NY Passes ‘Aspirational’ Civil Gideon Measure

Here’s another civil Gideon milestone: New York’s senate and assembly have passed a non-binding “policy” of providing legal assistance to “persons in need of the essentials of life,” becoming the first state to take such action to provide civil representation. San Francisco and other cities have some level of civil Gideon programming.
The resolution was suggested in a 2014 report to Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman by the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services, to make the case for increasing available state funding for civil legal services over the past five state budgets.
Read more here.

Housing Rules Yet Another Huge SCOTUS 5-4 Decision


Photo from CNN report: Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court

Photo from CNN report: Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court

Obamacare and same-sex marriage naturally dominated attention over recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, but a huge housing issue also got a 5-4 ruling that leans toward the court’s liberal side. The court, in effect, re-affirmed a federal law passed in 1968 to combat housing discrimination by, as CNN explained, “… holding that the law allows not only claims for intentional discrimination but also, claims that cover practices that have a discriminatory effect, even if they were not motivated by an intent to discriminate.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the 5-4 opinion for a closely divided Court concerning the scope of the Fair Housing Act. He noted that “… much progress remains to be made in our nation’s continuing struggle against racial isolation.” His opinion was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer.
Opponents including the state of Texas argued that the law punished outcomes without any intent of harming anyone, and actually injects more, not less, race into housing development decisions.
Read the CNN coverage here.

Monitor Publisher Offers High Praise For Plaintiff’s Research

In her most recent Huffington Post column, the Courts Monitor publisher offers strong praise for a byproduct of litigation – research. She also notes that lightening is more likely to hit your home than you might think and that the natural gas pipes used in building need a strong reform movement. Check it out here.


How A $100 Traffic Ticket Grows To A $495 Fine

The Bakersfield.com news website has a good breakdown of why California is in the middle of a traffic-fine rebellion, with millions of drivers going unlicensed and emergency measures halting the practice of forcing payment before allowing people to contest their tickets. 
Milt Younger. Photo: The Bakersfield Californian.

Milt Younger. Photo: The Bakersfield Californian.

Milt Younger, a longtime attorney writing for the op-ed page, explained that a hypothetical “$100 ‘average” ticket will actually cost a driver $490. Even tickets in the $25 range, for example for failing to notify the DMV within 10 days of moving, will swell to $196. Do the math on how much a $300, or $1,000 ticket will cost.”
The additions have to do with the array of fees added over the years. For example, the “state penalty assessment” is $10 for every $10 of base fine and something called a “conviction assessment” is another $35 while the “county fund” is $7 for each $10 of base fine.
It’s a good argument for starting over. Check it out here.

Traffic ‘Debtors Prison’ Decried As California Courts Struggle

The San Diego Reader has a story up about how Orange County created a revenue-generating operation from traffic fines, collecting “bail” up front to both discourage challenges and assure court attendance. As with other areas around the nation, the traffic court has become a focal point in both terms of race and ability to pay.
Ken Harrison’s story in the Reader quotes Bill Niles, president of the California Traffic School Association, saying, “This was unconstitutional. Nobody should have to pay the fine before seeing a judge. People have had their cars taken away and their driver’s licenses suspended just because they couldn’t pay the fines. It was like debtors’ prison.”
Read the story here.

NYT Gives Family Detention Camps Front-Page Status

The Sunday New York Times gave migrant detention centers front-page treatment, profiling a big camp in Texas. Activists will no doubt note that the report does not mention the context of the detentions – nearly a half-million migrants await their day in immigration court – or that the “courts” are actually administration employees and part of the justice department.
But there is some notice taken on the lack of lawyers and that some people languish because they can’t post the “bond” to get out. The one amount noted in the report was $1,500.
Says the NYT: “While the number of people crossing the border illegally has dropped sharply this year, families continue to come. Since Oct. 1, more than 17,000 parents and children have been caught along the Southwest border, according to official figures. At the Dilley camp, more than half the detainees are children. Their average age is 9… The centers were designed to hold the women while they fight their cases in the immigration courts, part of the administration’s expansion of family detention to more than 3,000 beds nationwide, from only 95 a year ago.”
We will see if the NYT treatment is enough to make the issue a priority. Read the story here.

Civil Court Watchers Turn Attention To Kansas

In what is shaping up as an historic political showdown, civil court watchers are looking toward Kansas. That’s where Gov. Sam Brownback is, in effect, saying that if a state court strikes down a 2014 law that removed some judicial powers, he will halt court funding.
The New York Times explains that “… the 2014 law took the authority to appoint chief judges for the district courts away from the Supreme Court and gave it to the district courts themselves. It also deprived the state’s highest court of the right to set district court budgets. Critics said the law was an attempt by Mr. Brownback, a Republican, to stack the district courts with judges who may be more favorable to his policies.”
It’s getting uglier by the day. Check out the NYT coverage here.

California Eyes Emergency Rules On ‘Pay-To-Play’ Traffic Courts

The Golden State legislature is among governments statewide considering rapid reforms to traffic court policies in the wake of unrest in places like Furguson, Mo., that spotlighted how some policies send minority residents into a spiral of debt and fees that can lead to jail – usually without any real legal representation along the way.
California lawmakers this week are considering “emergency rules” that, the L.A. Times explains, “… would make it easier for drivers to contest traffic tickets — but will do nothing to help those already saddled with fines and fees they cannot afford to pay, according to lawyers and court officials. The state has added on charges that make the cost of a routine traffic ticket nearly $500, an amount that rapidly inflates when deadlines are missed. Although state courts charge people many fees — raised during the budget crisis — to use the legal system, the outcry has been loudest in the traffic arena.”
The LAT noted that “… lawyers representing the poor have complained that judges in some counties have been requiring drivers to pay the fines as a condition of contesting them, a practice that California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye called “pay to play” and vowed to stop.”
Nearly 5 million California drivers have had their licenses suspended because of an inability to pay fines, officials say.
Read the L.A. Times story here.

Lawyers’ Self-Regulation Question Is Part Of Newspaper’s Reporting

The Modesto Bee is reporting on state bar action against 28 attorneys in the newspaper’s reporting area, but those complaints also raise the question of how the legal profession will be regulated – in short, if it can remain a self-policing profession.
As an example, the newspaper says that “… the University of San Diego School of Law, the Consumers Union and the Citizen Advocacy Center sent a May 4 letter to attorneys general of all states warning that state bars are ‘theoretically vulnerable to federal felony prosecution’ unless their enforcement system is overseen by others. Occupational licensing boards that regulate accountants, doctors, brokers, barbers and other trades don’t serve the public interest if regulated by themselves, the consumer advocates say.”
Read the Bee’s story here.

State’s Chief Justice Seeks Emergency Rule On Tickets

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye (Photo: California Courts)

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye (Photo: California Courts)

You can add California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye to those supporting Gov. Brown’s push for reforming traffic tickets. The Chief Justice is asking the court’s governing body for an “emergency rule” to prevent courts from requiring drivers to pay traffic tickets before they can go to court to contest them.
The Los Angeles Times, saying the Chief Justice was “… weighing in on a troubled system” explains that “… her directive, issued Monday, comes as legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown tackle the issue of escalating traffic fines, fees and penalties that have led to driver’s license suspensions for 4.8 million Californians.” The situation has grabbed headlines around the nation as communities take hard looks at how they treat traffic citations, which have become a revenue stream for many places.
Read the L.A. Times story, reported from San Francisco, here.