Tag Archives: lawyers

Court blocks Wisconsin redistrict plan, orders new maps

A three-judge panel in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin on Jan. 27 permanently blocked the state’s redistricting plan, which unconstitutionally denies voters the ability to elect lawmakers.

“Yet again, the federal courts have ruled clearly: Wisconsin’s district maps are an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, they violate the rights of millions of Wisconsin citizens, and it’s time to move ahead and draw new maps,” said Sachin Chheda, director of the Fair Elections Project, which helped organize the lawsuit. “This is a victory for democracy and we look forward to a process to draw these maps that engage the community and invite public participation.”

This ruling by the court ensures that new district maps will be in place for the next state legislative elections, according to a news release.

The case is Whitford v. Gill

And the state is expected to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The lead plaintiff is Bill Whitford, who said, “Now, we will be keeping a watchful eye on the state Legislature as they draw the new maps and I ask them,  for the sake of our democracy, to put partisan politics aside and the interests of all voters first.”

Whitford and 11 Democrats are plaintiffs in the case being handled by the Campaign Legal Center and co-counsel Douglas M. Poland of Rathje & Woodward, LLC, Peter G. Earle, Michele L. Odorizzi of Mayer Brown and Nicholas O. Stephanopoulos of University of Chicago Law School.

Gerry Heber, director of voting rights and redistricting for CLC, stated, “This is truly another monumental victory for the plaintiffs in this case and for all Wisconsin Voters. Today, the court made a clear statement that holding yet another unconstitutional election under Act 43 would cause significant harm to the voters.”

Heber said the Legislature has continuously “demonstrated a disregard for the rights of the voters and an inability to craft a fair, legal redistricting plan” but a new plan would put voters, not partisan politics, first.

Poland said the court gave the state a Nov. 1 deadline for new maps.

He said, “The Legislature has plenty of time to hold hearings with broad participation from Wisconsin citizen. There is no excuse for limiting participation by all interested parties to draw a fair map in an open and transparent process. The time for cloaking the process in secrecy has ended. The plaintiffs, their lawyers, and all of Wisconsin, are watching.”

 

For the record …

State Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison: “The cornerstone of democracy is that the people should get to pick their legislators, not that legislators get to pick their voters. Today’s court ruling is a victory for Wisconsinites and democracy in our state, which has been under near-constant attack for the last six years. Voting should be fair, easy, and accessible, and today’s ruling only reinforces what Democrats have been saying for years.”

Lawyers preparing to defend, protect inauguration protesters in D.C.

The National Lawyers Guild is coordinating with the DC NLG Chapter in preparation for mass protests surrounding the 58th presidential inauguration.

Mass demonstrations are planned for Jan. 19-21 in the capital and across the country.

Large numbers of people are expected to converge in the nation’s capital to protest the swearing in of Donald Trump as the 45th U.S. president.

The inauguration is National Special Security Event. So the swearing in and other events will be accompanied by an intense degree of policing coordinated by over three dozen federal intelligence, law enforcement and military agencies, with security costs expected to exceed $100 million.

Such high levels of security and policing at previous national events have led to mass arrests, surveillance of protesters, unconstitutional restrictions of permits and free speech and intimidating shows of force by police, according to a statement from the guild.

“Tens of thousands of people are answering the call to resist the incoming administration at inaugural protests next weekend. As always, the NLG is mobilizing its dedicated team of radical lawyers, legal workers, and law students, to provide the critical legal support infrastructure needed for such large scale demonstrations,” said Maggie-Ellinger Locke, DC NLG Mass Defense Chair.

From the various actions on the day of the inauguration to the Women’s March on Washington planned for Jan. 21, the NLG is organizing a mass defense infrastructure of Legal Observers , jail support and lawyers.

Legal observers will monitor on-site at protests and document any arrests and potential abuses inflicted on demonstrators by law enforcement, according to the guild.

The jail support team will handle hotlines, track arrests and assist people as they are released.

Attorneys who can practice in D.C. will represent arrestees and do jail visits.

In preparation for the inauguration, DC NLG members have been holding trainings in the capital, as well as online trainings for those coming from other parts of the country.

The NLG also recently released an analysis of recent trends in protest policing, based on an updated version of the Field Force Operations training manual for crowd control produced by the Department for Homeland Security and FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness.

Get involved

Lawyers, legal workers and law students interested in assisting with legal support can fill out this form to volunteer.

Resources

  • Website: dcnlg.wordpress.com
  • Legal Support Hotline:  202-670-6866
  • NLG Know Your Rights Booklets in English, Spanish, Arabic, Bengali and Urdu.

