December 29, 2009

NEW YORK STATE BAR ASSOCIATION UNVEILS 2010 STATE AND FEDERAL LEGISLATIVE PRIORITIES

Preserving the Integrity of the Justice System, Securing Equal Legal Rights for Same-Sex Couples, and Improving Access to Justice Highlight State Bar's Advocacy Efforts on Behalf of the Public and the Legal Profession

As the New York State Legislature and Congress prepare for their respective 2010 legislative sessions, the State Bar Association today called on state and federal lawmakers to provide greater access to the justice system for the indigent, to protect the independence of the judiciary, to ensure that equal legal rights are afforded to same-sex couples, and to enhance the support of the legal profession, according to President Michael E. Getnick (Getnick Livingston Atkinson & Priore, LLP of Utica and of counsel to Getnick & Getnick of New York City).

"Advocating on behalf of the public and the legal profession remains a core mission of the State Bar," said President Getnick. "These difficult economic times make it all the more imperative that we do everything possible to ensure that each citizen obtains equal access to our justice system. In speaking out on these and other important state and federal issues, we are fulfilling our role as the chief proponent of the rule of law, promoting legal reform and facilitating the due administration of justice."

In addition to activities that support the legal profession at the state and federal level, each of the items listed represents a key legislative priority that has been approved and adopted by the State Bar Association's Executive Committee. The Association's state and federal legislative priorities for 2010 are:

State Legislative Priorities

1. Access to and Integrity of the Justice System. An independent, well-functioning judicial system, accessible to all, is a bedrock principle of our democracy. As New York now faces the challenges and limitations presented by a slowing economy, the Governor and Legislature must ensure that adequate resources are provided so that people of limited means have access to the courts and the courts are able to meet their essential role. The State Bar urges these state-level reforms:

  • Funding for Civil Legal Services for the Poor. For the courts to meet properly their essential role, all segments of society must have access. The State Bar continues its strong advocacy for adequate funding provided by a dedicated revenue stream to support civil legal services for the poor. Such funding would both protect individual rights and be cost effective.
  • Independent Indigent Defense Commission. Due to limited funding and the lack of statewide standards for handling cases, the current indigent defense system is under severe pressure. The right to the effective assistance of counsel is guaranteed by both the federal and state constitutions. The State Bar supports the creation of a statewide independent Indigent Defense Commission, with broad powers to adopt standards, evaluate existing programs and service providers, and generally supervise the operation of New York's public defense system.
  • Judicial Salary Reform for Judges of the State of New York. The salaries of New Yorkjudges were last adjusted in 1999, when they were brought into parity with salaries of federal district court judges. Since then, New Yorkjudicial salaries have fallen far behind those of federal judges, judges in other states and even behind the salaries of first-year associates in many large law firms. The State Bar will continue to urge the adoption of judicial salary reformas part of a program to provide adequate resources for the justice system.
  • Wrongful Convictions. In April 2009, the State Bar's House of Delegates approved the final report of the Task Force on Wrongful Convictions. The report made several legislative recommendations to reduce the occurrence of wrongful convictions, proposing changes with respect to: Government Practices, Witness Identification Procedures, Forensic Evidence, False Confessions, and Jailhouse Informants.

2. Equal Legal Rights for Same-Sex Couples. Under current state law, significant differences exist in the legal treatment of heterosexual couples, who are entitled to marry, and committed same-sex relationships in a wide range of matters such as property rights, financial support, responsibilities to children, health care, social security, long-term care, domestic violence, and access to the court system. In 2007 and again in 2009, the Assembly passed, and the State Bar supported, legislation that would have provided same-sex couples the opportunity to enter into marriages. The Association continues to support this legislation.

3. Support for the Legal Profession. The State Bar will continue efforts 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 State Bar will also work to ensure that attorneys are able to protect their clients' interests and effectively engage in the practice of law.

