Vol. 43, No. 6

Crisis in the courts and the community: Bars respond to opioid epidemic

by Robert J. Derocher

A conversation with a cleaning woman helped convince Wynne du Mariau Caffey-Knight that there was good reason for the extensive opioid education and outreach program she was planning to unveil to members of the Knoxville (Tenn.) Bar Association this year.

“I said, ‘How are you?’ and she said, ‘OK.’ And she walked away,” says Caffey-Knight, the bar’s president. “I said, ‘What is wrong?’ And she said that her son had overdosed—and she had found him with the needle in his arm. It’s just everywhere.”

Spurred on by such tales of heartbreak and addiction, as well as her own personal experiences and observations, Caffey-Knight and the Knoxville bar have launched a multipronged informational campaign that involves lawyers, judges, medical professionals, law enforcement, and family members—all with experiences combating the opioid epidemic in the Knoxville area.

On the national front, the Legal Services Corp. called attention to this crisis in June 2019, with the release of the LSC Opioid Task Force Report. The task force spent 11 months meeting in person and by phone, hearing from subject matter experts and discussing the intersection of the opioid epidemic and civil legal aid. 

"The LSC Opioid Task Force strongly encourages LSC to embrace a leadership role in promoting civil legal aid as a critical component of the nation’s response to the opioid epidemic," the task force notes in its summary. 

Although CLE programming related to opioids is a regular staple at many bars nationwide, Caffey-Knight and others say there is plenty more that state, metro and local associations can do to educate their members and to enlist their support across a range of activities—from pro bono work to lobbying for court funding. A sweeping, coordinated effort involving the legal, law enforcement and social service communities is needed, they say, to confront an addiction crisis that continues to evolve and that touches most every community in the country.

Making the opioid crisis a presidential priority

“I think we have a responsibility, not just to our bar, but to our community,” Caffey-Knight says. “We can’t ignore it any more. This is our community we’re talking about.”

One impetus for the Knoxville bar’s opioid awareness campaign was in 2011, when a county court judge named Richard Baumgartner resigned and was disbarred following revelations that he was addicted to opioids and used them while on the bench. Baumgartner, now deceased, had overseen several high-profile drug-related trials.

For Caffey-Knight, the need for the bar to address the epidemic was cemented by what she saw in neighborhoods and schools throughout the area—as well as the overdose death of her cousin. She launched the bar’s education effort in February through an extensive series of stories in the bar’s monthly publication, focusing on the epidemic’s impacts on legal, judicial, law enforcement and social service operations in the community—including wrenching stories of personal loss. The stories will continue to be published through October, and the bar has also been convening discussions among the various community and agency stakeholders.

“The stakeholders we’re reaching out to are just jumping at the opportunity to be able to continue to spread the message. There are some relationships that are being formed,” Caffrey-Knight says. “We’re trying to take the stigma off so people will not bury their heads. So the question is, ‘What can I do? What should I do?’ 

“To be educated and prepared is a good and helpful thing, and at least be talking about it and seek resources for help and maybe prevent something before problems get too big.”

In Youngstown, Ohio, where the opioid crisis has made national headlines, Mahoning County Judge Jack Durkin is working with incoming Mahoning County Bar Association President Kelly Johns to re-establish “The People’s Law School,” an educational program aimed at elementary school students in the county. That comes on the heels of a visit by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine to Durkin’s award-winning Drug Court, a model that DeWine wants to expand throughout the state.

“We need to do a better job educating our children,” says Durkin, a past bar president and trustee. “We need to go out and educate our parents and grandparents about the importance of educating our youth. If we wait until the kids get into middle school or high school, we’re waiting too long.”

Easing the burden on the courts

Helping the courts, particularly in overcrowding and funding, is another area where bar associations can play a supportive role, according to Judge Loretta Rush, chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court and co-chair of the National Center for State Courts National Judicial Opioid Task Force.

“‘There is a critical need for civil legal aid pro bono. What happens when you need an attorney and you have addictions?” she says. “It’s an addictions crisis.”

Bar associations also need to become more active in the community as a whole, Rush adds, capitalizing on the bar’s traditional role as a convener in the legal community to talk about and promote the role of the legal system in confronting the opioid crisis, including the collateral damage it causes to children and families.

“Make sure you have lawyers’ voices on these [community] task forces,” she advises. “If you see a local task force and it doesn’t have a lawyer on it, call and say, ‘I’d like to come and maybe talk about civil legal needs.’”

Lobbying for and securing funding, particularly for hard-hit state courts dealing with a crush of cases, is another important role for associations, Rush adds. In Massachusetts, such efforts by the Massachusetts Bar Association have been important in securing increased court funding for the last three years to deal with higher caseloads, according to Martin Healy, the bar’s chief legal counsel and chief operating officer.

“[State] legislators have visited courthouses to get a firsthand view of what’s happening, and they’ve been joined by local bar members and our members,” Healy says. “I think the bar has done a good job in educating the legislature, and the legislators have been very receptive.”

The bar has also responded to lawyer staffing shortages in Suffolk County courts in Boston by matching pro bono volunteers to cases, Healy adds.

While former New York State Supreme Court Judge Sal Martoche praises some of the work bars are doing, he believes much more can be done. And for Martoche, it’s personal: His daughter, Claire, died in 2017 after a likely heroin overdose while battling drug addiction and mental health issues.

“[Bars] should offer workshops and CLEs to practicing attorneys, judges, court staff, law enforcement and the general public. Topics should include the latest findings about the science and medicine of addition and mental illness, current trends and events and training in the myriad of services that hopefully will be available,” he believes. “I recognize that questions about topics like the opioid crisis will all have two sides, at least, in how they should be dealt with, but healthy debate under skillful leadership can inform and educate. We need to see the bar do more and do it better.”

In Knoxville, that is a call that Caffey-Knight and the bar are taking seriously, for the good of the profession and the good of the community.

“It’s about education. We have not done any public programming. This is in its infancy stages, and I don’t want to see it end this year,” Caffey-Knight says. “It’s daunting, but we have to arm ourselves to push back. I think there’s a place for all of us to be proactive. 

“I’m just a mom and a lawyer here locally who wants to see the misery stop. And it’s miserable.”