Tag Archives: reform

State House Update

With less than 8 weeks left for formal legislative sessions, the Legislature’s focus has shifted away from the state budget and onto other, significant policy issues.  Last week two conference committees were named to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions of the state budget and the court reorganization bill.  This week the Judiciary Committee heard testimony on two bills of importance to the BBA.  Here’s a snapshot of some of the things we’re keeping our eyes on.

Court Reorganization Bill in Conference

The Court Management Conference Committee has been appointed to come up with a single version of H 3395 and S 1911.  In May, both the House and Senate advanced the court reorganization bills with unanimous votes.  While both bills would split trial court oversight between civilian court administrators and judicial managers and impose stricter hiring standards with wide reforms relative to job recommendations, there are differences between the bills.  For instance, the Senate’s bill eliminates several new management positions proposed by the House bill.  The six members of this conference committee are Senators Creem, Joyce and Tarr and Representatives O’Flaherty, Dempsey and Winslow.

State Budget in Conference

With budget deliberations complete in both branches, the Budget Conference Committee, the group tasked with negotiating the differences into a single budget bill, met for the first time on Wednesday.  The final budget has to be in place by July 1st, but their work must be resolved before that in order for Governor Patrick to have the required statutory 10 days to review the budget proposal and offer amendments and vetoes.  The six members of the Budget Conference Committee are Senators Brewer, Baddour and Knapik and Representatives Dempsey, Kulik and deMacedo.

June Judiciary Hearing

Yesterday the Judiciary Committee held a public hearing lasting nine hours in a packed Gardner Auditorium.  The BBA participated in the hearing by supporting two bills on the agenda.  The BBA submitted written testimony in support of the Transgender Equal Rights bill, joining with advocates from theMassachusetts chapter of the ACLU.  The Transgender Equal Rights bill will extend explicit protection in discrimination and hate crimes cases to transgender people.

The second piece of legislation, S 753 and H 2165 the Access to DNA bill, will provide post conviction access to DNA evidence.  David E. Meier, Martin F. Murphy, Gregory J. Massing, and David M. Siegel, all experts in the criminal justice system and members of the BBA Task Force to Prevent Wrongful Convictions, testified on behalf of the BBA in support of legislation that would put in place a mechanism for post conviction DNA evidence testing.  The panel discussed their work on the Task Force, presented the need for this statute and set the stage for a group from the New England Innocence Project which followed with compelling stories of how Massachusetts’ lack of an access to DNA testing statute has harmed them.

Betty Anne Waters shared her story.  Her brother Kenny was wrongfully convicted of murder and robbery in 1983, and spent 18 years in prison while Betty Anne earned her college and law school degrees in order to represent and exonerate him.  The Committee also heard from Dennis Maher who was wrongfully convicted of two rapes and an attempted rape.  Dennis was sentenced to 20 to 30 years in prison but was finally released after DNA proved he did not commit those crimes.  Dennis’ Op Ed describing what happened to him appeared in yesterday’s Boston Herald.

Alimony Reform Moves Favorably from Judiciary

The Alimony Reform Act, S 665, was reported favorably by the Judiciary Committee last week.  It is expected that the House will debate the bill next Wednesday.  The bill will move on to the Senate soon after the House finishes its debate.  You can read more about the BBA’s efforts on the Alimony Reform Act from our coverage here on Issue Spot.

Human Trafficking Bill Moves to the Senate

One bill that the BBA is watching but has not yet taken an official position on is the Human Trafficking bill.  This bill would establish state crimes of human trafficking and has already passed the House.  Attorney General Martha Coakley and Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley have been champions of this legislation.  Our Criminal Law Section began discussing this issue after the AG outlined her legislative priorities at a BBA program held in early April.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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Hearing the Call for Alimony Reform

“Fair,” “Predictable,” “Balanced,” and “Much Anticipated” were the words used to describe An Act to Reform and Improve Alimony, at yesterday’s Judiciary Committee hearing in standing room only Gardner Auditorium. For the BBA, which has worked long and hard on this issue, it was a day that underscored the difference practicing attorneys can make when they volunteer their time to help draft fair and impartial legislation.

Senator Candaras and Representative Fernandes could not have been more gracious in their praise of those lawyers who endured fourteen months of marathon sessions in an effort to craft an impartial and fair law.  The BBA’s Family Law Section Co-Chair, Kelly Leighton, was the BBA’s liaison to the 14-person Legislative Alimony Task Force that worked for months behind closed doors on this legislation.

Through their public testimony, members of the Task Force described the process and what it would mean to divorcing parties inMassachusetts.  And we learned what happened in those private meetings yesterday.  Kelly Leighton testified that “the only thing we could agree on at the start of the process was that the law needed to be changed.”  It was emphasized that nobody got everything they sought and everyone gave up something they wanted.

