Sotomayor Sees ‘Injustice’ From Inadequate Legal Representation

Official Portrait of Justice Sonia SotomayorSOTOMAYOR ON LEGAL REPRESENTATION: Addressing law students in Wisconsin, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor voiced concern that in some areas of the justice system, there is a greater need to ensure adequate legal representation for people using the courts.

“For me, the lack of legal representation in some critical areas is one of the things we don’t do well,” she said, according to The (Milwaukee) Journal Sentinel. “We have an unequal representation of people in our court system. And that does I think provide an injustice that we have to pay more attention to.”

More specifics were reported by The (Madison) Capital Times: “Making the system fair also may demand publicly paid legal representation — already provided for criminal charges — be extended to civil matters such as those adjudicated in family court, and for criminal appellate issues, Sotomayor said.”

ELECTION DAY AND SUPREME COURT: “This November, we all need to be Supreme Court voters,” wrote Michele L. Jawando, vice president for Legal Progress Action at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, in The (Idaho Falls) Post Register. While Americans casting their votes on Election Day will confront many issues, “What happens with those issues often depends on who is sitting on the Supreme Court,” she said.

Given the current composition of the court and a vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, “The next president could dramatically change the nature of the U.S. Supreme Court for generations to come,” Jawando wrote.

‘STRAIGHT-TICKET VOTING’: The Supreme Court “refused to revive a Michigan law that barred straight-ticket voting,” a system “in which voters may choose a party’s entire slate with a single notation,” The New York Times reported.

KANSAS COURT ELECTION: An editorial in The New York Times turned a national spotlight on “extremist meddling” by Kansas Republicans seeking “to purge a majority of judges from the State Supreme Court” this fall. “Right-wing politicians who adhere to the fantasy that government is the problem, not the solution, are eager to politicize the courts,” the editorial said. The hot-button issues in the judicial retention (up-or-down) election were recapped in an Associated Press article.

Access to Justice Issues Raised by Tennessee Refugee’s Case

The Tennessean reports that Sawn Hing, a Burmese refugee who spent two years tangled in the criminal justice system after facing child abuse accusations, has had her case reopened. According to the article, the case raises questions about the Nashville court system’s ability to deal with its growing immigrant and refugee populations.

Saw Hing’s case was reopened after it emerged that Hing’s pastor, who was used in court proceedings to interpret and translate Hing’s rare language of Matu-Chin, didn’t actually speak the language or understand the legal terms in English.

With over 120 languages spoken in Nashville metro schools alone, immigrant advocates argue that the case highlights how cultural and linguistic differences are becoming an increasing barrier to accessing justice among immigrant and minority populations. (more…)

How One Family Court Judge Approaches Access to Justice

In communities that are magnets for immigrants, ensuring access to justice for people without much knowledge of English can be a challenge. A NPR Buffalo report from New York state illustrates how one judge is trying to meet the challenge.

In one Buffalo area, NPR says, “There are so many languages that Family Court Judge Lisa Bloch Rodwin has a a phone translation system for some tongues that no certified interpreter speaks locally. That’s why she is now on a statewide Advisory Council on Immigration Issues in Family Court, seeking to make the system work better.”

The report is headlined, “Courts adapting to challenges posed by growing immigrant populations.”

Judicial Term Limits Proposal Draws More Fire

Pundits are continuing to fault a proposed constitutional amendment for judicial term limits in Florida (see Gavel Grab). At the Vero Beach Press Journal, attorney Mark Miller says the proposal does not promote highly qualified senior judges, has not been well thought out and does not make sense.

It is not at all clear why sponsors of the proposal believe it is needed, writes Miller, vice president of the Martin County Bar Association, given that Florida voters have an opportunity every six years to remove a judge from the intermediate appellate or state Supreme Court bench.

“Those who have proposed to amend the Florida Constitution do not appear to have given this change the kind of thought and consideration that the people of Florida deserve,” he concludes. (more…)

Texas Commission to Address ‘Justice Gap’

A recent article bytexas court the Texas Tribune reports that a large number of mostly middle class Texans fall into a “justice gap” where they aren’t poor enough to receive free legal aid provided to indigents but can’t afford basic legal services on their own.

