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On The Merits

This Crain Does Some Heavy Lifting

Texas has more prisoners under lock and key than any other state, with more than 225,000 inmates currently housed in state and federal facilities. Our state also is home to more than 400,000 people who are on probation and more than 100,000 parolees. A 2014 report published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics examined prisoners in 30 states from 2005 to 2010, and found that 68 percent were rearrested for new crimes within three years and nearly 77 percent were rearrested within five years.

To say that prison overpopulation and recidivism are big issues for Texas is a massive understatement. Fortunately, there are many who work inside and outside our justice system to combat the growing prison population and help former inmates reintegrate themselves into society.

One of the state’s leading advocates for former inmates is Dallas attorney Christina Melton Crain, President and CEO of Dallas-based Unlocking DOORS, which provides services that help the previously incarcerated by creating customized plans that help them find work and resume their lives outside of prison. Crain was the first woman to chair the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, and the women’s prison in Gatesville was named in her honor, so she clearly knows her stuff, as evidenced in this recent newspaper profile.

According to the article, Crain has personally responded to more than 4,500 individual letters written to her by inmates since Unlocking DOORS opened in 2010. Unlike other re-entry programs, Unlocking DOORS is not mandated by the courts and all the company’s clients have voluntarily joined the program. The nonprofit has assisted thousands of clients by connecting them with providers of employment, health care, housing, drug treatment and transportation.

“If we don’t guide them to the right places and make sure they get a comprehensive understanding of what they really need in order to achieve self-sufficiency that’s crime free, then we’re all going to be paying for it,” she is quoted as saying. “Whether you’re a victim because they committed another crime, or your taxes go up because we need more tax dollars to pay for incarceration or supervision.”

Crain deserves the hearty thanks of all Texans for her important work, which benefits not only her clients and the justice system, but society at large.  

Posted: 1/13/2016 8:00:00 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 2 comments

Public Defender “Boutique” Aids Clothes-Poor Clients

Everyone from Mark Twain to William Shakespeare to the authors of ancient Greek plays has been credited with coining the phrase “clothes make the man.” Regardless of who was first, any criminal defense lawyer will tell you that it still holds true for defendants facing trial, man or woman.

The influence of our clothes on how people perceive us is why the Dallas Public Defender’s Office has been operating a little-known but very beneficial program that allows defendants facing jury trials to shed their jail garb in favor of quality, appropriate clothing and shoes.

Housed in a small office on the fourth floor of Dallas’ criminal courts building for the past 12 years, “The Boutique” relies on donations from court staff and lawyers to maintain a continuing supply of clothes for trial defendants. There is no charge, but everything must be dry cleaned and returned under the rules established by the Public Defender’s Office.

Assistant public defender David Bulbow recently summed up the need for “The Boutique” in an interview with The Dallas Morning News: “You look at someone in a [jail] jumpsuit and the first thing you think is ‘guilty.’”

Lawyers are required to represent their clients to the best of their abilities. Protecting a client from potential prejudice based on what they wear to court is an example of how many attorneys go the extra mile to make sure that those they represent are treated fairly. Kudos to these lawyers, and here’s hoping that defense lawyers elsewhere will take notice and emulate this terrific program.

Posted: 1/11/2016 8:00:00 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments

Breaking Down Bad Jurors $1,000 at a Time

Jurors behaving badly is nothing new. Jurors behaving badly using social media isn’t particularly new, either. But the consequences are becoming more severe.

Basically, the story generally goes like this: juror is warned not to post online comments about the case they are deciding. Juror violates court’s instructions and post comments anyway. The court discovers the juror’s comments and is forced to declare a mistrial.

That’s exactly what happened in a recent robbery case in New York. A working mom’s Facebook posts – made while she complained of “dying of boredom” – wiped out days of testimony. In this case, there were no alternate jurors available, so the court had to declare a mistrial.

Instead of only finding the woman in contempt, the judge also slapped her with a $1,000 fine. The woman reportedly was contrite and remorseful when addressing her actions before the court, telling the judge she is financially supporting her two children since her ex-husband is disabled, and she is afraid she will lose her job at JP Morgan Chase. 