The Task Force fittingly gave credit to the leadership of both Senator Candaras and Representative Fernandes.  They assembled representatives from groups often at odds on this issue and managed to get them to work towards a simple goal – making the Massachusettsalimony law better.  Also at the table at those meetings was Chief Justice Paula Carey of the Probate and Family Court.  Her guidance was critical to the process.  She was generous with her time and the Task Force was careful to not recommend anything that would adversely impact the Probate & Family Court.

The Task Force didn’t just spin their wheels…they did real work.  They incorporated divergent views and different perspectives to produce what has been heralded as a landmark statute that will modernize the laws guiding alimony payments and grant judges more discretion in their decisions.

Senator Candaras interpreted the participation of the individuals on the Task Force as an opportunity to serve.  She described it as a great experience and recognized the participants for generously donating hundreds of hour of professional time.  Now the Legislature must pass this bill.   With its broad support there’s buzz that it could happen this spring.

Yesterday’s hearing also focused on other issues near and dear to the BBA – including  the repeal of the adopted children statute (H 2262), the Massachusetts Uniform Trust Code (H 2261 and S 688) and technical corrections to the Massachusetts Probate Code (S 733).  I was impressed with the attention the members of the Judiciary Committee gave to each person who was called to testify and I was especially impressed with our own members who sat for hours listening to others testify on the various issues on yesterday’s agenda.  Our last bill to be heard, the technical corrections to the probate code, was called at 6:30 p.m. – five and a half hours after the hearing started.

Advocacy is a long process involving many talented volunteers, thoughtful legislators and lengthy hearings.  This is what defines life in a constitutional democracy.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

BostonBar Association

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BBA Testifies on Probation Reform

The most seasoned of lobbyists will tell you there’s no way to predict how any one legislative hearing will play out, regardless of how much time you have dedicated to advocating on the issue at hand. These marathon hearings are held in small rooms that are packed with people and video cameras. Hours can pass before you have an opportunity to testify — even if you were the first person in the hearing room.  Sometimes there is a full complement of legislative members engaged and asking lots of questions while other times members are rushing out in response to a roll call to vote on some unrelated matter and you’re lucky if you find yourself talking to one lone legislator.

On Wednesday, BBA President Don Frederico and Jack Cinquegrana testified before the Massachusetts Judiciary Committee at a public hearing held on legislation related to reforming the Probation Department.  The hearing room was filled with judges and probation officers.  At the same time the House was in the middle of debating a $325 million supplemental spending bill.  Amid the BBA’s testimony, not one but two separate roll calls occurred, emptying the panel except for a few Senate members.

During his testimony, BBA Past President Jack Cinquegrana explained that part of the problem faced by the Probation Department stems from inefficient sentencing guidelines that prevent successful re-entry into the community.  Following his remarks, Senator Thomas McGee thanked the BBA for bringing attention to that piece of the probation puzzle.

Every chance to be heard on our position is useful, whether it is one-on-one with a legislator, at a public hearing or in a written statement.  Being given an opportunity to offer our probation principles as the Legislature considers the issue is part of the process, and we will continue to participate in that process.

Speaker Robert DeLeo set probation reform as a priority earlier this year saying he wanted it dealt with “early in the session and as expeditiously as possible.”  Rahm Emmanuel once said, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste….it’s an opportunity to do things you couldn’t do before.”  Still Judiciary Committee Chairman Eugene O’Flaherty provided a different take at yesterday’s hearing: “As one individual legislator I am not looking at this in terms of the alleged crisis…I don’t respond to alleged crises.  This is going to be done in a deliberative way.”

Regardless of the reasons that probation reform has been made a priority, this is an opportunity to restore the department to the national model it was in the 1990’s.  Progress is already being made under new Commissioner Ron Corbett.

 

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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BBA Will Make its Voice Heard Re: Probation Reform

The Boston Bar Association (“BBA”) is often asked why we weigh in on some topics and not on others.  The short answer is we are interested in speaking up on issues that have an effect on the practice of law or the administration of justice.  In reality, it’s not that simple.  Getting to the point where we can voice our opinion or share our position involves a careful process.  Sometimes that process is anticipatory while other times it is reactive.

For example, last week’s blog post described one instance where the BBA was pre-emptive and got out front on an issue.  Our members identified an area, updating state consumer debt collection regulations, in which their expertise could be put to use.  Almost all of the recommendations our members made were adopted by the Attorney General’s Office and they are now in the process of promulgating the new regulations.

