Tag Archives: constitution

The Hunter Becomes the Hunted: Will Schuette Hook Fisher?

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, the latest case on affirmative action.  This came just a few months after the Court published its decision in Fisher v. University of Texas.  In Fisher, the question was whether race-conscious admissions policies at a public university were constitutional.  The Court in effect said yes, upholding limited affirmative action and allowing the University of Texas to continue its race-conscious admissions policies. 

The BBA’s amicus brief in Fisher highlighted the value of race-conscious admissions policies, and specifically focused on how they serve the legal profession by providing a diverse pipeline of undergraduate and law students. 

In Schuette, the Court is considering the constitutionality of Michigan’s 2006 state constitutional amendment, coming out of ballot initiative Proposal 2.  This prohibits preferential treatment based on race, color, sex, ethnicity, or national origin in state college admissions, jobs, and other publicly funded institutions.  In a sense, it is the reverse of Fisher – in Schuette, the question is whether the Constitution requires public universities to at least have the option of instituting race-conscious admissions policies like the University of Texas.

On Tuesday afternoon, each side had its 30 minutes before the Court .  The justices actively participated, asking many questions and framing the arguments.  John Bursch, Michigan’s state solicitor general argued that the Equal Protection Clause could not possibly require affirmative action plans for state institutions, because it barely permits them under only the strictest scrutiny.  He faced tough questions from Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg, whose demeanors appeared to set them up as opponents to the constitutional amendment.  

Mark Rosenbaum and Shanta Driver argued on behalf of the plaintiffs that a constitutional ban on affirmative action was a violation of equal protection, but struggled to define the exact point of violation.  For example, Justices Roberts, Kennedy and Alito asked, if discretion to use race-conscious admissions policies was unconstitutional when enshrined in the state constitution, would it be constitutional if it was in the hands of the University Regents?  The University President?  The Legislature?  The Governor?

We look forward to hearing the Court’s answers.  Will the outcome impact the affirmative action victory we fought for in Fisher?  Only time will tell.  After all, as famed Supreme Court lawyer Ted Olson explained at the BBA’s Annual Meeting Luncheon, win or lose, we should be proud to have the Supreme Court.  It is a model for government institutions world-wide, because the arguments described here will result in written opinions this summer as the Court tackles yet another tough question. 

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association
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Sequestration to Solution

The term “budget sequestration” refers to automatic categorical federal spending cuts.  We are now seeing the immediate results of the sequestration enacted in the Budget Control Act of 2011 that kicked in on March 1, 2013.  The federal judiciary has been amongst the hardest hit.  Operating on an annual, nationwide $7 billion appropriation, less than 0.02% of the total federal budget, the courts have long been stretched thin.  However, with the latest sequestration resulting in a loss of about $350 million, roughly five percent of its budget, the courts are at their breaking point.  The cuts have resulted in mandatory furloughs, hiring freezes, the elimination of numerous positions, training cutbacks, decreases in courthouse security, and major budget hits for indigent defense providers.

This dire situation even prompted some judicial vigilantism when a New York District Court judge took matters into his own hands.  In United States v. Laron Spicer, Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. held that although jurors merited protection due to a defendant gang member’s record of witness tampering, he could only afford to keep their names secret.  He refused to provide them with any additional safeguards, citing the multi-million dollar price tag associated with sequestering a jury.

Ironically, the small immediate savings to the federal government are likely to cost taxpayers far more in the future.  According to a recent Brennan Center for Justice report, cuts to federal defender services are resulting in increases in the number of cases assigned to private counsel, which is ultimately more expensive for taxpayers.

We at the BBA are very sensitive to this issue.  We have long been at the forefront of advocating for indigent defense services and fair judicial funding.  Recently, BBA President Paul Dacier and BBA representatives have been meeting with both state and federal court judges in Massachusetts to listen to their concerns.  Dacier, who frequently quotes articles XXIX and XXX of the Massachusetts Constitution, is a strong proponent of fair funding and honorable salaries for the judicial branch and the preservation of three co-equal branches of government.  We know it will be an uphill climb to accomplish these goals, but we are committed to finding solutions.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association
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When Budget Cuts Fly in Face of Constitutional Requirements

The Senate released its budget recommendations earlier this week.  Amendments are due today and the budget will be considered by the full Senate starting on Wednesday May 26th.  Like the House version of the budget, the Senate did not rely on any new revenue or withdrawals from the Rainy Day Fund.  That means budget cuts are going to be felt everywhere.

While Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (“MLAC”) made it through 3 big hurdles– the Governor’s budget, the House budget and the Senate budget – with level funding in place, it’s still not over.  Senator Panagiotakos has emphasized that revenues can still be reduced — making more cuts necessary if tax revenues for April don’t hold up.  The other source of MLAC’s revenue is from the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (“IOLTA”) which has continued to feel the devastating effects of the recession with income from this source falling 66% from FY08.  This means that grants to legal aid programs will be cut.

The Senate’s budget was more favorable to the Trial Court than the House budget, but the Senate’s appropriation of $544.3, is $15.1million, or 2.7% less than FY10.  This is not enough for the courts to meet the rising need for access to the courts.  This will undoubtedly mean even slower-functioning courts and delays in administering justice to the 42,000 citizens who use our state courts each day.

The Committee for Public Counsel Services (“CPCS”) did not fair as well in the Senate as they did in the House.  CPCS was funded at $166 million which is about $26 million less than what they got in the House budget.  The line item that was most underfunded for CPCS was the private counsel compensation line item which was funded at $28 million less than what the House provided.  We are talking about the attorneys who represent the majority of indigent criminal defendants, children and families, and people with mental illness.

Massachusetts is obligated to provide competent legal counsel to every indigent person charged with a crime punishable by imprisonment, and CPCS is the state agency that manages these responsibilities.  The size of the budget needed to fulfill this obligation is dictated by forces outside CPCS’s control, namely the number of cases that are assigned to the public and private divisions of CPCS by Massachusetts courts.

In order to ensure that private attorneys can continue to provide critical representation in our courts, the Senate needs to restore funding in the private counsel compensation line item to the amount that the House funded them.  Without adequate funding for private bar advocates, we will likely face a crisis of the sort which occurred in 2005, when hundreds of people were jailed without counsel because of inadequate funding for CPCS.

We know, the Commonwealth is facing tough economic circumstances and these are difficult funding decisions but fulfilling Constitutional requirements is not a discretionary item.

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