Young lawyers launch legal clinic to help Milwaukee’s homeless youth

The State Bar of Wisconsin’s Young Lawyers Division recently announced an initiative providing legal aid to Milwaukee’s homeless youth, offering a series of free legal clinics throughout February.

“There is a significant homeless youth population in Milwaukee, many of whom are facing legal issues, and we, as young lawyers are uniquely positioned to make a connection and do our small part to make a difference in our community,” said Elise Libbey, a Milwaukee attorney and chair of the State Bar’s Project Street Youth program. “It is important that we take steps to help where we are able.”

The legal clinics are part of a larger national program, Project Street Youth, which was created by the American Bar Association’s YLD to educate and raise awareness of the issues facing homeless youth, as well as to direct lawyers to lobby for policy changes and new legislation.

According to the ABA, about 40 percent of the more than 1.7 million homeless young people in the United States are under the age of 18.

“This is a unique opportunity for lawyers to provide an underserved population with much needed services that may not be readily available to them,” Libbey said.

YLD organizers anticipate the clinics will address a host of legal issues, including credit and false accusations of fraud, the ability to find housing, expungements of criminal records, public assistance.

The legal clinics are scheduled for Feb. 3, Feb. 10, Feb. 17 and Feb. 24 5:30-8 p.m. at Pathfinders in Milwaukee.

“We are fortunate to partner with Pathfinders for our legal clinics,” Libbey said. “It’s a great organization doing great work for Milwaukee’s at-risk youth population.”

As of today, more than 30 volunteer attorneys have committed to collectively provide more than 120 hours of free legal advice over the course of the four clinics.

If the Milwaukee clinics are successful, the YLD board will consider expanding the program to other areas of the state, according to a news release.

Class-action suit filed over shortage of public defenders, waiting list in Orleans Parish

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Louisiana recently filed a class-action lawsuit against the Orleans Parish public defenders’ office and the Louisiana Public Defender Board over the office’s placement of new clients on a waiting list for representation due to a shortage of public defenders.

Like others who have been arrested in Orleans Parish, plaintiffs Douglas Brown, Leroy Shaw Jr. and Darwin Yarls Jr. are on the list because they can’t afford a private attorney.

Their lack of legal representation violates their Sixth Amendment rights, according to the ACLU.

“So long as you’re on the public defender waiting list in New Orleans, you’re helpless. Your legal defense erodes along with your constitutional rights,” said Brandon Buskey, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “With every hour without an attorney, you may forever lose invaluable opportunities to build your defense. You also may be forced into a crippling choice between waiting months for counsel or doing bail and plea negotiations yourself. The damage to your case can be irreparable.”

The Orleans Parish public defender’s office created the waiting list because it is running out of money to pay its attorneys and fulfill its mission.

“In Orleans Parish, as in the rest of Louisiana, funding for public defenders is inherently unreliable and prone to crippling shortages,” said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “To pay for public defense, the state relies on the fines and fees collected from the public for traffic tickets and other convictions — a system that makes public defenders dependent on excessive policing and draconian sentencing that work against the people they defend.”

At least three other parishes in Louisiana have waiting lists for public defenders.

“By relying on a ‘user-funded’ scheme to fund public defense, the state of Louisiana has put the Sixth Amendment in peril,” said Buskey. “Repeated staff shortages, waiting lists, and other public defense crises have shown that conviction fees can’t provide steady or adequate funds to public defender offices. The state must meet its constitutional obligation to its people and invest in public defense.”

Genital searches interfere with client, attorney meetings at Guantánamo

Two men detained at Guantánamo failed to meet with their attorneys because the U.S. prison has reinstated genital searches.

Human rights advocates expressed concern that the searches are deliberate attempts to stop detainees from meeting with their lawyers. 

Staff at Guantánamo told Cori Crider, an attorney with the UK-based Reprieve human rights group, detainee Samir Moqbel refused their meeting because he didn’t want to submit to the genital search. Briton Shaker Aamer also canceled an attorney meeting.

In 2013, during the height of a mass hunger strike at Guantánamo, the genital searches were the subject of litigation in U.S. court and were eventually discontinued by camp authorities. A judge who ordered the searches should be stopped wrote, “The choice between submitting to a search procedure that is religiously and culturally abhorrent or forgoing counsel effectively presents no choice for devout Muslims like petitioners.” 

Guantánamo staff have said the searchers involve “placing the guard’s hand as a wedge between the (detainee’s) scrotum and thigh … and using (a) flat hand to press against the groin to detect anything foreign attached to the body,” after which a guard “uses a flat hand to frisk the detainee’s buttocks to ensure no contraband is hidden there.”

