Report from Governmental Affairs
Destination: Capitol Hill
Bar leaders highlight four key issues as core of congressional blitz
Posted Jun 5, 2007 2:30 AM CDT
By Rhonda McMillion
The official list of the ABA’s legislative priorities for 2007 identifies 11 issues. But that’s a lot to talk about at one time, even for the nearly 300 bar leaders who converged on Washington, D.C., in April for two days of concentrated lobbying on Capitol Hill.
So following the strategy set in recent years for the ABA Day in Washington event, organizers tabbed four key issues that bar leaders highlighted during some 350 congressional visits on April 18 19: funding for the Legal Services Corp., federal judicial pay, preservation of the attorney client privilege and comprehensive reform of immigration laws.
“These four issues are critical areas requiring urgent congressional action,” says Neal R. Sonnett of Miami, who chairs the Standing Committee on Governmental Affairs. The committee works closely with the ABA’s Governmental Affairs Office in coordinating the association’s advocacy efforts at the federal level.
“The hundreds of bar leaders who met with their senators and representatives reported significant successes in gaining support for these issues,” Sonnett says. Stephen N. Zack of Miami, the planning committee chair for this year’s ABA Day, told participants that presenting a focused message to legislators or their staff members is “critical to the ABA’s mission of improving the justice system, promoting meaningful access to justice and advancing the rule of law.”
The planning committee coordinates ABA Day in conjunction with the Governmental Affairs Office. The event is co sponsored by the ABA Section Officers Conference and Young Lawyers Division, along with the National Association of Bar Executives and the National Conference of Bar Presidents.
The ABA supports a substantial increase in LSC funding to meet the growing need for legal services for low income individuals. Congressional hearings began in March to consider LSC appropriations for federal fiscal year 2008 (which starts Oct. 1). While LSC funding was increased this year by $21 million, to $348.6 million, President Bush recommended only $311 million for the program for fiscal 2008, while the LSC board’s request for $430.6 million is supported by the ABA.
Addressing another current issue, ABA day participants called for Congress to promptly enact legislation to substantially raise the base salaries of federal judges. Judicial pay has not been reviewed since 1989 and federal judges have not received cost of living adjustments in six of the past 14 years. The ABA main tains that inadequate judicial salaries threaten the continued excellence of the federal judiciary. Those salaries, says the association, have fallen below any reasonable measure of adequacy because of years of inaction by Congress.
Efforts to protect the attorney client privilege are active on several fronts this Congress. ABA President Karen J. Mathis of Denver testified before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee in March that the policy announced in December by Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty in regard to Justice Department policies and waivers of attorney client privileges by companies facing possible criminal indictments continues to erode the privilege.
Mathis voiced the ABA’s support for a Senate bill that would reverse the Justice Department policy along with related policies regarding protections for corporate employees. In February, the ABA also urged the Securities and Exchange Commission to revise its privilege waiver policies.
The ABA supports changing federal immigration laws to provide a path to permanent residence for undocumented laborers currently in the United States. In addition, the ABA supports legislation to address current and future immigrant labor needs, and to promote border and national security. The association opposes mandatory and/or indefinite detention, and opposes elimination of administrative and judicial review of removal decisions.
(After an April 17 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court against granting cert in a case challenging a federal law that denies habeas corpus rights to people being detained at Guantanamo Bay as “enemy combatants,” ABA Day participants also were asked to urge members of Congress to support legislation that would restore habeas rights to detainees.)
Legislative Wish List
ABA leaders and the governmental affairs office continue to advocate for the full slate of legislative priorities. Those issues are summarized below (and described in detail at abanet.org/poladv/priorities):
Access to legal education. The Senate Judiciary Committee acted quickly this session by holding hearings and approving a bill to provide loan forgiveness to full time prosecutors and public defenders. Similar bills in the House of Representatives are awaiting consideration by that chamber’s Judiciary Committee.
Access to legal services. The ABA supports more funding for indigent criminal defense through the Criminal Justice Act, legal assistance for low income military personnel and tax preferred status for group legal services benefits.
Anti-terrorism and preservation of civil liberties. Armed services committees in both the Senate and the House have held hearings on the 2006 Military Commissions Act and on the treatment of detainees being held by the U.S. government as “enemy combatants.” The ABA supports legislation to repeal provisions in the act that deprive federal courts of jurisdiction to hear habeas applications on behalf of detainees. At the end of April, 196 applications were pending.
Criminal justice system improvements and protection of rights. Adoption of sentence reduction mechanisms and elimination of mandatory minimum sentences are among the crucial criminal justice issues being considered by the 110th Congress. ABA representatives have appeared before the U.S. Sentencing Commission to discuss these issues, and the commission is in the process of adopting mechanisms for sentence reduction. In addition, the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would provide assistance to prisoners re entering the community after serving their prison sentences.
Health care law. The Senate Judiciary Committee continued its review of the McCarran Ferguson Act early this session with hearings in March on a bill to repeal the insurance industry’s exemption from federal antitrust laws. Identical legislation is pending in the House. The ABA supports repealing the exemption and replacing it with legislation providing for safe harbors.
Immigration. In addition to supporting comprehensive immigration reform, the ABA is urging Congress to provide legal protections for unaccompanied immigrant children. Independence of the judiciary. The ABA opposes bills that would establish a statutory Office of Inspector General for the federal judiciary, limit the jurisdiction of the federal courts and split the 9th U.S. Circuit. The association supports legislation providing for improved court security.
Independence of the legal profession. Along with its efforts to protect the attorney client privilege, the ABA believes that primary regulation and oversight of the legal profession should continue to be vested in the highest courts of the states. The association also is urging Congress to repeal bankruptcy law provisions that impose new liability on bankruptcy attorneys.
Global rule of law. The ABA supports adequate funding for domestic and international agencies that promote the rule of law. The ABA also supports prompt payment of U.S. assessments to the United Nations, and favors ratification of certain international treaties, including the Convention of the Law of the Sea.
Tax simplification. The House Ways and Means Committee launched hearings in March on the Alternative Minimum Tax, a parallel income tax that opponents say no longer serves the objective for which it was created--to ensure that taxpayers with substantial incomes pay at least some minimum level of tax. The ABA recommends repeal of the AMT or modification to address its original purpose.
Youth at risk. Congress is expected to consider reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which is set to expire Sept. 30. The reauthorization process offers the ABA an opportunity to work toward enactment of measures addressing status offenders and a number of other issues affecting youth at risk.
ABA Recognizes Legislators
In conjunction with its two day lobbying push in April, the ABA recognized Sens. Robert C. Byrd, D W.Va., Thad Cochran, R Miss., and Rep. John Conyers Jr., D Mich., for their commitment to improving the justice system. Grassroots advocacy honors were awarded to the Washington State Equal Justice Coalition, the Ohio State Bar Association, Missouri Supreme Court Justice Richard B. Teitelman and Doreen D. Dodson of St. Louis. Dodson chairs the ABA Standing Committee on Judicial Independence.
Keynote speakers during ABA Day events included House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D Md., and Sen. Mel Martinez, R Fla., who serves as general chair of the Republican National Committee.
This column is written by the ABA Governmental Affairs Office and discusses advocacy efforts by the ABA relating to issues being addressed by Congress and the executive branch of the federal government.
Rhonda McMillion is editor of Washington Letter, an ABA Governmental Affairs Office publication.