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A Tale of Two Hearings

In a study in contrasts, the Judiciary Committee and the Revenue Committee held public hearings this week on issues of importance to the BBA.  The Judiciary Committee held a record breaking 20-minute hearing earlier this week on court reform, a BBA priority for at least the past 20 years.  Judiciary hearings are known to be lengthy and frequently last late into the night — with bills taking many months to work their way out of the committee.  After this week’s relatively brief hearing, the chair promised to swiftly move the bill along.  In fact, it is expected to be taken up by the full House next week.

The court reform bill on the Judiciary Committee’s agenda would replace the Chief Justice for Administration and Management with a professional administrator who would handle non-judicial functions.  There would also be a new “chief justice of the Trial Court,” to oversee strictly judicial matters.  Described by many as an historic and radical reshaping of the court department, the bill calls for other reforms that would impose guidelines on letters of recommendation for job candidates throughout state government and would require applicants for certain positions to take a screening exam.

The Revenue Committee’s public hearing held today was an entirely different story.  On the agenda was a proposal to raise revenue in an effort to reduce budget cuts.  This bill was described by supporters as making the tax system more equitable.  They testified that lower income people would see their tax rates dip and higher income people would see their tax rates increase.

Also on the Revenue Committee’s agenda was H 2559, An Act Relative to Continuing the Tax Base Rule for Property Acquired from Decedents, or the so-called income tax “step-up” bill filed by Representative Alice Peisch on behalf of the BBA.  The step-up bill, a detailed but very important piece of legislation, addresses a substantial yet hidden Massachusetts tax for successors to decedents’ property resulting from the change in the federal basis rules for 2010.

Unlike the Judiciary’s hearing which was held in a typical hearing room with plenty of seats for those in attendance, the Revenue hearing was standing room only.  The auditorium was filled with concerned citizens from across the state.

A great big hat tip to the BBA members who stood in line for thirty minutes just to get through the doors of the state house only to find the auditorium jam packed!  Citizens who support raising taxes for the wealthy made their presence known by loudly rustling pieces of yellow paper in unison.  Even with our sponsor by our side, we waited for 3 hours before being asked to wait some more.  So what happens next now that the bill has been publicly heard and is officially in play?  We’ll meet with Chairman Jay Kaufman and the Revenue Committee staff and go over the details of the BBA’s step-up bill.  This will provide us with the benefit of an open dialogue, and we won’t have to restrict our testimony to 3 minutes.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

BostonBar Association

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More Relief for Consumers

More good news! An update increasing the dollar amounts for bankruptcy exemptions in Massachusetts made its way to the Governor Patrick’s desk just before New Years Eve. Even though January 5th marked the end of the 2009-2010 session, the governor still has 10 full days to act on the bills on his desk.  Any bill that goes without action for more than 10 days will receive a so-called pocket veto.  Today is day 7.

As Issue Spot noted just weeks ago, personal property exemptions have long been in desperate need of modernization.  According to the Massachusetts statute, MGL Chapter 235, section 34 —last updated more than 30 years ago — the intent of the original law was to balance the legal rights of creditors against a debtor’s need for basic necessities in order to maintain a home and earn a living. 

The present law exempts from seizure things like 2 cows, 12 sheep, 2 swine and 4 tons of hay, and this is almost laughable in the context of how most people earn their livings or look for employment in 2011. Updating this law would increase the value of property, earnings and savings exempt from seizure during debt collection, and also permit debtors to keep computers. As families and communities continue to struggle with the impact of the economic downturn, the process of debt collection needs to change to one that is fair, at the same time facilitating the ability of debtors to fulfill their obligations.

The BBA had filed a bill several years ago that would update exemptions. Not surprisingly many bankruptcy attorneys eventually came to view the dollar amounts in that original bill as obsolete. During the summer of 2010 the BBA’s Bankruptcy Public Policy Committee identified key exemptions in our draft that could be revised to better reflect the needs of today’s household.  It was their work this summer which really brought this issue into focus for us and kept it on our radar in the final days of session. 

