Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Lawyers Matter!

By William Fisher

The year was 1953. I was a bureau chief for the Daytona Beach News-Journal, covering the Volusia County seat, Deland, Florida. That beat meant covering the cops and the courts.

As a young and arguably too idealistic reporter, I was profoundly disappointed in both. I learned that bad lawyering presents a real threat to some of our country’s most precious values.

I learned this by watching, on too many days, lawyers who showed up in county court visibly hung over, unable to address the bench coherently. I learned this by watching lawyers who showed up in court having never met their client and having never read his or her record (most of these defendants were black). I learned this by watching defense lawyers failing to object when prosecutors presented evidence the defense clearly never saw. I learned this by listening to prosecutors engage in rhetoric so inflammatory that it would have been thrown out by most any judge, assuming the judge was paying any attention. I learned this by watching prosecutors totally bamboozle juries by using over-the-top rhetoric and playing fast and loose with the facts of a case (this was a no-brainer in the Jim Crow era in the American South).

But the lawyers I heard all those years ago were not all bad lawyers; some of them were good lawyers practicing law badly. The reason they were practicing badly is that they were unprepared to defend their clients. And they were unprepared because they were appointed by the court. These reluctant volunteers earned a few dollars a day in fees, had little time for client contact, and had no resources to research the allegations against the accused..

That situation came about because there was no public defender, no legal aid organization, and virtually no lawyers who saw the defense of poor black men and women as any part of their responsibilities.

All of these memories came screeching back to me as I watched a meeting of the American Bar Association on C-Span. It was here that I first learned about one of the prices the Republicans in Congress expect us to pay in order to bring down the nation’s budget deficit: cutting $75 million from the budget of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the agency that funds civil legal services for the poor.

The LSC is a private, non-profit corporation established by the U.S. Congress to seek to ensure equal access to justice under the law for all Americans by providing civil legal assistance to those who otherwise would be unable to afford it. It was created in 1974 with bipartisan congressional sponsorship and the support of the Nixon administration, and is funded through the congressional appropriations process. Among other programs, LSC provides grants to help local legal aid groups to operate more efficiently for more poor people.

But none of this apparently impressed the Republicans in Congress. The cut in the LSC’s funds was part of their global plan to eliminate $74 billion from the federal budget. And to make matters worse, the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee upped its overall cutting goal from $74 to $100 billion, bowing to pressure from the Tea Party. The increase would likely mean an even larger reduction in LSC funding.

The proposed $75 million funding cut would represent a 17 per cent reduction from the Obama Administration’s proposed increase in LSC funding for Fiscal Year 2011 to $435 million. The Congressional cut would amount to a 14 percent decline from LSC’s current funding of $420 million.

If it survived in the final fiscal 2011 budget passed by Congress, the budget cuts would seriously affect LSC grantee organizations, the local legal aid groups that serve low-income individuals and families throughout the U.S. These grantees are already struggling with recession-generated staff layoffs and office closures.

Professor Stephen B. Bright, president and senior counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights, told the ABA delegates that public defender offices across the country are overwhelmed with too many cases and too few attorneys. The result is that defense lawyers are forced to “meet ‘em and plead ‘em.”

This has caused what the American Bar Association calls a crisis within the justice system.

Bright explained, “There are massive amounts of federal funds for task forces and prosecuting indigents, but there’s no federal funding for representing indigents.”

Bright’s statement was backed up by Corey Stoughton, senior staff attorney and upstate litigation coordinator at the New York Civil Liberties Union. She said 20 people currently charged with a crime and receiving state–sponsored legal help are being denied their constitutional right to adequate counsel.

“The problem isn’t bad lawyers, it’s a bad system,” she said. She added that
the media often headlines the extreme cases of bad lawyers within a bad system. This makes it “hard to change the narrative,” she said.

Stephen Zack, the current ABA president, said in a statement, “Hard choices loom as to priorities for federal spending, but let’s be smart about where reductions are made. Slashing funds that keep working class and poor people from falling into a legal and financial tailspin is not the right decision in this economy.” The ABA is a long-time supporter of the LSC.

The proposed funding cut would only exacerbate the LSC’s problems. For the past several years, it has been attempting to operate with large chunks of its potential activity foreclosed. It has been unable to help, not only with programs that receive government funds but even those that use non-federal funds raised by legal services programs.

Since their passage, these restrictions have been plagued by repeated First Amendment questions and have sparked calls for change, says watchdog group OMB Watch.

Lee Mason, Director of Nonprofit Speech Rights at the Washington-based advocacy group, says, “The restrictions on the use of non-federal funds of the Legal Services Corporation amount to an all out attack on the constitutionally guaranteed First Amendment Rights of millions of citizens of America."