The article reports that the state’s highest civil court launched a new commission to identify and assist Texans who have fallen into the “justice gap.” “The 18-member Texas Commission to Expand Civil Legal Services, led by former Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, will spend the next year gathering data and coming up with recommendations to be presented in November 2016.”

In interview with the Tribune, Jefferson said, “one of the most famous phrases in American law is liberty and justice for all — it is part of our culture, it is part of our custom, it is part of the fabric of our democracy…one of the biggest challenges today is to make that phrase a promise and to make that promise a reality.”

“Today, even most lawyers cannot afford to retain another lawyer to represent them in civil legal disputes,” Jefferson said. “This is a crisis for the legal profession and for our state.”

Gov. Cuomo to Pick New Chief Judge for New York’s Top Court

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo will face a far-reaching decision when he chooses the next chief judge of the state’s highest court, from  seven candidates recommended by a vetting commission, a New York Times editorial says.

In discussing the appointment, the editorial lauds retiring Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman of the state Court of Appeals for his accomplishments.

“[H]is most lasting legacy could be his effort to provide lawyers for the thousands of low-income New Yorkers who face serious civil proceedings — from eviction and foreclosure to the loss of child custody — with no legal support at all,” the editorial says. It also mentions his efforts to make the court system more fair and transparent, to reform the state’s bail system and to cut wrongful convictions. 

Essay: On Marriage, Elected Judges Showing ‘Fear of Politics’?

Is there a difference between how state judges who are elected, and those who are appointed, address bans against marriage for same-sex couples? A Los Angeles Times op-ed by Billy Corriher of the Center for American Progress and Eric Lesh of Lambda Legal says there is a difference.

State high courts in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa and New Jersey have issued decisions in favor of marriage equality, as have judges in Hawaii and California, although ballot measures later overruled those judges’ rulings, the authors said. All of these judges were appointed, and, the authors added, “Like federal judges with life tenure, they felt at liberty to side with equal marriage rights for same-sex couples, even if in so doing they were siding against the majority.”

Elected judges in such states as Arkansas and Texas “have lagged behind for years, perhaps because they feel pressure to rule based on popular sentiment,” the authors said, and the justices in those states “seem to be avoiding a political controversy by delaying their rulings.” And elected justices in Alabama voted to defy a federal court order telling probate judges that same-sex couples have a right to marry. The authors concluded, with an eye on an ultimate ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court: (more…)

Short on Judges, New Jersey County Will Suspend Some Trials

When politics collides with selecting judges, the outcome can directly affect people who use our courts. The latest evidence of this concern comes from a article reporting the following:

“Scores of divorce and civil trials in Bergen County have been suspended indefinitely due to judicial retirements and an ongoing political battle between the governor and Democratic state senators.”

New Jersey requires Senate confirmation of the governor’s judicial nominees, similar to the federal method for picking judges, but its judges do not get lifetime appointments as federal judges do. Gov. Chris Christie is a Republican, and the Senate is controlled by Democrats. (more…)

Commentary: Has Corporate America Slashed Access to Justice?

Thousands of Americans no longer have access to justice when it comes to suing corporations, after a conservative legal movement has pushed hard for judicial restraint and a corporate lobby has pressed for “tort reform,” Lina Kahn of the New America Foundation writes at Washington Monthly. Kahn says:

“Two recent US Supreme Court rulings — AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion and American Express v. Italian Colors Restaurant have deeply undercut … centuries-old public rights, by empowering businesses to avoid any threat of private lawsuits or class actions. The decisions culminate a thirty-year trend during which the judiciary, including initially some prominent liberal jurists, has moved to eliminate courts as a means for ordinary Americans to uphold their rights against companies. The result is a world where corporations can evade accountability and effectively skirt swaths of law, pushing their growing power over their consumers and employees past a tipping point.” (more…)

'Open Season' on Defense Lawyers at Election Time?

When some U.S. Senate critics of the nominee for a top Justice Department post recently criticized his having represented a defendant convicted of killing a police officer, Justice at Stake spoke out about the resulting dangerous implications for citizens’ access to justice (see Gavel Grab).

Now a similar controversy is generating news headlines and debate. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has come under attack from some critics for her representation in 1975 of an indigent defendant accused of raping a 12-year-old girl. Regarding this criticism, attorney Jonathan Adler writes in the Washington Post, “It seems that election season is open season on defense attorneys.” Adler elaborates: (more…)