Tag Archives: commonwealth

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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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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CORI Reform Is Just a Start — Sentencing Reform Is a Must

The BBA retains a spirit of dogged optimism as we wait for sentencing reform.  With just three months left in this two year legislative session and the Senate preparing to release their budget in less than two weeks, the legislature is moving closer to meaningful sentencing reform.  There have been years of protests, legislative proposals and public hearings.  But the sad truth is that the current system makes it extremely difficult for former offenders to straighten out their lives. 

Publicly the Governor, Senate President and House Speaker have all expressed their support for some sort of Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) reform.  The Senate did so most recently in December with the passage of a CORI bill that also included sentencing law changes for non-violent drug offenders.  The word is that the House will act within the next two weeks.  Let’s hope that their proposal doesn’t stop at CORI reform and includes meaningful sentencing reform.

For more than 20 years the BBA has been studying and advocating on these issues and strongly believes that it’s time to finally make these measured changes a reality.  We have sponsored and encouraged thoughtful study of our criminal justice system recommending changes — including repeal of most mandatory sentencing laws.   

In the present fiscal crisis, their adoption would have significantly positive economic and social impacts.  A combination of CORI and sentencing reform, plus post-release supervision, would accomplish cost-effective changes in our criminal justice system that enhance public safety, and facilitate offender re-entry and employment, while saving judicial and correctional resources for the most serious offenders. 

Employers often use CORI reports to help screen out prospective job applicants. On one side of the debate are supporters of the current CORI law who say access is needed to protect employers from hiring someone who might be a liability to their business. On the other side of the debate are the critics who contend that the widespread use of CORI reports often prevent ex-convicts from starting over and that an individual who has already paid his or her debt to society should be given a second chance and would be less likely to re-offend if they did not have to overcome barriers to employment, housing and other services.

The CORI law was created to control the release of information concerning an individual’s prior criminal history.  Initially limited to law enforcement officials, the law has been expanded to provide access to other organizations, particularly those that service children, the elderly and the disabled.  Maintaining accurate CORI information is important, as these reports can include not only an individual’s prior convictions, but also any pending charges as well as cases that ended without a conviction. This can include cases where the individual was found not guilty, or the charges were dismissed.  We need to find the balance between access and disclosure.

Ex-offenders, including those who have successfully completed a term of imprisonment, must be encouraged to obtain and retain productive employment.  Employed ex-offenders are able to support and house themselves, rather than remain an economic burden to the Commonwealth.  Right now, those with minor or long dormant criminal records confront complicated hurdles due to the way CORI records are handled when the ex-offenders seek employment or housing.  The current system is confusing and complicated and some employers have access to criminal information while others don’t. 

There seems to be support for some sort of CORI reform throughout the legislature. But CORI reform and sentencing reform must be viewed as interconnected parts of the solution.  CORI reform is not going to be as effective if inmates serve lengthy sentences that preclude access to re-entry opportunities.  Parole and work release eligibility for drug offenders would help transform appropriate candidates from expensive correctional burdens to contributing members of society. 

Sensible sentencing reform must include post-release supervision, and a system of presumptive post-release supervision for all offenders incarcerated in state prison. It’s intelligent and fiscally responsible and would avoid the current practice in which offenders often are released directly to the community after serving the maximum term of their sentence, without any transitional period.

The Commonwealth is now experiencing the most severe fiscal crisis in decades and this provides us with an opportunity to enact responsible sentencing and CORI reform.  Simply put, every offender who makes a successful return to the community as a result of these measures will be one less financial burden to the taxpayers of this state, and our communities will be made safer in the process.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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