June 18, 2018: State Bar Association Creates Section on Women in Law, Calls for Mandated Counsel Rate Increases and Exemption of Puerto Rico from Merchant Marine Act Provisions

The New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) House of Delegates voted on June 16 to create a Women in Law section, building on the work of NYSBA’s long-time Committee on Women in Law. The actions were taken at the Bar Association’s quarterly meeting in Cooperstown, New York.

The House of Delegates also approved a report and resolution calling for an increase in the rates paid to private attorneys providing mandated representation for those who cannot afford to pay counsel, and approved a report recommending Congressional action to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, known as the Jones Act. 

“In its 32 years, the Committee on Women in the Law has attained a remarkable record of achievement in serving women in our profession and society,” said NYSBA President Michael Miller. “We are excited about the opportunity through the section to involve so many more and do so much more to address the many issues impacting women today.”

“We are also pleased that NYSBA’s House of Delegates took action on two other important issues –the need to increase compensation rates for attorneys who represent those who cannot afford to pay for their own representation and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico resulting from Hurricane Maria,” Miller added. He recently established a NYSBA Working Group on Puerto Rico, to look at ways to assist the island’s residents through enactment or modification of laws.

New Women in Law Section
As a result of House of Delegates approval, the transition of the Committee on Women in the Law (CWIL) to a section provides increased opportunities for all NYSBA members to participate in its work and the resources necessary to allow for expansion of its initiatives. NYSBA members can join sections in their fields of practice or interest, while committee membership is limited. 

The mission of the Women in Law Section is to identify, study and make recommendations to address gender bias and law-related issues affecting women, with a focus on the general public and women in the legal profession. The section plans to expand on its programming, networking, mentoring, educational resources, best practices, legislative action and related advocacy.

In a presentation to the House, CWIL Chair Susan L. Harper said that numerous requests for involvement have been received from members and prospective members. She noted that recent national and state developments such as the increase in the number of women in the legal profession since CWIL was formed more than three decades ago; the #MeToo movement; significant legislative efforts in recent years to protect and support women rights and achieve gender parity in the workplace; and the legal profession’s focus on inclusion and diversity to attract, build and retain female attorney talent and leadership make now an ideal time to convert the committee to a section.

Need to Increase Rates paid to Counsel for Mandated Representation
The report of the NYSBA Criminal Justice Section and Committee on Mandated Representation noted that the rates paid to assigned counsel under Article 18-B of County Law in New York State have not been changed since 2004. Since then, the state established the Office of Indigent Legal Services (ILS) and funding in the state budget has been designated to reimburse local governments for improvements in provision of services, but ILS is not authorized to modify assigned counsel rates. In federal court, the judicial conference is authorized to make such modifications and has adjusted rates regularly for the past 16 years. 

The resolution approved by the House urges enactment of legislation to increase rates for all assignments defined by NYSBA’s 2015 Revised Standards for Providing Mandated Representation in situations of financial hardship: (a) persons accused of an offense punishable by incarceration; (b) entitled to representation under Family Court Act §249, §262 or §1120; Judiciary Law §35 including child custody and habeas corpus cases; Article 6-C of the Correction Law; Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act 407; Executive Law §259-I; and County Law §717; and (c) otherwise entitled to counsel by constitutional, statutory or other authority. 

The House measure also calls for:
• The rates to be comparable to a percentage increase of judicial and elected district attorney salaries;
• An annual review process and adjustment using a formula similar to that of the federal Criminal Justice Act; and 
• The increased rates to be at state expense, not through unfunded mandates to the localities.

Support for Exemption of Puerto Rico from Jones Act
The House approved the report and recommendations of the New York City Bar, presented by NYCBA President Roger Juan Maldonado, to urge Congress to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from the Merchant Marine Act.

Known as the Jones Act, the law requires that cargo shipped between two ports within the United States must be transported on vessels that meet certain registration requirements. Exemptions already exist for other U.S. territories, including the Virgin Islands and American Samoa. The Jones Act does not apply to foreign shipments. The law was originally enacted to ensure that domestic ships would be available to support the U.S. military during war.

Imposing these restrictions causes Puerto Rico to experience increased shipping costs from the U.S. mainland for food, fuel and other basic goods. As a result, trade with the mainland U.S. is discouraged and Puerto Rico has extensive imports from foreign countries.

The report contends that:
• The justifications for imposing the Jones Act restrictions on Puerto Rico do not outweigh the substantial costs that this island economy incurs under these provisions;
• The 10-day Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico made in the wake Hurricane Maria was insufficient; and
• A permanent waiver would be a way for Congress to provide much-needed help to Puerto Rico’s economy.

About the New York State Bar Association
The New York State Bar Association is the largest voluntary state bar association in the nation. Since 1876, the Association has helped shape the development of law, educated and informed the legal profession and the public, and championed the rights of New Yorkers through advocacy and guidance in our communities.

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Contact: Dan Weiller
Managing Director of Marketing and Communications
dweiller@nysba.org
518/487-5500