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January 15, 2009

STATE BAR ASSOCIATION UNVEILS 2009 LEGISLATIVE PRIORITIES

Promoting Greater Access to Justice for the Poor, Judicial Salary Reform, Equal Rights for Same-Sex Couples, Enhancing Support for the Legal Profession

As the State Legislature begins its 2009 legislative session this month, the State Bar urges lawmakers to provide greater access to the justice system for the poor, ensure equal rights for same-sex couples, increase judicial salaries, and enhance support for the legal profession, according to President Bernice K. Leber (Arent Fox LLP).  Each of these items represents key legislative priorities that have been adopted by the State Bar's Executive Committee.

 "Now, more than ever, as we face a new year with the financial markets still in crisis and the economy in a downward spiral, it is imperative that we work together to improve the justice system so that every citizen has an equal opportunity to receive quality legal representation and services," said Leber.  "If enacted into law, the State Bar's legislative priorities will strengthen the integrity of our courts, reward the best and brightest legal minds for their service to the judiciary, and enhance the public's trust and confidence in our justice system."

The State Bar's legislative priorities include:

1. Access to the Justice System.  "Access to justice" is a primary focus of the Association's legislative priorities.  The concept "Justice for All" distinguishes and defines us as a nation where freedoms flourish under the rule of law.  Yet, studies show that the essential legal needs of up to 85% of low-income New Yorkers are not met.  The State Bar urges these reforms:

• Funding for Civil Legal Services for the Poor.  The mortgage foreclosure crisis affects not only the poor but also, the middle class.  With nearly 40,000 foreclosure filings statewide in 2008, representing a more than 20 percent increase in filings from 2007, the proper funding has become urgent, because the middle class and poor require ancillary services such as consumer debt.   Despite the many pro bono hours attorneys provide to the indigent each year, funding is necessary to ensure access for them to the justice system.  Last year, despite the hard-fought restoration of millions of dollars that had been eliminated from the proposed Executive Budget, state-supported funding for civil legal services for the most vulnerable remains inadequate.  Adequate funding provided by a dedicated revenue stream is necessary and prudent.  Protecting our needy citizens will save countless dollars that will otherwise be required to be spent by government for social services, housing, consumer debt, and other programs.

• Independent Indigent Defense Commission.  Due to limited funding and the lack of statewide standards for handling criminal cases, the current indigent defense system is in crisis.  Because of the concern that constitutional standards are not being met in all circumstances, an independent Indigent Defense Commission should be established, with broad powers to adopt standards, evaluate existing programs and service providers, and generally supervise the operation of New York's public defense system.

2.  Judicial Salary Reform for Judges of the State of New York.  The salaries of New York judges were last adjusted in 1999, when they were brought into parity with salaries of federal district court judges.  Since then, New York judicial 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.  It is vitally important to have salaries that do not impose financial limits that might deter highly-qualified individuals from seeking judicial office, and to ensure that judges are fairly compensated on an ongoing basis. 

3.  Equal Legal Rights for Same-Sex Couples.  Under current state law, there are significant differences in the legal treatment of marital relationships 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, access to the court system, and other issues.  The Association recommends enacting legislation affording same-sex couples the ability to obtain the comprehensive set of rights and responsibilities now available to opposite-sex couples through a domestic partnership registry, civil unions, or an amendment to the statutory definition of marriage, with the selection of the appropriate option by the State Legislature.

4.  Support for the Legal Profession.  A core mission of the New York State Bar Association is to represent the interests of the legal profession.  Some actions and proposals unfairly target or burden lawyers.  The Association will oppose any such efforts and will work to ensure that attorneys are able to protect their clients' interests and effectively engage in the practice of law.  In that regard, the Association will work to protect the independence of the judiciary and promote affirmative legislative proposals that benefit the profession. 

5.  The Compact for Long-Term Care.  The proposal would provide a fair and equitable way to finance long-term care for elderly and disabled persons in New York by 
promoting personal responsibility on the part of the elderly and chronically disabled for a fair share of their long-term care costs.  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.

6.  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 resolve any question regarding the confidentiality of mediation and, therefore, the protection of attorney-client confidentiality.  The increased use of mediation would reduce the costs of disputes for individuals and businesses in New York, as well as demands upon the courts.

 The 76,000-member New York State Bar Association is the largest voluntary state bar association in the nation. Founded in 1876, the Association's programs and activities have continuously served the public and improved the justice system for more than 130 years.

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