OMB Watch says the origin of the funding restrictions was a concerted effort by right-wing interests to deny low-income people access to the courts by destroying LSC. In “Mandate for Leadership,” the conservative agenda published on the eve of President Ronald Reagan’s first term in 1981, the conservative Heritage Foundation called for LSC’s wholesale destruction. Barring its complete demise, Heritage argued for steep budget cuts and the imposition of broad restrictions through LSC appropriations riders.

Should we be surprised that Congressional Republicans want to further cripple the LSC’s efforts to provide legal help to the poor? As noted above, right-wing ideologues have been trying to destroy the LSC since 1981. And the further reduction of these legal services is clearly of a piece with the GOP’s proposed “reform” of Medicaid – which would severely limit health care services to low-income families.

I wonder if the Republicans’ budget wunderkind, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, ever had to pay legal fees out of his own pocket. Even a Congressman’s salary ($174,000 a year plus benefits) could quickly be zeroed out.

But Rep. Ryan’s salary is not a major concern to me. Except that he’s probably being overpaid.

What is of concern to me that when only one side in a dispute has access to legal help, the rule of law becomes meaningless. And when that happens, one of the core principles that define America also becomes meaningless.

Though her talk was on the role of lawyers in the national security debate,
ABA President-elect Laurel Bellows captured the essence of the campaign to castrate the LSC. She said, “For lawyers to matter and for this association to truly matter, our voice must be heard on the great issues, issues that affect the rights and liberties of all Americans.”

Competent legal help for those unable to pay for it is one of those rights.

Bahrain: Do No Harm?

By William Fisher

Bahrain’s monarchy, struggling to hang on to power in the face of growing pro-democracy protests, is cracking down on doctors. Physicians for Human Rights says at least 19 doctors have been arrested by authorities since March 17, eight of them within the past week.

A month into the civil unrest, and under a state of martial law, police and soldiers have arrested or detained dozens of doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, paramedics, and other health care workers, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, advocacy group charges. The organization, which recently visited Bahrain to gather firsthand information on the government crackdown, says armed soldiers now stand guard at the entrances to Bahrain’s largest public hospital. It says, “The few patients who dare to seek help inside are interrogated and often detained.”

Among those detained by authorities is Dr. Sadeq Abdulla, a vascular surgeon at the Salmaniya Medical Complex. Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that, according to a source close to the doctor’s family, Interior Ministry officials summoned Abdulla to the ministry’s headquarters in the capital, Manama, at around 11 p.m. on April 14.

HRW claims Abdulla’s wife and father-in-law accompanied him to the ministry. They waited there for several hours but Abdulla never emerged. The source told HRW that the family contacted an officer at the Interior Ministry on April 15 to inquire about the status of Abdulla and was told that he would be in custody for “a few more days.” No information was provided regarding the reasons for Abdulla’s arrest, HRW says.

It adds, “Later that day Abdulla called his wife and told her “he was fine.” The authorities allowed Abdulla’s family to drop off his medications at the Criminal Investigations Directorate in Adliya on the same day, but have so far not allowed his family or his lawyer to visit him. Abdulla’s family believes that authorities are currently detaining him at the Adliya police station.”

Local human rights organizations estimate that more than 600 men and women have been held in custody since the pro-democracy demonstrations began. “We have serious concerns regarding the well-being and safety of some of the detainees,” said HRW’s Joe Stork, Middle East deputy director.

“The authorities should immediately provide information on the whereabouts of all detainees arrested since March 17 and permit them to meet with their families and lawyers,” he said.

HRW called attention to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bahrain ratified in 1998, requires that anyone arrested shall be promptly informed of any charges and brought before a judge or other judicial authority. A refusal of the authorities to acknowledge a person’s detention or provide information on their fate or whereabouts would be an enforced disappearance, the organization said.

At the same time, the beleaguered Bahraini government appears also to be cracking down on human rights advocates. HRW is reporting that more than two dozen uniformed and plainclothes security officers, most of who were masked, raided the home of prominent defense lawyer Mohammed al-Tajer on the evening of April 15, 2011, and arrested him.

Neither he nor his family was given any reason for his detention, HRW says, adding that it believes that al-Tajer is the first defense lawyer detained in more than a decade. He is well known for defending opposition figures and rights activists arrested in security sweeps.

HRW says the arrest took place around 11 p.m. on April 15, when security officers surrounded and then entered al-Tajer’s home. Security officers searched his home and confiscated personal items including laptops, mobile phones, and documents, before taking him away. Al-Tajer is one of 499 people currently detained by the Bahraini authorities, according to a list compiled by the Wefaq National Islamic Society, an opposition political society.