Harper Lee prize: Finalists named for best legal fiction

Three books have been named as finalists for the 2015 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. 

The trio was announced earlier this month by the University of Alabama School of Law and the American Bar Association’s magazine ABA Journal.

The prize annually recognizes a work of fiction focused on lawyers’ role in society. It was created five years ago to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The finalists are: :Terminal City” by Linda Fairstein, “My Sister’s Grave” by Robert Dugoni and “The Secret of Magic” by Deborah Johnson.

The winner will receive their award at a ceremony on Sept. 3 in conjunction with the Library of Congress National Book Festival.

Four judges and a public vote through the ABA Journal website will determine the winner.

Alabama Supreme Court says anti-gay ruling stands until U.S. Supreme Court rules

The Alabama Supreme Court has made itself an outlier in the judicial march legalizing same-sex marriages in the United States, drawing rebukes from gay rights advocates and evoking comparisons to Alabama’s defiance of federal authorities during the civil rights movement.

The court set up a showdown with a Mobile, Alabama, federal judge this week when it ordered officials in the state to stop issuing same-sex marriage licenses pending a U.S. Supreme Court decision later this year on whether gays and lesbians have a fundamental right to marry.

The Alabama ruling contradicts U.S. District Judge Callie “Ginny” Granade, who declared in January that Alabama’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage violates the U.S. Constitution.

“Even as nationwide marriage equality is on the horizon, the Alabama Supreme Court is determined to be on the wrong side of history,” said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

Alabama wasn’t the first state where a federal trial or appeals court declared same-sex marriages legal, but the state justices made Alabama the only state to push back in advance of the U.S. Supreme Court settling the matter.

The justices’ decision had quick results: By Wednesday afternoon, gay rights advocates said they could not find one of Alabama’s 67 counties where a same-sex couple could get a marriage license. Before the ruling, 48 counties had issued licenses in compliance with Granade’s earlier declarations.

The Alabama justices don’t dispute that the nation’s highest court will have the final say. But absent that ruling, the justices reasoned, they remain the ultimate authority on applying the U.S. Constitution to a state law. “State courts may interpret the U.S. Constitution independently from, and even contrary to, federal courts,” they wrote in a decision that described “traditional” marriage as “the fundamental unit of society.”

Minter, the attorney who represented gay couples who initially challenged Alabama’s ban, said the state justices showed “callous disregard” for their rights.

Dean Lanton said he and his partner, Randy Wells, had planned to wed in Birmingham on Aug. 12, the anniversary of their first date, but now might have to get married out of state because of the decision.

“It was a punch in the gut. It was out of the blue,” said Lanton, 54. “It’s just Alabama politics, deja vu from the 1960s.”

University of Alabama law professor Ronald Krotoszynski said the Alabama justices are technically correct in asserting their authority in the case. The U.S. Constitution actually doesn’t say whether state courts must adhere to federal court rulings. It simply created U.S. Supreme Court and authorized Congress to create other federal courts as necessary.

But Krotoszynski said the particular circumstances still make the Alabama action surprising, particularly given that the 11th U.S. Circuit of Appeals in Atlanta and the U.S. Supreme Court itself declined Alabama’s earlier requests to delay Granade’s order until after the high court rules this year.

Many legal observers have interpreted those refusals as the court telegraphing its intention to rule in favor of same-sex marriage advocates.

“Does the (Alabama) court have the power to do this? Yes,” the professor said. “Was it wise for the court to exercise its power this way? I’d say no. … This is just not a standard kind of move in the inter-relationship between state and federal courts.”

Same-sex couples will likely appeal up to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary to block the latest state supreme court ruling, said Ben Cooper, chairman of Equality Alabama. “It’s important to understand that this is not nearly the end of this,” he said.

Montgomery County Probate Judge Steven Reed, a Democrat who was among the first to comply with Granade’s order, said he would likely join an appeal.

John Enslen, Reed’s colleague in neighboring Elmore County, however, praised the Alabama justices. He wrote on his Facebook page that he is “saddened for my nation that the word `marriage’ has been hijacked by couples who cannot procreate.”

Then there are the county officials who aren’t advocating a position – they’re just tired of the legal roller coaster.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Probate Judge Leon Archer in rural Tallapoosa County. “I had done made up my mind we were going to issue the licenses and I thought that was it. And I think that is going to be the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in June.”

Justice gap: three-fourths of low-income civil litigants unrepresented

For every 6,415 people in the United States who qualify for legal aid, there is one legal aid attorney. That means that about about three-quarters of low-income civil litigants in the United States are unrepresented, creating what some call a “justice gap.”