Feel sorry for her? Well, she also admitted that it was made “clear” to her that she could not post about the trial. The judge said that she wasted thousands of dollars of taxpayer funds, and one of the robbery victims who testified incurred travel costs after moving out of state because of the trauma of the crime.  

Jurors are not the only ones inconvenienced by trials. So are the victims and the witnesses. Prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, court reporters, bailiffs, interpreters, etc, all cost money, most of which is borne by the taxpayers. 

$1,000 won’t compensate anyone for the incredible disruption caused by this one juror. But it’s a start.

Posted: 1/8/2016 9:47:44 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments

Cutting Classes

Class-action lawsuits frequently are blamed by TV pundits, corporate interests and others as an example of something gone wrong with the legal system, particularly when the result involves sizeable attorneys’ fees relative to the individual damages.

One current legislative “solution” is being offered in the so-called “VW Bailout Bill,” which would prevent federal courts from certifying class actions for personal injury or economic loss unless each plaintiff suffered the same type and scope of injury as the named class representative. Officially labeled the “Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2015,” the legislation is scheduled to be heard before Congress this week.

Some perspective on the suggestion that class actions are nothing more than get-rich schemes for lawyers: The American Lawyer magazine recently took an in-depth look at a controversial class-action over the price of household batteries. While the stakes certainly aren’t as high as in the VW litigation, the story illustrates why class actions and the lawyers who handle them are so important to our system of justice. 

The lawsuit was based on a deceptive advertising claim filed on behalf of consumers who purchased certain Duracell batteries that were labeled as providing 30 percent more power, which the plaintiffs said was untrue. The case settled in 2013 after a potential class of roughly 7.5 million plaintiffs was identified, and Duracell’s parent company announced the resolution with national print and online advertisements that offered $6 per household in exchange for customers’ filling out an online form.

Not surprisingly, however, less than 1 percent of the eligible plaintiffs filed claims, which meant they would receive a total of approximately $345,000 while their lawyers would earn $5.7 million under the agreed settlement. That disparity was cited in a recent objection filed before the U.S. Supreme Court by the Center for Class Action Fairness, which argues that the plaintiffs lawyers should be paid based on a percentage of the total recovery rather than what was agreed to in the settlement approved by the district court. Based on that logic, the lawyers who prevailed would earn only a total of approximately $111,000 despite having spent more than 6,000 hours of billable time and $270,000 in out-of-pocket expenses to build the case.

And that’s precisely the intent: to remove the financial incentive for lawyers to pursue wrongdoing by large corporations where the damages to any one individual are relatively small. That way, corporations can continue to deceive without being accountable for their wrongdoing. Good for wrongdoers perhaps, but bad for everyone else.

In other words, when you eliminate class actions, you hinder justice.

Posted: 1/6/2016 8:08:26 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments

Dallas Lawyer Offers to Represent Syrian Refugees. For Free.

A good lawyer is not afraid to wade into controversial matters when people’s rights may be at risk, even when it may subject the lawyer to negative feedback from others (remember Atticus Finch?). In Dallas, appellate lawyer Jason Steed is honoring that long tradition by offering to represent any Syrian refugees in Texas free of charge.  

Steed recently sent this Twitter message: "Texas folks: if you know any Syrian refugee facing adverse action from the State of Texas, let me know. I'll help any way I can. Pro bono." Steed reportedly says he was inspired to make the offer based on the “outrageousness” of elected officials in attempting to ban Syrian refugees from settling in this state.

To say this issue is controversial does not fully capture the ferocity of the debate. But, like many of these issues, the courts will resolve them in a much more civil fashion than the tone of the public discourse would suggest. Already the subject of a lawsuit between Texas and the Federal government in Dallas, it’s not hard to imagine that these refugees will soon, too, need legal counsel.  

Should it come to that, lawyers such as Steed will ensure that they also get their day in court.  


Posted: 12/10/2015 3:04:14 PM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments

About This Blog

Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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