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Posts Tagged ‘Nevada Supreme Court’

Last week Nevada’s Supreme Court spared the state’s private practice lawyers from being forced to pay thousands of dollars in annual costs. The court unanimously denied an ill-considered state bar-sponsored rule petition to impose as a condition of licensure a requirement that all lawyers engaged in private practice buy professional liability insurance. The court ruled, “Having considered the petition and the comments from the State Bar and the public, we conclude that the Board of Governors has provided inadequate detail and support demonstrating that the proposed amendment to SCR 79 is appropriate.”

The Court also took particular note of its existing rule that already provides for public disclosure of whether an attorney maintains professional liability insurance.

Interestingly, in preparing its misguided rule change petition Nevada’s Board of Governors relied on data and input provided by an interested stakeholder and current market participant,“its endorsed lawyers’ malpractice insurance company and “the nation’s largest direct writer of lawyers” malpractice insurance.”

The high cost to practice.

As it is, most lawyers voluntarily carry legal malpractice insurance. But it’s one thing to do so by choice and quite another to do so by coercion. Nevada’s high court is to be saluted for its prudence in rejecting the Bar’s proposal, which would have catapulted Nevada into the uppermost ranks of the highest cost to practice jurisdictions in the U.S.

At least, for now, Oregon has the dubious distinction of remaining king of the high cost mountain.

But high cost contenders remain. Mandatory bar association leaders apparently love nothing more than finding new ways to scorch their members with new practice pains and greater financial burdens, especially for those in private practice. Indeed, as of the first of the this year, to keep their tickets to practice Idaho private practice lawyers are now required to submit “proof of current professional liability insurance coverage at the minimum limit of $100,000 per occurrence/$300,000 annual aggregate.”

That resolution passed in Idaho by a scant 51% to 49% vote of bar members. It’s unclear how many Idaho private practice lawyers voted or were even aware of the proposal. I suspect not many. Moreover, had the word gotten out in time as it barely did in Nevada, the outcome might have been much different.

Anecdotally, for example, in July I exchanged emails with a Nevada lawyer also licensed in Idaho. While objecting to the proposed Nevada insurance mandate, he expressed concern should Idaho follow with a similar requirement. He was floored to learn that not only had it already been considered in Idaho — but that even now he was subject to the new rule as of January 1, 2018!

No remedy.

Besides significantly increasing the cost to practice, mandatory professional liability insurance is no remedy for the victims of a lawyer’s intentional acts or omissions and criminal or fraudulent conduct. Why? Because these acts along with numerous others fall under common policy exclusions that too often foreclose relief to claimants. Insurers don’t cover intentional, criminal or fraudulent acts. In addition, mandatory insurance is not designed to protect the public — but to protect the insured. I discussed some of this in my “No lawyer love in Nevada” July blog post.

Finally, Washington lawyers in private practice should remain vigilant lest they be caught unaware like their next door neighbors. Mandatory bars are notorious copy cats. And the folks running the Washington Bar are particularly adept at giving it to their members.

File:Aprilmaze.jpg

For sometime now and as reported here, the Washington Bar has been considering its own legal malpractice insurance mandate. In July, the Association’s Mandatory Malpractice Insurance Task Force issued its interim report.

I doubt Nevada’s failure to afflict its lawyers with compulsory insurance will do much to dissuade the Washington Bar from its hard-nosed agenda.

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Credits: Aprilmaze.jpg, at Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

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Note: These days accountability is in short supply, it always being easier to blame the other guy when something bad happens. This is especially the case when talking about those wielding unalloyed political, financial, legislative, prosecutorial, religious or as the following lays out law enforcement power.

Standing in the way of holding the powerful accountable is the doctrine of “qualified immunity, which, “balances two important interests—the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” Pearson v. Callahan.

Lawyers, too, can find themselves without remedy when confronted by a version of the doctrine in the disciplinary process. Lawyers accused of ethical violations but subsequently exonerated of wrongdoing hit their own roadblocks to relief via versions of this qualified immunity doctrine or more commonly its big sister, absolute immunity. Many if not all jurisdictions deem all participants in the lawyer disciplinary process “absolutely immune from civil liability.” Rare indeed is the jurisdiction carving out an exception to a bar prosecutor’s claimed immunity.

As borne out by those supporting a challenge to the doctrine that may hopefully be heard next term by the U.S. Supreme Court, qualified immunity has over time simply become a free pass. The principle that ‘no one is above the law’ is treated like a long-past fancy. It’s nigh time, then, for the nation’s highest court to revisit and restore that principle. The following is reblogged verbatim from Cato at Liberty, The Cato Institute under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International Public License.

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Leading Scholars and Most Diverse Amici Ever Assembled File Briefs Challenging Qualified Immunity

I’ve previously blogged about Allah v. Milling, a case in which a pretrial detainee was kept in extreme solitary confinement for nearly seven months, for no legitimate reason, and subsequently brought a civil-rights lawsuit against the prison officials responsible. Although every single judge in Mr. Allah’s case agreed that these defendants violated his constitutional rights, a split panel of the Second Circuit said they could not be held liable, all because there wasn’t any prior case addressing the “particular practice” used by this prison. Cato filed an amicus brief in support of Mr. Allah’s cert petition, which explicitly asks the Supreme Court to reconsider qualified immunity—a judge-made doctrine, at odds with the text and history of Section 1983, which regularly allows public officials to escape accountability for this kind of unlawful misconduct.

I also blogged about how, on June 11th, the Supreme Court called for a response to the cert petition, indicating that the Court has at least some interest in the case. The call for a response also triggered 30 days for additional amicus briefs, and over the last month, Cato has been coordinating the drafting and filing of two such briefs—one on behalf of a group of leading qualified immunity scholars (detailing the many recent academic criticisms of the doctrine), and the other on behalf of an incredibly broad range of fifteen public interest and advocacy groups concerned with civil rights and police accountability.

The interest-group brief is especially noteworthy because it is, to my knowledge, the single most ideologically and professionally diverse amicus brief ever filed in the Supreme Court. The signatories include, for example, the ACLU, the Institute for Justice, the Second Amendment Foundation, Americans for Prosperity (the Koch brothers’ primary advocacy group), the American Association for Justice (formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America), the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (composed of current and former law-enforcement professionals), the Alliance Defending Freedom (a religious-liberties advocacy group), and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The brief’s “Statement of Interest” section, after identifying and describing all of the individual signatories, concludes as follows:

The above-named amici reflect the growing cross-ideological consensus that this Court’s qualified immunity doctrine under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 misunderstands that statute and its common-law backdrop, denies justice to victims of egregious constitutional violations, and fails to provide accountability for official wrongdoing. This unworkable doctrine has diminished the public’s trust in government institutions, and it is time for this Court to revisit qualified immunity. Amici respectfully request that the Court grant certiorari and restore Section 1983’s key role in ensuring that no one remains above the law.

The primary theme of this brief is that our nation is in the midst of a major accountability crisis. The widespread availability of cell phones has led to large-scale recording, sharing, and viewing of instances of egregious police misconduct, yet more often than not that misconduct goes unpunished. Unsurprisingly, public trust in law enforcement has fallen to record lows. Qualified immunity exacerbates this crisis, because it regularly denies justice to victims whose constitutional rights are violated, and thus reinforces the sad truth that law enforcement officers are rarely held accountable, either criminally or civilly.

Moreover, qualified immunity not only hurts the direct victims of misconduct, but law enforcement professionals as well. Policing is dangerous, difficult work, and officers—most of whom do try to uphold their constitutional obligations—increasingly report that they cannot effectively carry out their responsibilities without the trust of their communities. Surveys of police officers thus show strong support for increased transparency and accountability, especially by holding wrongdoing officers more accountable. Yet continued adherence to qualified immunity ensures that this worthy goal will never be reached.

The Supreme Court is in recess now, and the defendants’ response brief won’t be due until September 10th, so we’re going to have to wait until early October to find out if the Supreme Court will take the case. But the Court, the legal community, and the public at large should now be aware that criminal defense lawyers, trial lawyers, public-interest lawyers of every ideological stripe, criminal-justice reform groups, free-market & limited-government advocates, and law enforcement professionals themselves all agree on at least one thing—qualified immunity is a blight on our legal system, and the time has come to cast off this pernicious, counter-productive doctrine.

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Photo Credit: Hiding, by Kristin Schmit, at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License.

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Note: The following is re-blogged with the express permission of author, noted family law specialist, and Nevada attorney, Marshal S. Willick. It was originally posted May 25, 2018 as Volume 66 of the Willick Law Group‘s Newsletter.

Willick’s insights and prescriptions are timely, persuasive and on-the-mark. Among his key recommendations is that the Nevada Supreme Court “assess the efficacy and impacts of mandatory CLE.” His commentary is definitely must reading.

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Vol. 66 – The New CLE Fee Structure Stinks and Should Be Changed

A legal note from Marshal Willick about how Nevada’s CLE system has been made destructive to both education and scholarship while increasing dramatically in cost, and why only the Nevada Supreme Court – which ultimately is responsible for this mess – can do anything about solving it.

The cost of CLE in Nevada just increased by an order of magnitude while the number and variety of available offerings has been greatly curtailed, and scholarship is being actively punished.

I. WHAT CHANGED AND WHY

The Nevada Board of Continuing Legal Education was created in 1982; it is distinct from – but intertwined with – the Nevada Bar Board of Governors (“BOG”). In 2014, in a “turf” squabble, the CLE Board asked the Supreme Court to reduce the number of CLE Board members appointed by the BOG since the Bar was a “provider” and the CLE Board complained of a conflict of interest.

The CLE Board declared that to do its job, it had to be a “stand-alone” entity that was “financially self-sustaining” so as to “avoid or eliminate conflicts of interest.” It complained that the number of lawyers and fees only “grows slowly” but the Board’s “profitability erodes as operating expenses [primarily its own salaries and benefits] increase over time.” It complained that in 2014, the CLE Board expended $15,000 more than it received from fees, while quietly noting a “reserve” from prior fees received of over $600,000.

So the CLE Board submitted ADKT 499 to change its “business plan” from reliance on annual attorney CLE fees (and late fees), claiming (at the beginning, anyway) its intent to get the “hugely profitable” CLE providers to start funding the cost of mandatory CLE to “reduce or eliminate fees for the lawyers.” It apparently never occurred to the CLE Board to explain why it should seek to be “profitable.”

The new plan was supposed to replace lawyer CLE fees by imposing on “accredited” CLE providers an annual fee of $500 plus $5 for each credit hour earned by every attendee, with another $5 per credit to be paid by each lawyer. For “non-accredited” providers, the new business plan charged a $25 “application fee” per program plus $5 per credit hour per attorney to be paid by the CLE provider, with another $5 per credit to be paid by each lawyer.

Begrudgingly, the fees would not apply to providers “that are non-profit and do not charge attorneys for attending their programs,” or to “Federal, State, and local governmental agencies, nor for legal aid, provided they do not charge attorneys.”

The CLE Board predicted that the change would improve CLE in Nevada because “higher quality providers will accept new fees to continue operating in Nevada, while others will exit the State.” No explanation was suggested as to what denoted “quality” or how that had anything to do with being large for-profit enterprises.

The CLE Board also promised to increase efficiency and economy through use of electronic communications to replace paper, to streamline its processes, and to save staff time by ceasing to “cajole” or “hand-hold” lawyers and instead greatly increase financial penalties imposed against lawyers for non-compliance, predicting that doing so would actually decrease the total of those fees by increasing lawyer compliance.

The Bar opposed the reorganization and parts of the new CLE “business plan,” but agreed to collect the annual CLE fees along with annual Bar dues so that fewer lawyers would be confused and end up having to pay the very expensive “late fee” penalty that constituted 40% of the funding of the CLE Board.

After public comment, a hearing, and several rounds of written input, mainly from the BOG and other bar associations, the Supreme Court approved both the reorganization and the new business plan.

II. THE REAL WORLD AND CONSEQUENCES, INTENDED AND OTHERWISE

Many Nevada lawyers have complained about the CLE “industry” for years, noting that it was already much too expensive, and that for many lawyers it was a totally hollow exercise which generated money for both the Bar and the CLE Board but had no discernable effect on actually improving lawyer competence.

For example, see Legal Notes Vol. 33, “Make Lawyer CLE Meaningful” (Jan. 2011); Vol. 36, “Judicial CLE” (Mar. 2011); Vol. 40, “Other Updates to Prior Notes” (Jun. 2011), and Vol. 54, “Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Cheap & Useful CLE” (Oct. 2012), all posted at https://www.willicklawgroup.com/newsletters/.

Those notes stepped through the history of CLE in Nevada, detailing how it had devolved from the aspiration of promoting lawyer competence into the meaningless extraction of funds to fund the CLE bureaucracy, and how both the Bar and the CLE Board had ignored the obvious reforms that would make it actually useful to the public.

We detailed the huge sums involuntarily extracted from lawyers and being fed to the Bar, to the CLE Board, and to private companies, and protested that since all known studies showed no actual improvement to lawyer competency from mandatory CLE, what Nevada had created was a time-and-money-consuming bureaucracy that falsely portrayed itself as providing a service important to the public, but which actually did not make lawyers better or provide the public any useful information, and so did no actual good.

We explained how my firm was going to try to encourage reform by producing and presenting substantive and specialized CLE at no cost to attendees for the purpose of trying to improve the practice and drive down the fees charged by others.

And we expressed the hope that if that approach was emulated by a sufficient number of others, enough of the profit motive could be taken out of the CLE racket to cause the CLE bureaucracy to focus on actually serving the legitimate interests of lawyers, public, and the courts.

Over the following six years, we produced low-to-no cost CLEs on a wide variety of family law topics, with any money beyond the cost of snacks going to Legal Aid. The “Basics” series (Jurisdiction, Child Custody, Relocation, Property Division, and Practical Mechanics of Family Trial Practice) was acclaimed by those attending, as was the 1-hour Lunch-and-Learn series addressing topics from pension division to the new local rules.