HRW’s Stork charged that “The government’s arrest of a leading defense lawyer shows that Bahrain is taking a turn for the worse on human rights. The authorities should either release Mohammed al-Tajer or charge him now with a recognizable offense.”

HRW says it is concerned that al-Tajer’s arrest is an effort on the part of authorities to intimidate and silence defense lawyers. Al-Tajer is part of a group of Bahraini lawyers who have defended opposition figures and rights activists arrested and detained by authorities during the past several years, including those picked up during the most recent security sweeps.

He was one of the lead lawyers involved in the trial of 23 opposition and rights activists arrested during security sweeps last August and September and accused under Bahrain’s counterterrorism law. The government released all 23 defendants on February 23, 2011, but rearrested several of them following the latest round of targeted arrests.

HRW says it has gathered testimony indicating that prior to their release on February 23, authorities had subjected some of the 23 to “severe abuse and ill-treatment amounting to torture.”

Since March 15, Bahrain has been subject to martial law, officially labeled a state of “National Safety,” that gave authorities wide powers of arrest, censorship, and prohibitions on freedom of movement and association.

But HRW said, “Even during a state of emergency, fundamental rights – such as the right to life, the right to be secure from torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, and the prohibition on discrimination – must always be respected.”

In a related development, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called on Bahraini authorities to conduct an “immediate and transparent investigation” into the death in state custody of Karim Fakhrawi, left, founder and board member of Al-Wasat, the country's premier independent daily newspaper.

Fakhrawi died last week, days after he was apparently taken into custody, according to news reports. Earlier this month, the government accused Al-Wasat of "deliberate news fabrication and falsification." Since then, the government has announced it would file criminal charges against three of the paper's senior editors and has deported two other senior staffers.

Fakhrawi is one of numerous investors in Al-Wasat, local journalists told CPJ. He is also a book publisher, the owner of one of Bahrain's biggest bookstores, and a member of Al-Wefaq, Bahrain's chief opposition party.

Bahrain's official news agency said on its Twitter feed that Fakhrawi died of kidney failure. Photographs published online, however, show a body identified as that of Fakhrawi with extensive cuts and bruises.

"The crackdown on dissent in Bahrain has taken a deadly turn with two deaths in custody in unexplained circumstances in less than a week," said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ's Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. "The Bahraini authorities must clarify how they reached the conclusion that Karim Fakhrawi died of kidney failure when photographs show his body covered in cuts and bruises," Dayem said.

Online journalist Zakariya Rashid Hassan al-Ashiri also died under mysterious circumstances while in government custody. Authorities claimed that al-Ashiri, who died April 9, had suffered complications from sickle cell anemia. However, his family denied he had ever suffered from this disease. His was the second case of death allegedly due to sickle cell anemia in detention centers by Bahraini Authorities, according to Maryam Al-Khawaja, head of the Foreign Relations Office for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR).

Khawaja said, “All detainees (currently numbered at around 600, among them 25 women two of whom are pregnant) are at very high risk of torture, and their lives are at threat,” adding, “There are still ongoing protests and candlelit vigils which get attacked every night in different villages in Bahrain causing more injuries. Tens of people are staying at home despite serious injuries, some with shrapnel in their eyes, out of fear of going to the hospitals, which are still under the control of the security forces.

Bahrain, an archipelago of 33 small islands in the Arabian Gulf midway between the Qatar peninsula and Saudi Arabia, is ruled by King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa, a Sunni Muslim. The Bahraini demonstrations were initially aimed at achieving greater political freedom and equality for the majority Shia population, but expanded to a call to end the monarchy of King Hamad following a deadly night raid on February 17 against protesters at Pearl Roundabout in Manama.

As public protests intensified, Bahrain’s neighbor and close political ally, Saudi Arabia, sent 1,000 troops into the tiny island kingdom to help its rulers to remain in power by quashing all dissent. The United Arab Emirates, like Saudi Arabia a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, also sent troops into Bahrain.

Omar al-Shehabi, director of the Gulf Center for Policy Studies, has written of the numerous demographic tensions in Bahraini society, aside from those between Sunni and Shia Muslims. There is a large expatriate workforce, which is tightly controlled and has limited labor rights. Bahrainis currently constitute less than a quarter of the labor force and make up less than half of the 1.2 million residents of the island, down from roughly two-thirds a decade ago, al-Shehabi notes.

He says Bahrain’s current problems are “based on a ruling elite who use the large oil revenues at their disposal to appease local residents through an extensive welfare state, while ensuring that they are marginalized on the political and economic fronts.”

“Under this structure, it is much easier for locals to lay the blame on foreigners and vice versa,” he says.