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Posts Tagged ‘Nebraska Supreme Court’

Last July in Courts and Transparency, I discussed the public records case of Les Veskrna, a Lincoln, Nebraska family doctor and executive director of the Children’s Rights Council of Iowa and Nebraska. Veskrna had requested copies or inspection of the court’s continuing education records pertaining to the training judges receive in child custody and parenting time matters from the Nebraska State Court Administrator. After his request was denied, he sued.

A district court earlier ruled against the court administrator and ordered that under Nebraska public records law, the requested Judicial Branch Education (JBE) records be turned over to Veskrna. The court administrator promptly appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court.

Yesterday, the Nebraska high court unanimously affirmed the lower court. It granted Veskrna a sweeping win and ordered access to the requested records, save for a redacted email. The Court also awarded him costs and attorney fees. Read State Ex Re. Veskrna v. Steel 296 Neb. 581 here and also see Supreme Court: Judges’ training documents are public record and Nebraska Supreme Court sets precedent by ruling that some judicial records are public.

No undue interference.

The Nebraska Supreme Court said the under state public records statutes, disclosing the requested records “does not unduly interfere with any essential function of the judicial branch.” 

The Court Administrator, Corey Steel, had argued that the 12 records requested by Veskrna were not public records. Steel also asserted disclosure would violate separation of powers were the Court “to accede to any statutory scheme that mandates the disclosure of JBE records.” The Court, however, explained there was no interference.

“We agree that whether or not we have adopted any court rules concerning the confidentiality of our JBE records, the public records statutes do not trump the constitutional imperative that one branch of government may not unduly interfere with the ability of another branch to perform its essential functions. We simply find no undue interference in disclosing the records at issue.”

One part of the decision drew my immediate interest. It should serve as prudent admonition for other states. Often enough, in my opinion, especially in school funding and state employee pension reform cases, there has been an unfortunate tendency for courts to stretch the bounds of permissible interference on another branch’s “essential functions.” See, for example, How far will the state Supreme Court go on McCleary? and Guinn v. Legislature of State of Nevada and Kansas Supreme Court rules school funding inadequate and Court’s pension ruling could cost Arizona taxpayers millions.

Courts are supposed to interpret not make law. Interests should be balanced and limits assessed with caution.

“It is for the judiciary to say when the Legislature has gone beyond its constitutional powers by enacting a law that invades the province of the judiciary. But the judiciary should “‘“proceed cautiously”’ in relying on ‘inherent authority’” and must give “‘due consideration for equally important executive and legislative functions.’” Determining the constitutional limits of the Legislature’s plenary lawmaking authority in the context of the separation of powers between the judicial function and power and the legislative one is a difficult endeavor that must proceed on a case-by-case basis.” [internal citations omitted]

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/21/NIXONcampaigns.jpg/320px-NIXONcampaigns.jpg

Richard Nixon, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Transparency as virtue.

The Nebraska Supreme Court also cited with approval United States v. Nixon. For those who skipped U.S. history class, Richard Nixon was the 37th President of the United States and had claimed executive privilege on national security grounds to block release of White House audiotapes as part of a cover-up related to the Watergate scandal. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-0 against him although it did recognize executive privilege as a legitimate power of the president — but not an absolute one. It rejected overly broad claims of executive privilege to shield records from public disclosure laws.

In this context, the Nebraska high court properly said “the ultimate inquiry when faced with the overlapping exercise of constitutionally delegated powers is the extent to which one branch is prevented from accomplishing its constitutionally assigned functions, balanced against the other branch’s need to promote the objectives within its constitutional authority.”  This is a key consideration.

But the other important principle has to be the respect accorded public access and transparency. “We have always supported transparency and the search for truth,” the Court declared. This must remain a cherished virtue even when the legal establishment habitually inclines toward reticence — if not obstinate opacity.

