrimination against transgender state workers.  With this order, Massachusetts joins several other states with executive orders protecting transgender state workers.

While these are significant steps, Massachusetts should protect all workers and not just state workers.

As in past legislative sessions, supporters of this proposal will probably far outnumber opponents.  Even so, next week’s Judiciary Committee hearing is important.  If this bill is passed, Massachusetts won’t be just joining a growing number of jurisdictions around the country that are enacting transgender-inclusive laws, but will be making a significant statement — that discrimination against transgender individuals is inconsistent with our common desire to live in a just society.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association