With the aim of ensuring "Justice for All," the New York State Bar Association's 2012 legislative agenda calls for adequately funding the courts and legal services for the poor; protecting the innocent from wrongful conviction; extending Family Court services to older adolescents; simplifying the state's complicated court system; and updating laws governing nonprofit organizations.
"Ours is a common-sense agenda, intended to ensure our justice system protects the rights of all New Yorkers, rich and poor," said State Bar President Vincent E. Doyle III of Buffalo (Connors & Vilardo). "We seek to protect the innocent from being found guilty of crimes they did not commit, allowing the guilty to be free to commit more crimes. We recognize that 16- and 17-year-olds, accused of nonviolent crimes, are children and would be best served in family court. We renew our call for simplifying our court structure, whose complexity serves neither justice nor taxpayers," he said. "We urge the Governor and Legislature to act on these measures."
The New York State Bar Association's 2012 legislative priorities are:
Protecting the integrity of the justice system: Every day, New York courts resolve criminal cases, business disputes, family matters and other pressing legal concerns. In doing so, they perform a vital function in a free and stable society.
Adequate funding for our courts is essential. In the current economic climate, court caseloads have soared. However, during the past year, the Judiciary incurred significant budget cuts, employee layoffs and reductions in court operations. Nevertheless, the courthouse doors remained open to all New Yorkers. Although the doors were open, they were open for fewer hours, adversely affecting court operations. That is a finding of a recent New York State Bar Association statewide survey of judges, attorneys and others in all 13 judicial districts. Limited courthouse hours and staff reductions have created delays in resolving everything from child custody disputes to murder cases. The promise of "Justice for All" is strained because low-income litigants lack access to pro-bono coordinators who can help them find an attorney to represent them. Reductions in jury pools have taxed the system, which results in criminal defendants spending further delays resulting in criminal defendants spending more time in jail awaiting trials. Courthouse delays also add to the legal costs borne by litigants.
"Recent reductions in state court funding have been quite costly," our January 2012 report concluded. "Although state fiscal constraints are very real in this economy, additional and imminent investment in the state court system is necessary. It is necessary to restore a sense of confidence in the judicial system, which ultimately is priceless." The State Bar Association's "Report of the Executive Committee on the Impact of Recent Budget Cuts in New York State Court Funding" is available in its entirety at www.nysba.org/CourtFundingReport.
Improving the public defense system: Criminal defendants who cannot afford an attorney have the right to effective counsel under the U.S. and New York State constitutions. In 2010, the state Office of Indigent Legal Services was created because of concerns that constitutional standards were not always being met. We support sufficient funding for the office so that it can perform its mission of supporting the fair and efficient operation of New York's public defense system.
Funding civil legal services: In order for the courts to provide justice for all, it is important that low-income individuals have an attorney when facing serious civil legal problems, such as a family breakup, apartment eviction, home foreclosure and denial of social service benefits. State funding for civil legal services for the poor remains inadequate. Adequate funding provided by a dedicated revenue stream is necessary and prudent. The Judiciary's proposed 2012-13 budget recognizes the substantial unmet need for civil legal services and includes $25 million to supplement other funding to address the need. Investing resources to promptly protect individual rights will save substantial dollars that otherwise would be spent by government for social services, housing and other programs.
Preventing wrongful convictions: No person should spend a day in prison for a crime he or she did not commit. Our criminal justice system must ensure that the innocent remain free and the guilty are not free to commit additional crimes. To achieve this objective, the Association has drafted a package of bills intended to eliminate some common causes of wrongful convictions. The bills would: establish a procedure for police officers to follow when conducting eyewitness identifications; authorize those who have pleaded guilty to ask the court to order a DNA; provide strengthened financial remedies for individuals who were wrongfully convicted; confirm the validity of evidentiary treatment of informant testimony; mandate electronic recording of custodial interrogations; and better enforce the obligation of prosecutors to disclose exculpatory material.
Protecting children during custodial interrogations: The Association's proposal for requiring recording of custodial interrogations is even more imperative when a child is the subject of an interrogation. Children often lack the maturity and judgment to understand the potentially life-altering consequences of statements they make during an interrogation. Therefore, the Association has proposed a bill to specifically require the recording of custodial interrogations of children.
Raising the age of criminal responsibility: New York is one of two states that prosecutes 16-year-old children accused of nonviolent crimes as adults. Being convicted of a nonviolent crime can affect an individual's future education or employment. However, research demonstrates that children- even as old as 16 and 17- have significantly diminished judgmental capabilities, compared with those of adults. By increasing the age of criminal responsibility to 18, adolescents could benefit from programs and services available for children found to be delinquent in Family Court.
Revising the Not-For-Profit Corporation Law: New York has thousands of not-for-profit organizations, including foundations, charities, hospitals, social service agencies, colleges, museums and religious organizations. They are vital to the well-being of our people and the economy. The Not-For-Profit Corporation Law should be modernized to encourage organizations to incorporate and maintain their investment assets in New York; to reduce unnecessary burdens; and to streamline nonprofit governance in a manner consistent with meaningful oversight. The proposal also would make the statutory framework for non-profit corporations and business corporations more consistent.
Reorganizing and simplifying the state court system: New York has one of the most complex and cumbersome court systems in the nation. It has nine major trial courts, plus town and village courts. A core problem is the existence of many courts with limited jurisdiction. More than 4 million new cases are filed each year. With burgeoning caseloads, problems and inefficiencies have increased because of the confused and, sometimes, overlapping jurisdiction of multiple courts. Adoption of a simplified two-tier state trial court structure would enhance the public's understanding of the court system and permit all aspects of a matter to be heard in a single court. It also would save money for taxpayers as well as litigants. Accomplishing this goal will require amending the state Constitution.
Supporting the legal profession: A core mission of the New York State Bar Association is to represent the interests of the legal profession. In that regard, the Association will work to protect the independence of the Judiciary, enhance access to the courts, promote affirmative legislative proposals that benefit the profession, and oppose those proposals that would burden it. The Association will work to ensure that attorneys are able to protect their clients' interests and effectively engage in the practice of law.
The 77,000-member New York State Bar Association is the largest voluntary state bar association in the nation. It was founded in 1876.
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