Lawyers Journal

Large class of freshman legislators to tackle budget, probation, alimony in 2011-12

The 187th General Court was sworn in on Jan. 5, including an unusually large group of 47 freshman legislators.

The coming months will indicate how the turnover of nearly one-quarter of the Legislature will impact the composition of legislative committees. These committees are charged with reviewing the approximately 6,000 bills that will be filed during the 2011-12 session. It is likely that a significant amount of committees will be infused with new blood, which could mean a new start for legislation that has languished for years.

This is the first year of the biennial session. They will meet formally throughout 2011 and will wrap up in November. The Legislature will begin meeting formally again in January of 2012 with all bills being carried over from 2011. The formal portion of the legislative session will end on July 31, 2012.

Budget

With a budget gap estimated at $1.5-$2 billion, the state budget will remain atop the legislative priority list. On Jan. 26, Gov. Deval Patrick released his budget, which calls for a 2 percent reduction in funding for an already strained judiciary.

Additionally, Patrick's budget recommends moving the Probation Department and the Parole Board under the auspices of the executive branch and merging them into one agency.

The governor also seeks control over the Committee for Public Counsel Services and wishes to move them within the purview of the executive branch. In a widely criticized move, he recommends the elimination of private bar advocates in favor of hiring 1,000 new public counsel lawyers within the agency.

The governor also filed a supplemental budget for fiscal 2011. Citing the SJC's Court Reform Study, i.e. "The Monan Committee Report," the Patrick proposes installing "a professional chief administrator" to helm the Trial Court, effectively ending the tenure of Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan. The chief administrator would be appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court for a term of five years. The supplemental budget now awaits action by the Legislature.

Probation/criminal justice

Two of the biggest news stories continue to be reform of the Probation Department and the Parole Board.

Following the report of Supreme Judicial Court-appointed independent counsel Paul Ware, which found "pervasive" patronage and hiring practices within the state's Probation Department, state officials continue to wrestle with ways to reform the department.

There are five different investigative authorities and two appointed commissions continuing to probe hiring practices within the department. The results of those investigations will undoubtedly result in proposed legislative changes this spring in to addition to the current proposal by the governor.

The Patrick administration launched an internal review of the Parole Board following the fatal shooting of Woburn Police Officer John Maguire by violent offender Dominic Cinelli, who was granted parole in 2008. That review resulted in the resignation of the five members of the parole board who voted in favor of Cinelli's release, and the Parole Board's executive director.

The review also resulted in the governor filing a "three strikes and you're out" law. If passed, this legislation would require habitual offenders to serve the maximum penalty on a third conviction from a list of "serious" crimes.

UPC

In one of the final acts of the 2009-10 legislative session, the effective date for the Uniform Probate Code was pushed to Jan. 2, 2012. The MBA is filing legislation making technical corrections to the UPC.

Alimony

The Legislature has tackled the emotionally packed issue of alimony awards. Responding to calls from an outraged public frustrated with the widely held perception that an award of alimony is tantamount to a life sentence of payments, the Legislature created a working group to explore the complex issue.

In October of 2009, the chairs of the Legislature's Joint Committee on the Judiciary appointed a task force to review the various alimony bills pending before the committee. The task force included legislators, Probate and Family Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey and representatives of: Massachusetts Alimony Reform, the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Women's Bar Association, the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys and the Boston Bar Association. The task force drafted legislation that will be considered during this legislative session.

After 14 months, and hundreds of hours conducting meetings, research and writing, the task force filed legislation in January to reform alimony in Massachusetts. Through this comprehensive legislation, the task force addresses numerous issues, and establishes parity and clarity regarding alimony in Massachusetts.

Malpractice reform

In his January inauguration address, Patrick indicated his desire to push for reform in the area of medical malpractice. At this time, he has not indicated how he wishes to achieve reform.

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