The BBA’s Bankruptcy Public Policy Committee had urged us to work with the National Consumer Law Center, and to adopt the exemption amounts that were in the NCLC’s bill.  As we revised our own bill we learned that the NCLC’s bill had already made enormous progress.  Working with NCLC on this issue proved to be successful. 

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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It’s That Time of Year Again

As people race to finish holiday shopping, there’s a growing curiosity about which bills in the legislature will actually make it all the way to the governor’s desk during the session’s final weeks.  With one eye on our current bills and where they are during the informal sessions, we’ve also begun taking a hard look at our legislative priorities for the next session. 

This process started months ago and probably won’t be completed until January.  The BBA has been reviewing our portfolio of bills that we’ve filed in the past and determining whether or not the issues are still timely and important. For those that make the cut, we must take a careful look to ensure that the language in the bill still reflects the reforms we sought. 

The BBA’s issues are varied and far reaching; including everything from complicated tax issues to criminal justice reforms to family law matters and consumer protection, so the input and expertise of our member volunteers is crucial.  The goal is to present complete, up-to-date, and meaningful legislation that will have real world, positive impacts on the citizens of the Commonwealth and practitioners of the law.

Some bills are time sensitive and require immediate action.  Other bills get filed each session until we are able to focus enough of the legislature’s attention on them at just the right time.  For example, legislation updating the Homestead exemption and creating the Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code took many years to become law. 

An example going forward is our bill that would update the dollar amounts in Massachusetts for bankruptcy exemptions.  In 2004, amid concerns that the new federal bankruptcy law would make it harder for people to seek bankruptcy relief, and that under Massachusetts’ obsolete exemption statute, debtors are vulnerable to losing the very tools that allow them to earn a living, the BBA began to work on updating the state exemption statute.  Tying the dollar amounts in the statute to cost of living adjustments was just the beginning.  Our proposal also recognizes the need for things like computers, sophisticated and specialized power tools, and automobiles as items necessary for earning a living today.   It is critical to update the exemptions to ensure they are relevant to the real world in which we live.

Generally speaking, the exemptions remain unchanged until someone summons the energy to introduce and pass a bill increasing them – and in Massachusetts this hasn’t been done in over 30 years.  While there is no mechanism by which these exemptions are regularly reviewed and other reforms are needed as well, updating the personal exemption statute will be an important step in helping a very vulnerable population.

When legislation is filed, many of the volunteers that work on it have visions of attending a grand signing ceremony in a large community hall.  They imagine getting commemorative pens from the governor, along with cameras flashing from a full press corps.  But what usually happens is that bills fortunate enough to make it to the governor’s desk are rarely ever afforded any media coverage.  Instead most become law quietly without much notice. 

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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In the Tradition of Our Founder

In August Governor Deval Patrick declared October 2010 to be Pro Bono Month, a proclamation that the BBA wholeheartedly endorsed.  The BBA has a long history of promoting pro bono participation in the tradition of the organization’s founder, John Adams.  Now more than ever, pro bono representation is critical to ensuring equal access to justice in the Commonwealth.  Today there is an overwhelming demand for legal representation as a record number of individuals are forced to appear in court pro se because they cannot afford a lawyer and the demand for legal services far outstrips supply.  We continue to hear from our members about how this affects not just access to justice but the administration of justice.  Here are some of the things we have learned in the last year:

  • Pro se litigants require more assistance from court staff to understand and navigate the judicial process.
  • On one day in the Housing Court last fall, 203 cases were on the docket: in those cases, 189 tenants appeared pro se, as did 43 landlords.
  • The courts are trying to keep pace with the demand with diminished resources and fewer and fewer staff.
  • Delayed hearings and rulings can have direct negative impacts on individuals seeking relief from the judiciary on issues ranging from eviction to domestic abuse.

Our 2009-10 Public Interest Leaders recognized this growing problem and decided to focus their efforts on finding a creative way to address it.  They sought to meet the needs of both indigent litigants and lawyers who wish to help, but may not have the time to devote to long-term projects.  The group surveyed created a resource guide that focused solely on opportunities that would require 10 hours or less to complete.

On September 22, 2010, they held Take a Bite: Snack-Size Pro Bono Opportunities That Fit Your Practice here at the BBA.  Over 15 organizations with more than 20 opportunities for pro bono work that require 10 or fewer hours participated.  The event served as a great prelude to Pro Bono Month.  October at the BBA has been buzzing with training programs and events that celebrate and promote the importance of pro bono representation.  This has served as a great jumping off point for the BBA to continue its pro bono projects throughout the year.

For ways that you can get involved, check out the BBA’s calendar and our Public Service Program page.  There is still time left to attend one of our events and to make a lasting impact on the lives of those in need.

Boston Bar Association

Government Relations Department

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BBA Comments to the Courts

In the spirit of celebrating the accomplishments of the program year that will soon draw to a close (Sept. 1 – Aug. 31), the BBA would like to highlight the work of its members in making an impact on the SJC rulemaking process.  The BBA regularly comments on proposed amendments and rules changes, creates task forces to study and help solve critical issues of interest to the Commonwealth, and also articulates its public policy positions through the filing of amicus briefs.

In this past program year, our membership has actively addressed several important issues in the Commonwealth’s courts. 

Rule 4:03

Periodic Assessment of Attorneys

In December of 2008, the BBA’s Delivery of Legal Services Section helped garner the BBA’s support of the Access to Justice Commission’s proposal to the Supreme Judicial Court that it amend Rule 4:03 “Periodic Assessment of Attorneys” by adding to the annual registration fee a contribution of $50 to support civil legal services.  The contribution would be voluntary and the attorney registrant could opt-out of the contribution.  This Spring the SJC agreed and approved the Access to Justice Commission’s proposal to include an optional registration fee.  In fact the court increased the contribution amount to $51

The BBA has always been and will continue to be a strong advocate for ensuring that everyone has equal access to justice, and funding for civil legal services is a key component to making this a reality. 

Look for this change in your annual registration form starting September 1, 2010.

Rule 3:01 and New Rule VI of the Board of Bar Examiners

Foreign Attorney Admission

The BBA’s diverse membership includes many lawyers whose educational and professional backgrounds span the globe.  In 2006, the BBA convened The Study Group of Foreign Attorney Admission to examine Massachusetts’ admission requirements for foreign-trained attorneys.  After careful study, this Group developed recommendations reflecting proposed guidance derived from two Supreme Judicial Court cases, Wei Jia v. Board of Bar Examiners (1998) and Osakwe v. Board of Bar Examiners (2006).  The BBA believes that the key criteria for eligibility to take the Massachusetts bar exam should be legal education requirements, including both general education in common law and particular education in American law.

The SJC invited comments on the changes and the BBA, with help from its International Law Section, submitted comments requesting that Rule 3:01 and New Rule VI provide greater clarity and transparency in the rules, and better consistency by the Board of Bar Examiners in its application of them.  Happily the SJC approved the amendments to both rules.  These changes became effective July 1, 2010.

Standing Order 1:09

Sealing of Criminal Cases

Last year, the BBA voted to support a proposed interdepartmental order to Chief Justice Charles Johnson of the Boston Municipal Court.  The proposal came from one of our oldest partners, Greater Boston Legal Services.  The interdepartmental order would permit individuals to seek in one court the sealing of criminal cases that have been disposed of in other courts.  The previous process for sealing a criminal record could be cumbersome when an individual had several cases in different divisions of the trial court.  Not only did an individual need to travel to each court, but because the previous statute required two hearings before any individual motion to seal was blocked, it was necessary to travel to each court twice.

Chief Justice Johnson agreed to implement this innovative approach to case management.  He signed Standing Order 1:09 in May 2009 as a one-year pilot project.  This past winter, at the urging of our Delivery of Legal Services Section, the BBA requested that the standing order be extended for another year.  Chief Justice Johnson agreed and extended the order through May 14, 2011.

– Kathleen M. Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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Patching the Estate Tax

Last night I was just about ready to turn Larry King off when I heard him ask Bill Gates Sr. his opinion of the federal estate tax.  As you may know, Bill Sr. has been campaigning to keep the federal estate tax and his son supports his efforts.  As Bill Sr. sees it, the estate tax provides a substantial revenue stream from those with the greatest capacity to pay.

