Gavel Grab

Archive for the 'Access to Justice' Category

Hiring to Begin to Fill U.S. Defender Jobs Lost to Cuts

With a new federal fiscal 2014 budget providing increased funding, hiring can begin to fill about 350 of 400 positions in federal defender offices where employees were lost due to across-the-board budget cuts, court officials said this week.

Chief Judge William Traxler Jr., chairman of the  executive committee for the Judicial Conference of the United States, made the announcement on Tuesday, according to the Blog of Legal Times.

Congress approved in January a fiscal 2014 appropriations bill that increased discretionary spending for the courts by $316 million, and restored a majority of the $350 million that was cut under the across-the-board reductions called “sequestration.” This appropriation gives the judiciary “a little bit of breathing room,” Judge Traxler said, but uncertainty remains about the next fiscal year’s budget. 

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Report Documents U.S. ‘Access to Justice’ Gap

In the United States, where there is no right to legal counsel in civil disputes,  a major “access to justice gap” affects women, minorities and immigrants disproportionately, according to a new report.

“In the United States, millions of people are forced to go it alone when they’re facing a crisis,” Risa Kaufman, acting co-director of the Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic, told NPR. Advocates at the clinic prepared the report. “It’s a human rights crisis, and the United States is really losing ground with the rest of the world.”

Some states and cities are working to develop innovative programs, including one in New York to offer lawyers to immigrants who are facing deportation. Kaufman added, “We’re really recommending the U.S. government step up…that it support state level efforts to establish a right to counsel in certain civil cases, that the U.S. ease restrictions and increase funding for the Legal Services Corporation.”



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Will Senate’s ‘Adegbile Treatment’ Affect Access to Justice?

More analysts are sounding alarms about the impact on criminal defendants’ access to justice after the Senate voted to block at least temporarily the nomination of Debo Adegbile, a respected civil rights lawyer, for the Justice Department’s top civil rights post (see Gavel Grab).

The nomination drew repeated criticism from senators because Adegbile had helped represent the convicted killer of a police officer. At The Root, Keli Goff warned of a chilling effect on defendants’ access to representation:

“[T]he message sent by Adegbile’s treatment is that if you represent someone controversial early in your career—even though the Constitution guarantees everyone the right to adequate representation—you may suffer professionally for it later. Read more

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JAS: Will Best Lawyers Shy From Representing Accused Criminals?

The U.S. Senate’s blocking at least temporarily the nomination of Debo Adegbile, a respected civil rights lawyer, to a top Justice Department post (see Gavel Grab) has big implications for defenders of fair and impartial courts, Justice at Stake’s Praveen Fernandes said in an interview available on YouTube.

Because some senators voiced opposition based on Adegbile’s having represented a defendant convicted of killing a police officer, such concerns could spill over to other lawyers and  lead to their reticence to handle cases of accused criminals, said Fernandes, who is JAS director of federal affairs and diversity initiatives.

“To the extent that people, lawyers, are being penalized for their representation of criminal defendants, there’s a real concern in the fair courts community that this will lead to bright lawyers avoiding representing criminal defendants,” Fernandes said. Read more

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Broader Questions Raised by Senate’s Blocking Nominee, a Lawyer

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate blocked at least temporarily the nomination of Debo Adegbile, a respected civil rights lawyer, to a top Justice Department job; opponents focused on Adegbile’s having represented the convicted murderer of a police officer and having helped save him from the death penalty.

The procedural vote, in which a handful of Democrats joined Republicans critical of Adegbile, immediately raised questions for some analysts and advocates. These questions included how Adegbile’s legal work on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal differed from U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts’s work as a private attorney on behalf of  death-row inmate John Ferguson, and how it reflected on the important work of lawyers who agree to defend accused criminals in unpopular cases.

“Some have called Mr. Adegbile a cop-killer advocate.’ Another word for that might be ‘lawyer,’” Jesse Wegman wrote in a New York Times blog. “In representing people like John Ferguson and Mumia Abu-Jamal, Chief Justice Roberts and Mr. Adegbile were doing what lawyers everywhere are trained to do. Particularly in death-penalty cases, it is critical to ensure that a defendant has adequate representation and that his trial, conviction and sentence do not violate the Constitution.”

A Huffington Post piece was entitled, “The Senate Decides Being A Lawyer Disqualifies You From Holding A Legal Post.” It quoted Republican Read more

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Iowa Bill for Expanded Access to Court Interpreters Advances

The Iowa Senate has passed legislation removing fees for people with limited English proficiency to use court interpreters and translators.

