On The Merits
We’ve commented frequently in this space that the media often don’t get the full story correct when discussing legal issues and the hows and whys of lawyers and judges. To be fair, we should also note that lawyers, of course, aren’t necessarily all that good at dealing with the media, either. Most attorneys have sparse contact with the media, and virtually none of us have ever been trained to deal with the press in high-profile cases.
Case in point: the newly-appointed lawyers for Ariel Castro, the Cleveland man who is charged with kidnapping, beating and raping three young women over a 10-year period. After meeting his client for the first time, one of Castro’s lawyers told reporters, "The initial portrayal by the media has been one of a 'monster' and that's not the impression that I got when I talked to him for three hours.” He added that the press should not “demonize” the defendant before they know the “whole story.”
Obviously, every defendant is entitled to a lawyer, to put on a defense, and to force the state to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. But, seriously, a couple of points here: First, given that Castro reportedly confessed to police that he kidnapped the women and held them hostage for 10 years – including fathering a child with one of the victims – complaining about people thinking your client is a monster is probably not the best way to open a public dialogue on your client’s behalf, especially when your argument is premised on a 3-hour “impression.”
Second, people who talk about the “whole story” or “waiting for the facts to come out” generally do so because they don’t currently have any other helpful facts. As in: He wasn’t there, it wasn’t his house, it’s a case of mistaken identity, he was also held hostage, etc. Facts like those tend to be uttered immediately and without hesitation. If there aren’t any favorable facts, it’s probably best to say something to the effect that you’ve just been retained and you’ll have more to say later.
While lawyers have a duty to advocate for their client, the media is not a courtroom, and advocacy must weigh those considerations. Fairly or not, these statements tend to feed the narrative that lawyers will say anything and lie without conscience on behalf of their clients. That’s unfortunate because reputable lawyers generally go out of their way to be honest, no matter how challenging the circumstances.
Posted: 5/17/2013 12:00:00 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments
Many Texas veterans, including those returning from overseas missions in Iraq and elsewhere, often face legal needs that are difficult to meet on a military paycheck. From assistance with family law matters to securing health benefits for injuries incurred during military service, the men and women who protect our country regularly require legal attention they typically can’t afford.
For the past five years, the Texas Access to Justice Commission (TAJC) and the State Bar of Texas have joined together in a fundraising effort to help benefit Texas veterans and other deserving Texans, including the disabled, victims of natural disasters, the elderly and children.
As part of this effort, members of the TAJC and the State Bar recently gathered in Austin for the Champions of Justice Gala Benefiting Veterans, which included the announcement of more than $338,000 raised during the past year to help provide legal aid for military veterans in the Lone Star State. The State Bar and TAJC have helped raise more than $1.3 million to benefit deserving Texans since the first gala event.
Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht served as master of ceremonies at the Champions of Justice Gala, with Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson presenting the Emily C. Jones Lifetime Achievement Award to Fulbright & Jaworski Houston partner Stewart Gagnon and the James B. Sales Boots on the Ground Award to James Harrington, Director of the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) in Austin. Gagnon was lauded for a lifetime of pro bono work, including handling more than 50 pro bono cases in 2012 alone. Harrington, who founded the TCRP, earned high praise for his work on behalf of Rio Grande Valley farm laborers and other low-income residents in free speech, privacy and equal rights cases.
With existing legal aid programs unable to cover 80 percent of the 5.7 million Texans who qualify, the efforts made by members of the TAJC and State Bar to provide basic legal services to those who can’t afford them – especially those who have put their lives on the line for our country – is more critical than ever.
Posted: 5/15/2013 12:00:00 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments
The “big event” mentality surrounding notorious murder trials has been with us since before the United States was a country. Modern America, however, probably has done more than most to portray such cases as having the same entertainment level as a championship sporting event or the premiere of a major motion picture. From the trials of Dr. Sam Sheppard to Charles Manson to O.J. Simpson, our justice system has produced no shortage of infamous murder defendants or those willing to stand in long lines for a chance to see the related court proceedings in person.
While an informed interest in the administration of justice is generally a good thing, some “fans” of high-profile murder trials go beyond the rules of court and, frankly, the bounds of decorum. The most recent example occurred during the high-profile criminal trial of Jodi Arias, who was recently found guilty of murdering her boyfriend in 2008. The Arias trial earned international media attention based on a variety of factors, including the gruesome murder scene and the defendant’s claim that she killed her boyfriend in self-defense.
