NYC And Municipal Leadership On Civil Justice

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at her State of the City address. (Photo: William Alatriste/NYC Council as reported in the New York Observer)

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at her State of the City address. (Photo: William Alatriste/NYC Council as reported in the New York Observer)

Despite the welcomed statewide “traffic court amnesty” in California, it remains clear that municipal governments are leading the way in providing civil justice leadership. The latest example comes from the Big Apple, where the city council has voted to create an “Office of Civil Justice” to connect poor people facing housing and other issues with attorneys.

New York Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has dubbed the proposal “the people’s law firm” and said in a press conference that “… limited access to an attorney means limited access to justice.” Ms. Mark-Viverito said today at a press conference before the Council’s vote on the bill. As the NY Observer reported, “… while plaintiffs in criminal cases are guaranteed lawyers, those in civil cases—which can include deportation, child custody and eviction proceedings—are not.”
Read more here.  

Another NBC I-Team Bombshell On Immigration Court Crisis

There must have been a memo. Another NBC station is breaking news on the immigration court crisis, with the New York affiliate reporting on a huge loophole for entering the U.S. The station’s in-depth coverage includes that “… according to court sources… [the source] is at least the 14th Amandeep Singh from the Punjab state of India to seek immigration help in Queens Family Court — a place better known for custody and child support cases. Singh tells a judge he was abused by his parents, starved and beaten with sticks. Although this may be completely true, judges say they have no investigative recourse. After one hour in court, Singh, who is undocumented and was smuggled across the border, was well on his way to getting a green card, permanent legal status and the right to work in the U.S.”
Read the story here.

Welcome To Juror Appreciation Week

A new study has found that about 30 percent of Los Angeles residents called for jury duty don’t bother showing up at all, and only about 20 percent of folks in the city participate actually participate in jury service. This as we celebrate “Juror Appreciation Week” in the Golden State.
A former city attorney, writing in the San Gabriel Valley newspaper makes a case for appreciation, noting that “… we can do better than that. According to the study, the statewide average of ‘no-show’ jurors is 20 percent… it only goes to show that Los Angeles has a way to go to be on par with jury service across the rest of the state.”
You can read the case for jury duty here.

First Marijuana RICO Case, Colorado Hotel Claims Lost Business in Civil Suit

Civil lawsuits continue to muddy the waters in states that have legalized marijuana, with a new Colorado case asserting that selling weed nearby has hurt business at a Holiday Inn. The Summit Daily News is reporting that “… nearly three months after two heartland states sued Colorado in federal court, a Frisco dispensary is now at the epicenter of the first-ever racketeering lawsuit filed against a marijuana business since the advent of legal weed.
On Thursday, the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Safe Streets Alliance named Medical Marijuana of the Rockies as one of 12 defendants in a federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) case.”
The newspaper said that “… Safe Streets sponsored the lawsuit in partnership with co-plaintiff New Vision Hotels, the Colorado Springs company that owns the Frisco Holiday Inn. Frisco is a tourist-intensive mountain town just west of Denver.
Also from the SDN: “This is really the only course of action left for the hotel,” said Brian Barnes, the plaintiffs’ spokesman and one of several attorneys working the case. “They weren’t sure of other options available to them, and the reality is that when people talk about marijuana being legal in Colorado, it is still illegal in the United States and selling marijuana is against the law. They have a legal right to not be injured by that activity.”
The Holiday Inn managers had previously asked the Frisco Town Council to deny the license to the marijuana merchants who wanted to operate about 75 yards from the hotel entrance. The SDN reported that “… hotel representatives argued that a prospective marijuana dispensary has already harmed business, citing cancellations from several youth ski teams after the town council debates made national news.”
Read the story here.

Congress’ Judiciary Committees Active On Civil Courts Issues

The congressional judiciary committees have been active in national civil justice issues, with the House Judiciary looking at “fairness in class actions” and the Senate Judiciary holding a hearing on civil asset forfeiture, which no doubt failed to entertain as much as HBO’s John Oliver did with his take-down of the issue.
One interesting note is that reformers are calling for “right to attorney” for people facing civil asset seizures, which can happen even if authorities never file criminal charges. The National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel explained it like this: “In response to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this morning relating to civil asset forfeiture reform, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (“a coalition of more than 200 national organizations”) issued a letter calling for, among other things, a right to counsel in all civil forfeiture proceedings.  Current federal forfeiture law provides a right to counsel only where the asset seized is the defendant’s primary residence.”
Rand Paul, U.S. Senator for Kentucky (official photo)

Rand Paul, U.S. Senator for Kentucky (official photo)

The website also noted that “… a number of people testifying at the hearing discussed the need for appointed counsel at these proceedings.  Sen. Rand Paul referred to his “Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act of 2014” that he introduced last year, which he said would provide counsel, and a representative from the Institute for Justice also called upon the provision of counsel to indigent defendants.”
On the House side, a bill under discussion would narrow who could directly participate in class action suits and require that “… only that a class be composed of members with “an injury of the same type and extent.” 
Read more on the Judiciary Committee website and the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel (NCCRC) website.

WSJ Documents Delay, Crisis In Federal Civil Courts

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that civil suits are piling up in the nation’s federal courts, leading to multiple-year delays in cases involving civil rights, personal injury and disputes over Social Security benefits. The Journal’s Joe Palazzolo notes that “… more than 330,000 such cases were pending as of last October—a record—up nearly 20% since 2004, according to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. The number of cases awaiting resolution for three years or more exceeded 30,000 for the fifth time in the past decade.”
Palazzolo singles out the federal court for California’s Eastern District as having  “a particularly deep backlog,” in part because the number of cases filed per judge, 974 last year, is almost twice the national average. More than 14% of civil cases in that district have been pending for three years or more.
A key quote from a California judge: “Over the years I’ve received several letters from people indicating, ‘Even if I win this case now, my business has failed because of the delay. How is this justice? [and] the simple answer, which I cannot give them, is this: It is not justice. We know it.”
It will surprise few that the challenge boils down to politics. Read the WSJ story here.

WSJ Story Notes Civil Gideon Trend

The Wall Street Journal is taking notice of momentum for a “civil Gideon” approach to lawsuits involving life-changing decisions, like foreclosure or family custody. The WSJ reports that the newly approved state budget “… allocated $85 million for indigent civil legal services at the request of the state judiciary, an increase of $15 million from the previous fiscal year.”
And in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio recommended in his preliminary budget proposal spending $36 million on free legal services in housing court, which would bring the city’s total spending on civil legal services up to about $50 million.
By way of background, the deep-dive WSJ story noted that the trend has a history of success and “… in 2009, California passed the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act, which created several pilot programs, supported by court fees, free legal counsel in civil cases. In its third year, the program has succeeded despite a modest $8 million annual budget, its coordinators say. More than 15,000 people have been served so far, most in eviction cases.
“One of the big takeaways is that attorneys help settle cases,” said Bonnie Hough, managing attorney for California’s Judicial Council. Read the story here: New York Officials Push Right to Counsel in Civil Cases

Civil Court Rationing Reaches Vermont

You can add Vermont to the list of states feeling the rationing pinch for court budgets, and like California two years ago and the rest of the country over time the civil courts are feeling the most pressure. The Vermont Association of Justice, a stakeholder group, wrote a letter to lawmakers outlining the challenge and noting that”… while abuse and other cases take priority, civil cases remain unresolved. Under the current conditions, attorneys warn clients that it will likely take 18 to 26 months before a judge hears a two-day civil jury trial. It may take as long as four months to schedule a three-hour-long case.”

A courts advocate offered this example: If an injured person is pursuing a case against a national insurance company, the insurance company can afford to wait. The injured person, however, is more likely to need the money sooner to pay for medical bills or other expenses. Instead of waiting for a court time, the insured person may agree to settle for less than their claim is worth.

Meanwhile, civil court delays are expected to get worse.

Read more here.

Judge Halts Obama’s Immigration Order

When President Obama took executive action on immigration policy, one concern was that legal action would delay or even halt his plans. That’s come to pass, with a federal judge in Texas blocking the action to give a 26-state coalition more time to pursue its lawsuit against the measures. The White House says it will appeal, but such is the danger of congressional inaction – we head to the executive branch and, eventually, the courts.
In response to the judge’s order, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said it would halt preparations for a program to protect parents of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents until further notice.
Read the Associated Press report here

Thousands Of Immigration Cases Delayed Until At Least 2019

The Dallas Morning News is reporting that “… thousands of immigrants seeking legalization through the U.S. court system have had their hearings canceled and are being told by the government that it may be 2019 or later before their futures are resolved.” The paper says that “… immigration lawyers in cities that absorbed a large share of those cases, including New York, San Antonio, Los Angeles and Denver, say they’ve had hearings canceled with little notice and received no new court dates. Work permits, green cards, asylum claims, and family reunifications hang in the balance.”
By way of background, the cancellations began began to skyrocket over the summer as the Justice Department prioritized the tens of thousands of Central American migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, most of them mothers with children and the high-profile arrival of unaccompanied minors.
The Dallas newspaper report quotes David Martin, a law professor at the University of Virginia who worked for two Democratic presidents, who “criticized Congress and the Obama administration for not funding more immigration judges.” He also told the paper that “… you fund more investigators, more detention space, more border patrol, almost all of these are going to produce some kind of immigration court case… you are putting a lot more people into the system. It’s just going to be a big bottleneck unless you increase the size of that pipeline.” Read the story here.