Gavel to Gavel, a publication of the National Center for State Courts, said the legislation now is before a state House committee. It requires that the judiciary pay for the interpreters and translators used in court proceedings.

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New ‘Justice Index’ Offers Online Database

NCAJThe National Center for Access to Justice at Cardozo Law School has launched an online database to measure access to civil legal assistance. It compares state-by-state data on such services as affordable legal counsel and foreign language interpreters, according to a New York Law Journal article.

The purpose of the Center’s “Justice Index” is  ”to wake states up to the importance of providing their courts with essential resources to deliver on the American promise of equal justice,” said David Udell, director of the center, which is a Justice at Stake partner organization.

Bert Brandenburg, JAS executive director, said, “The new Justice Index is a unique and vital tool that will help states strengthen their commitment to ensuring access to justice for all. The data is rich, and the site is user-friendly. It allows users to view information in multiple ways that provide additional insight into courts’ current strengths, as well as those areas in which new accessibility goals can be set. We applaud the work done by the National Center for Access to Justice to help our state courts continue to function as the bedrock on which flourishing local economies and communities are built.”

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Full Rates Restored for Lawyers Representing Poor Clients

When lawyers in private practice are appointed to represent indigent defendants in criminal proceeding, their full hourly rates will be restored effective March 1 as a result of a decision by the federal judiciary.

Last summer, the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States cut the rates for court-appointed panel attorneys by $15 an hour. The committee described the step as “necessary to avoid permanent damage to the federal defender program.”

This week, the committee adopted financial plans for fiscal 2014 based on a federal appropriations bill that includes a 5.1 percent ($316 million) increase in discretionary funding for the federal judiciary, according to a press release from the U.S. Courts. An Associated Press headline declared, “Rates Restored for Attorneys Defending the Poor.” The restored rates are $126 per hour and in death penalty cases, $180 per hour.

For fiscal 2014, the federal judiciary’s discretionary appropriations — totaling $6.516 billion — are roughly the same as the judiciary’s funding level in 2013, before across-the-board cuts known as “sequestration” were triggered.

When the temporary cuts were announced last summer, they caused concern (see Gavel Grab) because sequestration already had taken a toll on federal Public Defender offices nationwide. With those reductions, courts had turned more and more to private attorneys to represent indigent defendants.



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California: Budget Cuts Force ‘Rationing Justice’

1387113_ME_court-rally_GEMCalifornia’s courts have sunk so far into a fiscal hole in the past five years after repeated rounds of budget cuts that even a $100 million increase proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown won’t fix the problems. It would take a $244 million increase just for the courts to “tread water” in 2014-2015, state Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye says.

An article by MintPress News, an independent online news service, shows how extensively the cuts have reduced people’s access to justice:  To pay traffic tickets, people have been forced to wait in line four hours in San Francisco; cuts have led to shorter business hours across the state; 51 courthouses and 205 courtrooms have closed; court user fees and legal fines have increased; and it takes at least a five-month wait to get a trial of a traffic case in San Diego. Also, 11 counties are on the record saying they can’t process restraining orders in domestic violence cases on the same day they are filed; and parents in child custody cases have to wait up to 17 weeks for mediation in Stanislaus County.

Justice Cantil-Sakauye and fellow judges have likened the situation to “rationing justice” and warned that a civil-rights issue is now looming. “People have a civil right, and therefore a constitutional right to have their issues resolved in a fair way,” the presiding judge in Riverside County, Mark Cope, said. “When they can’t get into court to have those issues heard … it’s a violation of those rights.”

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Michigan Seeks Interpreters to Improve Access to Justice

Michigan Supreme Court justice Bridget Mary McCormack wrote a commentary for the Detroit News discussing the need for interpreters to ensure consistent and meaningful access to the courts for all Michiganders.  The piece highlights a new rule that requires all courts to provide interpreters.  This rule was covered in Gavel Grab briefs, here.

Justice McCormack details the requirements affecting individuals who wish to become court interpreters.
Interpreters must speak English and pass an oral proficiency exam for another language.  Oral proficiency exams include Arabic, Cantonese, French, Haitian Creole, Hmong, Laotian, Polish, Portuguese and Russian among others.  She goes on to emphasize the importance of the interpreter role, as one that can assist with court proceedings by aiding those who need to understand and be understood.

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