Monthly Archives: July 2011

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

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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

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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

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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

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