February 17, 2020

ABA approves measures to expand access to justice, voting rights

The American Bar Association House of Delegates approved a resolution today that would encourage states and other jurisdictions to consider innovative approaches to expanding access to justice with the goal of improving affordability and quality of civil legal services.

The ABA House of Delegates met during the Midyear Meeting in Austin.

The ABA House of Delegates met during the Midyear Meeting in Austin.

American Bar Association photo

By voice vote, the 596-member House, which is the association’s policy-making body, overwhelmingly supported Resolution 115 after revisions to the initial proposal.

Overall, the House adopted more than three dozen measures that included recommendations for governments to review deadly force policies, curb gun violence and lessen the burden for release after a conviction and before sentencing on criminal charges. The all-day session concluded the ABA Midyear Meeting, which began Feb. 13.

Proposed by the ABA Center for Innovation and supported by several standing committees of the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility, Resolution 115 calls for state regulators and bar associations to continue to explore regulatory innovations that have the potential to improve the accessibility, affordability and quality of civil legal services. At least six states have proposed — or adopted — substantial regulatory changes that could loosen rules and more are considering doing the same.

The resolution’s final version does not embrace any single effort. Rather, it encourages states to continue these efforts and “ensure that changes are effective in increasing access to legal services and are in the interest of clients and the public.”

In the past few days, proponents added a provision that said: “Nothing in this resolution should be construed as recommending any changes to any of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, including Rule 5.4, as they relate to nonlawyer ownership of law firms, the unauthorized practice of law or any other subject.” Rule 5.4 limits sharing of legal fees with nonlawyers as well as bars nonlawyer equity in law firms.

Hank Greenberg, president of the New York State Bar Association, praised the ABA Center for Innovation, the chief sponsor of the resolution, and other supporters for working with initial opponents to reach a consensus on the resolution. While his bar group initially criticized the resolution as potentially opening the door for the nonlawyer practice of law, he referred to the final version a “strong, powerful statement that all of us …must embrace not as a debatable proposition but as a fact.”

Of voter-related measures approved by the House, Resolution 108 urges governmental bodies to enact legislation that would allow eligible youth between 16- and 18-years-old to preregister to vote and urges governments to automatically add preregistered teens to the voter rolls when they reach the legal voting age. Two voting proposals — Resolution 112 and Resolution 114 — ask governments to remove voting barriers for Native Americans and Alaska Natives and change residency requirements to make it easier for those without street addresses to use alternative forms of an address to register to vote.

The fourth measure related to voting, Resolution 118, urges Congress to protect the security and integrity of U.S. elections by approving legislation that provides for funding for the National Institute of Standards and Technology to improve election security, including developing appropriate cybersecurity standards and certification processes.

The gun safety measures recommend a ban on “ghost guns,” which are firearms made by individuals, without serial numbers or other identifying markings (Resolution 107A); urge stronger gun permitting laws (Resolution 107B); and endorse more awareness and regulations for safe storage of firearms (Resolution 107C).

Other noteworthy measures approved by the House include:

  • Separate resolutions that deal with strengthening governmental policies related to the use of lethal force. Resolutions 10B asks governments to examine existing policies on the use of deadly force by police in law enforcement encounters, including investigative stops, arrests and searches. Resolution 103A urges governments to ensure appropriate training of law enforcement personnel regarding lethal force when encountering animals, such as dogs in homes and neighborhoods.
  • Resolution 106, which urges Congress to amend the Air Carrier Access Act to establish a private right of action and to provide equitable and legal relief, including compensatory and punitive damages and other reasonable fees, for plaintiffs who prevail in civil discrimination actions.
  • Resolution 110, which urges governments to provide courts with discretion to allow defendants to remain released pending sentencing after a guilty plea or conviction if the court finds that the defendant is not likely to flee or pose a danger.
  • Two cannabis-related measures. Resolution 103B asks Congress to enact legislation to ensure that it shall not constitute a federal crime for qualified lawyers to provide legal advice and services to clients regarding marijuana-related activities that are in compliance with local law. Resolution 103D seeks similar protection for financial institutions and others, including lawyers, receive compensation from the sale of state-legalized cannabis or who provide services to cannabis-related legitimate businesses.
  • Resolution 200, which were requests from the California Lawyers Association and the North Carolina Bar Association, both voluntary bar groups, for primary state bar association designation and acquisition of additional delegate seats in the House from other bars in that state.

Final action on all HOD resolutions can be found here. Only resolutions approved by the House become ABA policy.