Our spring lobbying push

Issue May 2008

It is a busy legislative time of year for the Massachusetts Bar Association, not just at the Statehouse, but also at our nation’s capital. MBA General Counsel Martin Healy and I recently had the pleasure of traveling to Washington to visit with our congressional delegation as part of the American Bar Association’s Lobby Day.

It is fair to say that delegates from around the country were quite envious of our Massachusetts delegation, which also included representatives from the Boston Bar Association. On matters of support for legal services, pay for federal judges and juvenile justice and delinquency preven-
tion, we have a wonderfully supportive group of representatives and senators.

Our primary mission was to seek support for the Legal Services Corp. The legal services budget lags far behind that of decades ago, not just in inflation-adjusted dollars, but real dollars as well. The Bush administration has proposed cutting the budget, which was $350.5 million last year, to $311 million, which is less than LSC received in 1981. The ABA is urging an increase to $471.7 million, and the several congressmen we visited indicated they would be supportive of a budget in excess of $400 million. Leading the charge is Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who was already circulating a letter of support, collecting signatures from around the Capitol building.

We were also asking Congress to support meaningful pay raises for our federal judges, who have missed cost-of-living adjustments in most of the years since their last pay raise, which was in 1992. In inflation-adjusted dollars, this has amounted to a decline in judicial pay by 10.8 percent. Congress needs to do two things for our federal judges: raise their salaries and separate judicial pay from the budget for congressional pay. Congress hesitates to give itself a raise for political reasons. The judges should not be kept in the same political bind.

We also asked our delegation to support reauthorization and expanded funding of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. In addition to the delinquency prevention components of the program, the act serves an important mission to minimize the exposure of youthful offenders to adult offenders, and to get juveniles out of detention programs and into programs that return them to their families and their communities.

There were no dissenting voices heard in the offices we visited, and we are grateful not just for the time given to us by the representatives, both of our senators and their staff, but also for their unwavering support on issues of justice.

Locally, the budget battles are now beginning in earnest. We are encouraged by the early budget work in several respects. Gov. Deval Patrick filed a budget bill with significant increases for funding for bar advocates. Though the bill does not meet the Rogers Commission recommendations for increased pay across the board, it does fully fund the program instead of proposing a budget that will be obviously inadequate, and which would require a supplemental appropriation at year’s end. The net effect: While bar advocates may not see long overdue pay increases, at least next year’s bills will not wait months and months before they are paid.

Funding for the courts also received support from the governor’s office, including operations, security and construction. Unfortunately, judicial pay raises may fall victim to the weak economy, as no increase in salaries was proposed.

Once the budget moves through the House in the next couple of weeks, we are hopeful that the focus can be returned to some of our other legislative priorities. After many years of consideration at the committee level, the Massachusetts Probate Code (our version of the Uniform Probate Code) has moved out of the Judiciary Committee and has passed the important hurdle of the Policy and Steering Committee. It is destined for floor consideration and has a real chance of passage this year. The MBA Probate Section Council has dedicated many years to the success of this bill, and they deserve much credit, not only for drafting the bill along with representatives of the BBA, but for their persistent lobbying efforts on this issue.

We are also hopeful that some of the many criminal reform bills will see legislative action this year, though time is admittedly short. The MBA has been urging a broad group of reforms, including revising the school zone law and other drug laws which have mandatory minimum sentences, and which do not allow for meaningful parole. We are urging reforms in the CORI laws to ensure greater accuracy, limited access to non-conviction information, and provisions for earlier sealing of records to increase opportunities for employment. We are asking for greater funding of prison treatment and training pro-grams, and provisions for increased post-incarceration supervision through parole. All of these proposals should be cost-effective, while further reducing Massachusetts’ crime rate.

There are a couple of people at the MBA who you probably don’t know, but who are instrumental in our great successes at the Statehouse and in Washington. General Counsel Martin Healy, an employee of the MBA for nearly 20 years, has forged relationships with our state and federal representatives and senators that are invaluable. Marty’s right hand, Legislative Activities Manager Lee Constantine, tracks daily the progress of important legislation and budget matters and is always ready with the data we need to succeed. We are fortunate (me especially) to have them behind us on all of these important policy matters.