As Congress considers what to do about the federal estate tax the BBA is about to file a bill in the state legislature that would “patch” the federal estate tax and generation skipping transfer tax (“GST” taxes) for one year – providing us with the same exclusions that we had in 2009.

Here’s why we need the “patch.” Today the federal estate tax is zero, the result of legislation passed by Congress in 2001. That being said, virtually every estate planner expected that Congress would enact some form of federal estate tax before its 2010 sunset. 

As 2010 approached, many lawyers in Massachusetts predicted that Congress would at the very least “patch” the transfer tax laws so that we’d have the same exclusions and tax rate we had in 2009.  The thought was that this “patch” or temporary solution would be in place until Congress decided what to do for the long term.  That didn’t happen, and this has led to complications in estate planning, as well as questions about whether or not estate plans will work as they were intended to work. 

Congress’s failure to act in this regard creates havoc with an unknown number of estates of Massachusetts residents whose estate planning was done on the presumption that there would be some sort of federal estate tax system in effect in 2010.  This could also lead to failed bequests or potential litigation.

The BBA’s proposes to address this problem by filing retroactive legislation that would:

  • provide a default but rebuttable presumption for tax formula clauses tied to the federal estate and GST taxes;
  • reduce the burden on the probate courts of hearing construction cases related to tax formulas and other provisions in wills and trusts where there is no ambiguity on the face of the document;    
  • relieve smaller estates from the expense and delay of asking a probate court to construe such formula tax clauses in each case;
  • in cases where the default presumption is not the intent of the testator or grantor, it will allow the probate courts to consider extrinsic evidence to determine grantor or testator intent even where the instrument is ambiguous; and,
  • exonerate any executor or trustee who makes funding or distribution decisions based upon the 2010 suspension.

It appears that Congress is not able to reach a consensus on what to do with this quirk in the law so it is even more imperative that Massachusetts act and act quickly.  The bill is expected to be filed this week.  Thanks to Chairman Eugene O’Flaherty for recognizing the importance of this issue and for taking the important step to do something in Massachusetts while the debate is still going on in DC.  Let’s hope we can get this important piece through the legislative process soon.

– Kathleen M. Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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Homestead Reform Legislation Is Way Overdue

It seems so easy — you buy a home, pay $35 and file a “Declaration of Homestead” to protect it from creditors up to the amounts set by law.  But it’s not so simple and it’s actually confusing.  While it seems like a no-brainer for any homeowner in Massachusetts, too many people fail to take advantage of this important benefit.

A quick survey of my friends revealed that some had never heard of a homestead declaration, and those that did had only a vague understanding of this rudimentary consumer protection tool.  The reason being is that the current law, Chapter 188 §§ 1-10 is ambiguous and unclear at best.

For several years now, the BBA has been working – along with the MBA and REBA – to update the Massachusetts Homestead Exemption.  This effort intensified during the BBA presidency of the late M. Ellen Carpenter, a bankruptcy lawyer, and is more important now than ever before.

Quite simply, a declaration of homestead is protection for the equity in your residence from most creditors up to $500,000 in the event you are sued.  The Homestead bill that is currently being considered by the legislature, S 2406, will modernize and clarify the existing law.  More importantly it will eliminate the requirement that an actual filing be necessary to ensure that a homeowner is protected.

If Homestead reform legislation is enacted, this important protection would be automatic — up to $125,000 for every Massachusetts homeowner. If you’ve filed a Declaration of Homestead that protection would go up to $500,000.

BBA leaders have testified on behalf of homestead legislation reform at numerous public hearings.  We continue to press our case with staff and legislators.  When legislation to update the homestead statute was taken up in the Senate chamber in late April, it was missing the essential automatic protection provision.  Senator Cynthia Creem filed an amendment to restore the automatic provision and the bill was engrossed.  It is now in House Ways and Means.

Looking ahead towards the last weeks of formal sessions, the legislature is still working on gambling, economic development, sentencing reform, and the state budget. The BBA will continue to persist in its advocacy efforts.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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