Next week, on March 30th, the BBA will testify before the Judiciary Committee at a public hearing on probation.  In this instance, the BBA’s involvement has consisted of a measured review and response to the legislation filed by Governor Patrick in January.  This legislation was filed in the wake of the patronage scandal in the Massachusetts Probation Department and the tragic murder of Woburn police officer John Maguire.  Following the death of Officer Maguire, there was a loud and justifiable clamor for immediate review and reform of the department.

The reason the BBA decided to step into the debate is that the proper management and governance of probation is vitally important to the administration of justice.  The final probation reform legislation is sure to have a significant impact on the practice of law and the administration of justice in Massachusetts.

Once the governor’s legislation was filed, BBA President Don Frederico appointed a Council-level study group consisting of a wide range of federal and state prosecutorial and public defense experience.  After weeks of review, which included meeting with experts in the field, thoughtful study and debate, the BBA Council endorsed the study group’s position articulating the guiding principles that the BBA believes any probation reform legislation should be based on.

The study group never set out to correct all of the problems identified in the Ware Report.  Instead, it recognized that there is no one way to solve these issues.  The Legislature needs the freedom to install a system that remedies the problems plaguing the department.

This recent crisis provides an opportunity to make critical changes to the Probation Department.  The BBA hopes that the study group’s principles will help shape criminal justice reform and lead to a more efficient department while improving public safety.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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We’re Making Progress in Debt Collection Reform

As a membership organization with nearly 10,000 members, issues of public policy and opportunities to comment and suggest reforms routinely present themselves to the Boston Bar Association (BBA).  The BBA Council has adopted policy positions on a wide variety of issues.  Once a position has been approved, many of our members wonder, “What now?”

The answer usually depends on timing – the timing of Council approval in relation to what the Legislature is focusing on at that particular moment.  The salience of an issue often dictates how much traction it will have in the Legislature and other governmental agencies.  Unfortunately, forecasting what will capture the attention of government officials is more of an art than a science.  So advancing BBA positions demands patience and perseverance.

Just one example. . .When word came to the BBA last Friday that the Attorney General was submitting proposed updates to its Debt Collection Regulations to provide stronger consumer protections, we were thrilled.  As noted in Issue Spot last August, the BBA’s Consumer Finance Committee wrote a report proposing updates to the current regulations to reflect the real world today.

Many of the proposed updates submitted by the BBA group are found in the proposal submitted by the Attorney General’s Office.  These changes will provide substantial relief for debtors that have been subjected to unfair collection practices not covered by the current regulations.

Before the regulations are updated, there is a comment period and a hearing scheduled on May 18th.  Members of the BBA Consumer Finance Committee will present testimony on the Attorney General’s proposal to express the BBA’s support for these important modernizations of debt collection practices.  The BBA is proud to work with the Attorney General’s Office and all other agencies where the expertise of our membership can be useful.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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Finance Reform is Important for Consumers

As announced in this week’s BBA Week, the Consumer Finance Working Group is now the Consumer Finance Committee.  The Committee will review consumer finance products and assess recent problems that have arisen.  Composed of lawyers who practice in the Massachusetts state courts and in the federal court, and who represent both creditors and debtors, the timing of the group’s work could not be better as national attention has focused on matters of consumer protection.

Just last month, Attorney General Martha Coakley joined President Barack Obama as he signed into law the historic financial reforms included in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010.  That bill creates the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to help protect consumers when they make investments, take out mortgages, and use credit cards.

Here’s a snapshot at what the BBA has been doing in this area.

Since Spring 2008, the BBA’s Consumer Finance Working Group has been looking at several issues including the proliferation of deceptive “loan modification programs” on the radio and Internet, and the explosion in consumer medical debt and issues with consumer medical debt collections.  Adam Ruttenberg and Andrew Dennington, co-chairs of the Consumer Finance Working Group and now of the Consumer Finance Committee, focused their efforts on amending the Attorney General regulations on consumer debt collection after meeting members of the AG’s Consumer Protection Division.  The group proposed amendments to the AG regulations which would largely track the more modern federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and recent revisions of Massachusetts Division of Banks regulations regarding activities by licensed debt collectors.  These amendments were included in the First Report of Consumer Finance Working Group and will ensure that debt collection practices that are unfair or deceptive when conducted by a licensed debt collector, will likewise be unfair or deceptive when performed by a creditor. 

After the BBA Council approved the Report and the recommendations at its July meeting, they were submitted to the Attorney General’s office.  Building upon the momentum generated by the First Report, the new Consumer Finance Committee held their first official meeting on August 10th to explore options for their next project.  In the meantime, on September 15th the Consumer Finance Committee will co-sponsor a CLE on the implementation of the new consumer protection legislation.  The CLE will feature a panel discussion on topics such as the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, enhancement of bank-affiliate and bank-insider transaction restrictions, and anti-predatory lending provisions.

– 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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