 

 

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petition | by League of Women Voters of CaliforniaA petition was filed today asking the Arizona Supreme Court to amend Rule 32(c) and (d) so as to split the functions of the State Bar of Arizona into two distinct subsets, a mandatory membership organization (“Mandatory Bar”) and a purely voluntary membership organization (“Voluntary Bar”). The amendment to the Court Rules would maintain the current mandatory membership requirement for all lawyers but (1) eliminate mandatory membership dues for non-regulatory functions and (2) allow voluntary contributions for all non-regulatory functions. Read the petition here.

The petition was filed by Sherman & Howard attorney Gregory Falls on behalf of the Goldwater Institute. By way of explanation on its website, the Goldwater Institute reiterates its opposition to “conditioning the practice of law on bar membership in Arizona because coerced membership violates the rights to free speech and free association guaranteed by the United States and Arizona Constitutions.”

It is for this reason, the Institute says it is “sponsoring a rule change petition to allow attorneys to practice law without being forced to fund the lobbying and other non-regulatory functions of the State Bar of Arizona.”

Change Management | by Jurgen AppeloThe petition is reminiscent of HB2221, which the petition acknowledges, “called for a less nuanced version of what Petitioner proposes here.” HB2221 came within 5 votes of clearing the Arizona Legislature and landing on the governor’s desk during the 2016 legislative session. Like today’s petition, HB2221 was modeled on the Nebraska Supreme Court’s bifurcated approach to bar membership articulated in its December 6, 2013 decision Petition For Rule To Create Vol. State Bar Assn. 286 Neb. 108.

j0289753The Nebraska Supreme Court ordered that the requirement be left in place mandating membership in the Nebraska State Bar Association. But the Court also lifted the requirement that attorneys fund the Nebraska Bar’s non-regulatory functions. This meant Nebraska attorneys still paid regulatory and disciplinary costs but were no longer forced to subsidize the Nebraska Bar’s speech and its non-regulatory activities.

In its website statement, the Goldwater Institute acknowledges that “the Nebraska Model falls short of the fully voluntary model used in 18 other states.” It adds, however, that Nebraska’s bifurcated model “is a significant positive step toward associational freedom.”

Another front.

The petition filing opens up another front in the long-term campaign to reform lawyer regulation in Arizona. Along with continuing legislative efforts, the goal is to remediate a system not only rife with inequity but which represents a continuing threat to consumers. In addition to impinging constitutional rights on lawyers by preconditioning membership in a trade association to earn a living in their chosen profession, mandatory bar associations have an inherent conflict of interest because they act as both regulators of and trade associations for lawyers. And that conflict of interest is further exacerbated when lawyers elect a controlling number of other lawyers to represent them in their own regulatory board. By its very nature, then, this cartel-protection system threatens capture of the regulatory board by lawyers at the expense of the public.

Jen, kissing the First Amendment goodbye? | by jasoneppinkConditioning the practice of law on bar membership also violates lawyers’ constitutional rights. The U.S. Supreme Court has found that the only compelling state interest in coercive bar association membership is to improve the practice of law through lawyer regulation. But the fact is that lawyer regulation and improved legal practice can be attained through less restrictive means. 18 states — Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Vermont — have already found ways to regulate attorneys without compelling membership

Arizona lawyers aren’t the only professionals concerned with a mandatory bar’s opacity, bureaucratic wastefulness, and divided loyalties to the public and lawyers. Indeed, attorney and public members of the California State Bar’s Board of Trustees are working again with California Legislators to bifurcate that Bar’s regulatory and trade association functions. See Calif. State Bar Blasted for Lack of Transparency  and Lawmakers Fight to Reform California Bar After Audits Skewer Agency for Mismanagement, Lack of Transparency, and Pricey Salaries.

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Credits: Petition, by League of Women Voters of California LWVC at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license; Change Management by Jurgen Appelo at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License; Jen, kissing the first amendment goodbye, by Jason Eppink at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution.

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