4. The Compact for Long-Term Care. The Compact would provide a fair and equitable way to finance long-term care for elderly and disabled persons in New Yorkand would promote their personal responsibility in bearing a fair share of their long-term care costs. After payment of that fair share by an individual, the government would provide a financial subsidy for additional long-term care services without requiring that the individual be impoverished. This initiative is designed to increase use of private funds for long-term care, but still maintain the safety net that Medicaid was intended to provide.

5. Uniform Mediation Act. The Uniform Mediation Act (UMA) establishes a standard process for mediation. Under the UMA, mediation would remain voluntary. Most important, the UMA would assure the confidentiality of mediation, thereby encouraging its use in resolving disputes. The increased use of mediation would reduce the costs for individuals and businesses in New York, and the demands upon the courts.

Federal Legislative Priorities

1. Access to and the Integrity of the Justice System. The State Bar urges the following federal legislative reforms to preserve the integrity of the justice system:

  • Funding for Civil Legal Services and Removal of Funding Restrictions. The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) provides grant funding to independent local legal services programs. Since 1996, Congress has approved and continued provisions that restrict how LSC grantees may expend both their LSC and non-LSC funds. The end result is that millions of dollars from state and local governments, private donors, and other non-LSC sources are restricted under the same terms as the LSC funds, which prevents legal service providers' clients from having access to the full range of legal tools available to clients of private attorneys. Congress should both adequately fund LSC and eliminate restrictions on the use of funds by legal services providers, especially restrictions on funds from sources other than the federal government.
  • Protection of the Attorney-Client Relationship. The attorney-client privilege is an essential element of the American system of justice, permitting candid discussions between clients and their lawyers.The Association supports the Attorney-Client Privilege Protection Act, which would protect the attorney-client relationship. The assurance that a client's conversations with his or her attorney are guarded by the staunchest protection remains an important priority for the State Bar.
  • Creation of Federal Judgeships. Once individuals obtain access to the justice system, it is important to ensure that their claims are resolved in a reasonable time-frame. Therefore, it is necessary to address the increased caseloads that burden federal courts. The State Bar supports the Federal Judgeship Act of 2009, which would establish a total of 63 new permanent and temporary judgeships across the country. The bill would provide for appointment of two additional permanent judges for the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, three additional permanent district court judges in New York (Southern District of New York (SDNY), Eastern District of New York (EDNY), and Western District of New York (WDNY)), and two additional temporary district court judges (SDNY and EDNY).

2. Repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The State Bar supports legislation that would extend federal recognition to same-sex marriages by repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, which was signed into law in 1996. The proposal would grant federal recognition to same-sex marriages entered into in any state that allows them. Such recognition would permit these couples to receive federal marital benefits, such as those available under the tax code or Social Security Act.

3. Support for the Reporter Shield Law (Free Flow of Information Act). In 2006, the Association called for a federal shield law to protect journalists from intrusive demands for information and documents obtained in the course of news gathering or reporting. Forty-nine states, including New York, have shield law protection. The protection of state laws is, however, seriously eroded if federal law does not afford similar protection. Congress should adopt a federal shield law modeled on the New York State Shield Law (Section 79-h of the state Civil Rights Law), with provisions substantially similar to those contained in the New Yorkstatute.

4. Reduction of Global Warming. In April 2009, the House of Delegates approved a report by the State Bar's Task Force on Global Warming relating to the implementation of a timely and cost-effective solution to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and to prepare for the inevitable impacts of climate change. The report concluded that climate change is the most prominent and important environmental issue of our time and that there is now a general consensus among the scientific community that there is a causal link between increased GHG levels and temperature, with related climate disruptions. Although specific actions may be taken by state and local governments, the State Bar supports federal government action consistent with the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, a proposal that advances energy and environmental policies largely aimed at reducing emissions of gases that contribute to global warming.

Founded in 1876, the 76,000-member New York State Bar Association is the official statewide organization of lawyers in New Yorkand the largest voluntary state bar association in the nation. The State Bar's programs and activities have continuously served the public and improved the justice system for more than 130 years. For more information, visit us at our Web site at www.nysba.org.