A two-year, $300,000 grant by the National Science Foundation is providing Wisconsin researchers with the opportunity to explore questions about the legal profession and justice for low-income, unrepresented civil litigants.

The study, undertaken by Tonya Brito, professor of law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and David Pate, associate professor in the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, both of whom are affiliates of the Institute for Research on Poverty, is in the third and final stage of an ongoing research project.

The study, according to the researchers, is especially timely as the recent recession hit indigent people hard, multiplying the civil problems they tend to face, such as home foreclosures, evictions, social security disputes and nonpayment of child support. The investigators focus on nonpayment of child support and their new study is informed in part by decades of research on child support conducted by IRP researchers. 

Civil incarceration is commonly used as a remedy to enforce child support orders against indigent noncustodial parents, many of whom lack attorney representation. 

“During focus groups in the earlier stages of the study, child support attorneys confirmed that some low-income noncustodial parents experience a revolving prison door for indigent noncustodial fathers,” Pate said in a news release on the research.

“Child support enforcement proceedings offer an interesting and complex setting for exploring contrasting legal assistance models,” Brito said. “The proceedings are often cyclical; obligors experience multiple enforcement hearings for the same child support debt.” 

Michael Turner of South Carolina, for example, is a low-income father who has been civilly incarcerated on six separate occasions for the same unpaid child support debt. When he was sentenced to 12 months in jail for willful failure to pay child support, Turner appealed, asserting a constitutional right to counsel. 

The Supreme Court, in Turner v. Rogers, held that the Due Process Clause does not require appointed counsel in child support enforcement proceedings. The court held that states must, at a minimum, provide unrepresented litigants with “substitute procedural safeguards” (an array of legal assistance measures falling short of full representation) to ensure that the litigants have meaningful access to the courts. In the court’s view, the safeguards would significantly reduce the risk of erroneous civil incarceration. 

Scholars have criticized the Turner ruling because it lacks an empirical base. Access to justice proponents disagree regarding whether attorney representation is essential or whether more limited legal assistance interventions that empower self-representation suffice in cases such as that of Michael Turner.

Brito and Pate’s NSF study will help inform these questions.

“This project exemplifies the real-world application of the work of Institute for Research on Poverty researchers and faculty affiliates here at the UW and across the country,” said IRP Director Lawrence Berger. “Professors Brito and Pate’s examination of how various legal assistance delivery models shape access to justice for low-income civil litigants will provide the empirical base necessary for creating evidence-based policy and intervention.”

Help wanted: Lawyers needed for immigrant children

Most of the nearly 60,000 Central American children who have arrived on the U.S.-Mexico border in the last year still don’t have lawyers to represent them in immigration court, and advocates are scrambling to train volunteer attorneys to help cope with the massive caseload.

With the number of unaccompanied immigrant children more than doubling this past fiscal year, the need for attorneys has surged, and it has been exacerbated by the immigration courts’ decision to fast-track children’s cases, holding initial hearings within a few weeks instead of months.

Immigrants can have counsel in immigration courts, but lawyers are not guaranteed or provided at government expense. Having an attorney can make a big difference: While almost half of children with attorneys were allowed to remain in the country, only 10 percent of those without representation were allowed to stay, according to an analysis of cases through June by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

Efforts are underway from White Plains, New York, to New Orleans to train attorneys at private law firms on the country’s byzantine immigration laws and how to work with traumatized, Spanish-speaking children, many of whom are fleeing violence — a far cry from the corporate clients most deal with on a daily basis.

“We’re doing pretty well on finding willing lawyers. We’ve got to get them trained, we’ve got to get them matched to that child,” said Reid Trautz, director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s practice and professionalism center. “It just takes time.”

Last month, Vice President Joe Biden urged lawyers to increase efforts to take on the children’s cases. Since then, the cities of San Francisco and New York have each announced plans to allocate roughly $2 million to help provide more lawyers for unaccompanied minors. California has appropriated $3 million toward the effort.

About 800 immigration lawyers have signed up to volunteer on the cases, the immigration lawyers association said.

So have many other attorneys without any background in immigration law. They are being trained and paired with experienced immigration practitioners, who serve as mentors.

“We’ve had tax lawyers do this, corporate lawyers, real estate – anybody can do it,” said Ricardo Martinez-Cid, president of the Cuban American Bar Association, which started a program earlier this year to represent unaccompanied children in Miami.

Immigrant advocates say the efforts are working, but not as quickly as desired. Nonprofit organizations have been boosting staff, but there aren’t enough experienced immigration lawyers to take on the cases or to mentor volunteers. Nor is there enough long-term funding for cases that can take more than a year to resolve, they said.