The resulting public interest caused scores of people to turn up at a Phoenix criminal courthouse to watch the proceedings, including a woman who traveled from Michigan who arrived too late to get one of the few, first-come-first-served public courtroom seats that were made available each day. In a scene reminiscent of an NFL playoff game or a Justin Bieber concert, the Michigan woman paid $200 to a local court watcher for her spot in line. After learning of the “sale,” the trial court judge reprimanded both women, ordering the seller to pay back the $200 and giving her seat to the woman from Michigan.
The circus atmosphere – willingly fueled by the more sensationalist sectors of the fourth estate – may be entertaining, but it also trivializes the solemn and serious purpose of our criminal courts: to establish the guilt of criminal defendants beyond a reasonable doubt.
Americans sometimes watch criminal trials as though they are foreign universe, populated by strangers, where they or no one they know or care about would ever be tried because they never commit crimes. What they’re forgetting is that the right to trial by jury and other constitutional protections are not there to protect the guilty. They exist in order to protect the innocent.
Posted: 5/13/2013 9:31:27 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments
When you think about what lawyers do all day, you might think criminal law, litigation or drafting corporate agreements. But protecting the elderly? Yes – our mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers increasingly are targeted by people with nefarious interests, which often includes family members or others who have been entrusted with the victims’ care. And who’s there to help? Lawyers, of course.
In a recent case in Chicago, a caregiver has been charged with siphoning $350,000 from a retired engineer who was diagnosed with dementia more than a year before he signed paperwork giving the woman power of attorney. The lawyer who drafted the paperwork apparently did so without knowledge of the man’s dementia diagnosis, and the attorney has not been charged in connection with the purported crime. The caregiver’s alleged misdeeds were uncovered by the Cook County Public Guardian in Chicago, which is charged with protecting the city’s disabled elderly and their estates, in addition to other functions.
A 2012 study by the MetLife Mature Market Institute estimates that the elderly population in the U.S. loses more than $2.9 billion every year as a result of fraud such as the one described in the Chicago case. The National Conference of State Legislatures notes that 14 states passed legislation in 2012 involving financial crimes against the elderly.
How do lawyers help? With an aging population, a growing number of attorneys now are focusing their practices on elder law, which concentrates on protecting the rights of seniors and responding to their unique legal needs. The National Elder Law Foundation certifies attorneys based on their experience in the area, and the State Bar of Texas provides a number of helpful materials on its website. In addition, the Texas Attorney General’s office devotes substantial resources to the important task of protecting our elders. As baby boomers continue to get older, expect to see more and more attorneys moving into this fast-growing field.
Posted: 5/6/2013 12:00:00 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments
Despite the mountains of evidence proving that the current U.S. legal system is home to more lawyers than available law firm jobs, a recent article in The New York Times has stirred a national conversation about the stunning lack of attorneys in our country’s rural communities. Relying on statistics assembled by LexisNexis, the article shows that 98 percent of all U.S. law firms that employ fewer than 50 lawyers are concentrated in suburban and urban areas rather than rural locations.
According to the NYT, 83 percent of Texas lawyers are concentrated in and around Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, with the remaining 17 percent spread over millions of miles of “legally underserved” rural areas. Other states mentioned in the article include South Dakota, where 65 percent of the state’s lawyers work and live in four urban areas; Georgia, where 70 percent are in and around Atlanta; Iowa, where a third of the counties are served by only 4 percent of the state’s lawyers; and Arizona, where 94 percent of that state’s attorneys work in a two-county area. The article notes how the winnowing amount of attorneys in rural areas already is resulting in significant legal headaches for local residents and businesses.
The American Bar Association has called on every level of government for help in boosting the legal ranks in rural communities, and South Dakota has responded by recently passing a law that will provide a $12,000 annual subsidy for attorneys who pledge they’ll live and work in one of the state’s rural areas for at least five years. The South Dakota initiative is modeled after similar subsidy programs that have been utilized by doctors, nurses and dentists for decades.
Although there is no current movement afoot to provide subsidies for Texas attorneys to work in rural areas, the statistics show that the Lone Star State may soon need to consider programs similar to the one being employed in South Dakota. With only 17 percent of the state’s attorneys living and working in Texas’ vast rural areas, that discussion may be next on the agenda.
Posted: 5/3/2013 12:00:00 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments