justice2We open today’s Lunch Links with an important public service announcement, particularly in light of the report out this week showing North Carolina still woefully behind other states in providing legal assistance to those who can’t afford an attorney — a number that unfortunately continues to grow.

Tomorrow, March 7, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., the state Bar Association will host its annual “Ask a Lawyer Day,” during which callers can get free answers to legal questions and problems.  Here’s more information:

Statewide, there will be eight call centers filled with lawyers answering callers’ legal questions. Locally, lawyers will be manning the phones at the Volunteer Center, and Greensboro’s WFMY News 2 will be covering the event live. Anyone with legal questions may call the local call center by dialing 877.391.6179 and speak directly to a lawyer. A call center for Spanish speakers is available at 855.455.4255 between 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. All calls are free and confidential– callers will not be asked for their name or contact information.

The event is part of the Bar Association’s “4ALL” campaign to raise support for Legal Aid.   Last year, close to 500 lawyers, paralegals, law students and other volunteers answered questions from nearly 10,000 callers.

Click here for the event announcement. Click here if you’d like to participate.

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Speaking of justice, and injustice, the U.S. Senate yesterday refused to confirm President Obama’s nominee for assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Debo Adegbile.  The reason?  Adegbile did his job as an attorney  when he was litigation director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, representing Mumia Abu-Jamal on an appeal of his death sentence for killing a Philadelphia police officer decades ago.

That vote should be cause for concern for most attorneys, as well as for anyone who understands and believes that  “a fundamental tenet of our justice system and our Constitution is that anyone who faces loss of liberty has a right to legal counsel,” as the president of the American Bar Association, James R. Silkenat, explained to the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Lawyers have an ethical obligation to uphold that principle and provide zealous representation to people who otherwise would stand alone against the power and resources of the government—even to those accused or convicted of terrible crimes,” he added

As Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick says in this blistering critique of the Adegbile vote:

To be clear, then: Adegbile was not himself a cop-killer. He didn’t help a cop-killer get off and roam free with false claims of innocence. What he did do—which fits pretty readily within the historic mandate of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund—was to help ensure that the American criminal justice system, and especially the death penalty, is administered fairly and constitutionally. As a representative of an organization that is institutionally dedicated to ensuring that justice is administered fairly, he fought for fairness and judges agreed that unfairness occurred.

Once upon a time in America this was called advocating for justice. But in today’s America, it’s deemed a miscarriage of justice. And so the fact that Adegbile has long been one of the most skilled and principled civil rights attorneys in the country is cast by Senate Republicans as a kind of catastrophic public scam.

Lithwick was not alone in her attack on all Senate Republicans and the seven Democrats who voted no on Adegbile. Editorials across the country derided the vote, and Ari Berman at The Nation likened the Republican pre-vote smear campaign — labeling Adegbile a “cop killer” — to George Bush’s Willie Horton ad, proof that “race-based gutter politics are still not a thing of the past.”

Berman added:

In disqualifying Adegbile, senators are establishing a very dangerous precedent that attorneys are responsibile for all of the actions of their clients. “LDF’s advocacy on behalf of Mr. Abu-Jamal does not disqualify Mr. Adegbile from leading the Civil Rights Division,” prominent members of the Supreme Court bar wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year. “To conclude otherwise would send the wrong message to any lawyer who is affiliated, or might be asked to become involved, with a difficult, unpopular case for the purpose of enforcing and preserving important constitutional principles.”

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On a lighter note, Full Frame Documentary Festival — on its way to Durham in April — released its lineup of films, with plenty of variety. Here’s just a few:

112 Weddings (Director: Doug Block)
Documentary filmmaker and part-time wedding videographer Doug Block tracks down couples he’s filmed over the years, contrasting past with present to see how love and life have unfolded after vows. World Premiere

Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory (Director: Michael Rossato-Bennett)
When a social worker discovers that music can unlock the memories of patients whose minds are clouded by dementia, he embarks on a mission to transform lives one iPod at a time.

The Battered Bastards of Baseball (Directors: Chapman Way, Maclain Way)
A celebratory portrait of the Portland Mavericks, who joined the minor leagues in 1973 as the lone single-A team without a major-league affiliation.

Freedom Summer (Director: Stanley Nelson)
Remarkable archival footage and unforgettable eyewitness accounts take us back to the summer of 1964, when hundreds of civil rights activists entered Mississippi to help enfranchise the state’s African American citizens.

The Case Against 8 (Directors: Ben Cotner, Ryan White)
This behind-the-scenes film, shot over five years, follows the unlikely team who fought to overturn California’s ban on same-sex marriage, and won.

WHITEY: United States of America V. James J. Bulger (Director: Joe Berlinger)
This true-crime doc examines the sensationalized trial of a notorious South Boston gangster and brings new allegations of law-enforcement corruption to light.

Guilford-Courthouse-150x150When it comes to providing access to justice for the state’s most vulnerable residents, North Carolina ranks slightly above-average, according to The Justice Index, a new report from the National Center for Access to Justice at Cardozo Law School in New York.

In its initial report from an ongoing study, the center looked at and assigned a score for these elements of state-based justice systems:

  • the number of civil legal aid attorneys serving the poor;
  • systems available to assist self represented litigants;
  • systems available to assist people with limited English proficiency; and,
  • systems available to assist people with disabilities.

States were assigned a score in each category based on data volunteers collected from the state court systems over the past year. From there, states were assigned an overall composite score on a scale of 1 to 100.

North Carolina came in 20th place overall in offering access to the courts for our most vulnerable residents. That ranking largely resulted from higher scores for the provision of qualified foreign language interpreters — with the state ranked 18th — and for disability assistance, with the state — in an 11-way tie — ranked third.

But the state ranked 33d in providing assistance for pro se litigants and 38th for the number of lawyers per people in poverty. For every 10,000 people in poverty here, the state has less than one lawyer (.84).

Sadly, we already know that here. As Gene Nichol, director of the UNC School of Law Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity wrote in October:

In North Carolina, over 80 percent of poor and low-income folks – facing wrenching legal wrongs or challenges – can’t get legal representation. The courthouse door maybe open, but only in theory. They can’t use it.

But now the rest of the country knows that as well.

 

 

Judge Andre Davis of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stepped down from active service on the bench on February 28.

Davis, the youngest of three Maryland-based judges on the court, is eligible for senior status upon turning 65 because he has served as an Article III judge since becoming a U.S. District Judge in 1995. He is the first of six Obama appointees to that court to take the step, which creates a new Maryland vacancy to be filled by the president.

The Fourth Circuit has had a full complement of 15 judges since Obama’s last appointment in 2012, West Virginia’s Stephanie D. Thacker.

Judge Davis was born in Baltimore, Md., in 1949. He was initially appointed to the U.S. District Court there by President Clinton in 1995 and then to the Fourth Circuit by President Obama in 2009. 

Davis is the first and only African American to represent Maryland on the Fourth Circuit, which includes Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and the Carolinas.  He was also the first African American nominated by President Obama to a federal judgeship and one of nine African American circuit court judges appointed by the president nationwide.

A native of Baltimore, Andre Davis graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law and clerked for Maryland District Judge Frank Kaufman and Fourth Circuit Judge Francis Murnaghan.  Davis worked as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice, taught at the University of Maryland School of Law, and served as a judge for nearly a decade on Maryland’s state trial courts.       

“We are indebted to Judge Davis for his extraordinary service on Maryland’s state and federal courts,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. “Judge Davis played a historic role in diversifying Maryland’s federal appellate bench, and he made enormous contributions to that court’s jurisprudence.  He is held in the highest regard by the communities served by the court, his colleagues on the bench, and all who appeared before him.”

Ifill and the LDF joined other civil rights organizations in a letter urging President Obama to “ensure that Maryland’s racial diversity continues to be reflected on Maryland’s federal appellate court.”

The state Court of Appeals has upheld the Utilities Commission’s approval of the Duke – Progress Energy merger in 2012, per an opinion released this morning.

Writing for the court, Judge Douglas McCullough said:

Where it is evident that the Commission considered the potential costs and risks of the merger and weighed them against the anticipated benefits, and where there is substantial evidence supporting the Commission’s findings and conclusions, we will not second guess the Commission’s determination that the merger is justified by the public convenience and necessity. Thus, we affirm the Commission’s approval of the merger in the merger order.

Policy Watch will have more on the decision later this morning.

Make that seven now — federal judges who have struck down a state’s same-sex marriage ban as unconstitutional since the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act last summer.

And this time, the judge was in Texas of all places, where U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia today found that that state’s ban violated the United States Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process.

Garcia wrote:

The issue before this Court is whether Texas’ current definition of marriage is permissible under the United States Constitution. After careful consideration, and applying the law as it must, this Court holds that Texas’ prohibition on same-sex marriage conflicts with the United States Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process. Texas’ current marriage laws deny homosexual couples the right to marry, and in doing so, demean their dignity for no legitimate reason. Accordingly, the Court finds these laws are unconstitutional and hereby grants a preliminary injunction enjoining Defendants from enforcing Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage.

Read the full decision, which the judge has stayed pending an appeal, here.