“It is very much a triage situation, and it is very, very frustrating because you know when someone calls and you turn them away, it is very unlikely they’ll find counsel,” said Judy London, directing attorney of the immigrants’ rights project at Los Angeles-based Public Counsel.

Some children will apply for green cards under a federal program for abused and abandoned children, while others who came fleeing violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are seeking asylum.

One of the biggest challenges for volunteer lawyers is getting clients to open up about their lives when they have been beaten, raped or seen friends and family killed.

Three of the 30 children whose cases are being handled by Public Counsel have a history of suicide attempts or risk of suicide, London said. Most children are not going to feel comfortable walking into a fancy law firm and would probably run from the building, she said, unless an attorney meets the child outside and walks jointly through the door.

Jack Ross, an attorney in Southern California, said he met with a 16-year-old client four times before he told his full story. The boy, who arrived in the country two years ago, fled years of violence from his father and a police department that refused to protect him, he said.

“It’s some of the most compelling legal work you can do, because the stakes are so high,” said Ross, who represents hospitals and care providers in negligence claims and contract disputes. “You become so emotionally invested in the client, their well-being is really at the forefront of everything, and that doesn’t happen a lot in law.”

Before the recent influx of unaccompanied children, only about half were represented, said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit that pairs volunteer lawyers with children. She could not say how many children now have lawyers, but said certainly fewer than before.

Advocates have sued to demand the government provide the children with attorneys at the government’s expense. The lawsuit is pending before a judge in Seattle.

They say children with representation are more likely to attend their court hearings.

This week, the Homeland Security Department acknowledged that tens of thousands of young families caught on the border failed to meet with federal immigration agents as instructed. A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said she could not say whether they attended court hearings on their cases.

At a recent immigration court hearing in Los Angeles, most of the 19 children whose cases were scheduled showed up. Seven had attorneys. Others were accompanied by a relative, as the judge reviewed their names and ages.

Their guardians were given a handout with a list of low-cost legal service providers and told to return in December with a lawyer.

Tax Day trouble? LGBT Bar Association offers online help for same-sex couples

The National LGBT Bar Association, BNY Mellon and White & Case LLP have announced a first of its kind Online LGBT Tax Resource — at LGBTBar.org/tax — to help same-sex couples and their tax advisors navigate state tax laws.

The resource is a tool for both tax preparers and payers, providing a comprehensive, state-by-state list of reporting regulations for LGBT couples.

Tax law remains one of the most complex and nuanced issues impacting the LGBT community, especially in states where couples are not allowed to file married tax returns.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision invalidating the federal Defense of Marriage Act, married couples are now eligible to file married federal returns. In 33 states, however, those same couples cannot file joint state returns. In response, the Online LGBT Tax Resource was developed to ensure families are equipped with the most up-to-date tax information for their home state.

“The end of the federal Defense of Marriage Act was a giant step forward for couples, but state laws continue to legally discriminate against many families,” said D’Arcy Kemnitz, executive director of the LGBT Bar. “The Online LGBT Tax Resource unveiled today will ensure couples can maximize state tax laws, and the repeal of DOMA, as they navigate what is often a very confusing area for LGBT families. The Resource is designed to ensure they, and their tax preparers and attorneys, have reliable, trustworthy information.”

Among the information provided on the site, are key areas such as:

• A recap of states’ rules concerning same-sex marriage and the impact on state income tax in clear and concise language

• Individual state guidance for married same-sex taxpayers

• Information on litigation, and legislation, that could impact LGBT tax law; and

• Up-to-date information from states’ departments of revenue, and state constitutions.

“In states that don’t recognize same-sex marriage, same-sex couples and their tax preparers are struggling to make sense of how to apply the federal tax guidelines based on the ruling last year that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional,” said John Lillis, a tax partner with White & Case, who worked on the project pro bono. “This database is an important tool to help tax preparers and same-sex couples navigate the inconsistent rule that applies to state income tax laws.”

“Working collaboratively with the LGBT Bar Association, Pro Bono lawyers from BNY Mellon and White & Case have created an online resource to help same-sex couples reduce the complexity of tax laws. BNY Mellon’s pro bono team reflects our uncompromising commitment to diversity and inclusion as a core business issue,” said Deborah Kaye, managing director and senior managing counsel, BNY Mellon.

The Resource presents the many state-level regulations in easily understandable language. The site, which will be updated quarterly with any new developments impacting tax laws for LGBT couples, provides the only inclusive, accurate listing of filing regulations in all 50 states.