When nearly 300 bar leaders from around the country descended on Capitol Hill April 12-14 for ABA Day in Washington, they focused their attention on three pressing issues: Legal Services Corporation appropriations, the state court funding crisis, and prompt filling of federal judicial vacancies.
ABA Day, coordinated by the ABA Governmental Affairs Office and the ABA Day Planning Committee, is an annual opportunity for members of the organized bar to meet face-to-face with their members of Congress. The event, now in its 15th year, is cosponsored by the National Conference of Bar Presidents, the National Association of Bar Executives, the ABA Section Officers Conference and the Young Lawyers Division.
“In-person meetings are the most effective way to educate and win the support of legislators regarding important legal issues,” ABA President Stephen N. Zack said in this welcome to attendees. Planning Committee Chair William C. Hubbard emphasized that participation “ensures that crucial information in support of equal access to justice is presented to Congress by the organized bar, the nation’s strongest advocates for adequate funding and resources to preserve our justice system.”
This year, the bar leaders encouraged Congress to support an appropriation of at least $450 million for the LSC in fiscal year 2012. They explained to their members that the need for legal services for poor Americans has never been greater, with more than 63 million Americans, including 22 million children, qualifying for legal assistance (see article, front page).
The participants also urged their members to support S. 755 and H.R. 1416, identical bipartisan bills to help financially strapped state courts collect past-due restitution, court fines and other court debts. The bills would expand existing federal procedures to withhold tax refunds to address the approximately $15 billion in past-due debts to the courts. The program, administered by the Treasury Department’ Tax Offset Program, would apply to criminal and traffic cases.
The third issue was the growing vacancy crisis in the federal courts, where 10 percent or more of the federal judicial seats have been vacant for more than 20 months, making it impossible for an increasing number of courts to deliver timely justice. The ABA is urging the Senate to avoid unnecessary delays and to give every nominee an up-or-down vote within a reasonable time after the nomination is reported by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In addition to nearly 200 visits, participants attended a welcome dinner where awards were announced recognizing six members of Congress for their specific efforts to improve the American justice system. This year’s honorees were Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and John Thune (R-S.D.), and Reps. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) and Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas).
The association also honored, at a reception at the Supreme Court, three individuals and the New York State Bar Association for outstanding grassroots advocacy work. Individual honorees were Jim Felman, of Tampa, Florida, for his work on sentencing reform; Martin Lybecker, of Washington, D.C., for working against further federal regulation of lawyers in financial reform legislation; and retired Col. John Odom, of Shreveport, Louisiana, for helping assure the legal rights of servicemembers. The New York State Bar Association was recognized for its leadership in authoring an amicus brief in the ABA’s successful case against the Federal Trade Commission’s attempt to regulate lawyers under the Red Flags Rule.
Governmental Affairs Director Thomas M. Susman summed up the importance of ABA Day by emphasizing that personal connection with legislators, combined with professional expertise and the ABA’s advocacy skills, “brings depth and breadth to the information we provide government decisionmakers.”