And others did emulate that model – experts throughout the Bar started putting on programs at no cost in their various specialty areas, significantly enhancing the actual education of lawyers in multiple fields.

But this did not generate any money for the CLE bureaucracy, which reacted like a bureaucracy does, seeking its own perpetuation and expansion at the expense of those it purports to serve.

So now, if you want to give away your time, experience, and expertise for the benefit of others, you are required to submit a $25 “application” fee and pay another $5 for every credit that every attendee receives. In other words, for the privilege of volunteering to do all the work to provide a one-hour CLE for 30 people, you have to pay the CLE Board $175. If 100 people happen to show up, it will cost you $525. Lord help you if 1,000 people want to hear what you have to teach.

Who is exempted from paying these fees? The Bar, its sections, and specialty Bars, but only if all proceeds go to legal aid, or to TIP mentors, or the credits offered are 1.5 hours or less. Or if the provider is the government, or a non-profit agency. Otherwise, too bad. The full set of “how we intend to take more money from you” regulations is set out at https://www.nvcleboard.org/formsinformation.asp#.

And this was by no means accidental. The CLE Board, in the debate leading up to adoption of the new regulations, stated in its submissions that it fully intended to cause the “exit of low volume non-accredited providers.” In other words, prevent lawyers from teaching other lawyers for free.

The CLE Board brushed aside the fact that large for-profit providers would obviously pass along to their captive lawyer market the increased fees and costs and that the lawyers would end up paying a lot more every year, saying “Overall, the Board expects no more than a modest effect on provider pricing, as anecdotal input suggests.”

In other words, the CLE Board very deliberately wanted to destroy the ability of lawyers to provide free CLE, because it was not good for the bureaucracy’s income growth, actual damage to the education of members of the Bar be damned. And they knew all along that their new plan would not “reduce fees” to lawyers but would instead greatly increase them, and they didn’t care about that, either.

III. YOU EVEN HAVE TO PAY THEM TO PAY SOMEONE ELSE

The regulations are unclear on the point, but apparently you have to pay the CLE Board if you actually want to obtain specialized education and training in your field.

A divorce lawyer gets the highest-possible quality of education from programs put on by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. But if you go to the 3-day annual CLE in Chicago – paying to travel there, to register, and to stay out of town for three days – you apparently also have to pay the CLE Board $5.00 for every credit you already paid to get.

So the AAML annual meeting, with its 10.5 hours of general and ethics credit, will cost every attendee another $52.50. Every year. On top of the cost of anything earned in Nevada (you have to pay $5 for most credits earned here, too).

The system has been altered so that the more any lawyer seeks out specialized training and education to actually be better, the more expensive it will be. Low-quality, irrelevant, and outdated CLE can be found which is cheap, but of course signing up for such won’t actually make any lawyer any more competent. The incentives are backward.

IV. THE DELIBERATE DISCOURAGEMENT OF SCHOLARSHIP AND PUBLICATION

Every major legal publication in Nevada works hard to attract quality substantive articles – The Nevada Family Law Report, the Nevada Lawyer, the Clark County Communique, the Washoe County Writ, etc.

One of the few tangible benefits for spending the dozens of hours of research, writing, and editing it takes to create such articles has always been the ability to obtain CLE credit for helping to teach other members of the Bar through such publications.

Now, it will also cost you. Regulation 9 of the new CLE rules imposes a $25 fee to get credit for writing scholarly articles – so if you volunteer your time and expertise to help educate the Bar by writing an article for the NFLR or Nevada Lawyer, you have to pay for that, too.

It is hard to imagine a way to more actively discourage lawyers from volunteering their time and expertise to write scholarly articles. And this thought apparently did not even cross the mind of anyone involved in adoption of the new rules – it appears nowhere in the written record of ADKT 499.

V. THE NEW POLICY IS WRONG AND COUNTERPRODUCTIVE

The “mission statement” of the CLE Board is to ensure that Nevada lawyers “continue their education through a wide range of quality educational programs and to have and maintain the requisite knowledge and skills to fulfill their professional responsibilities.”

But every aspect of the new model discourages providing quality education or scholarship, and decreases what is available to Nevada lawyers who want to actually improve their knowledge and skills. Costs are increased for every lawyer, and the more a lawyer actually cares about getting the best possible education and training, the more it will cost that lawyer.

Every impact of the new plan is directly antithetical to the CLE Board’s supposed reason for existing – but it does feed more money to its bureaucracy. The priorities for those involved in the discussion seem crystal clear.

It is not as if the Supreme Court has not previously been presented with budget impacts related to CLE. In 2016, the Court approved an expansion of CLE from 12 to 13 hours annually, so that every lawyer, every year, had to get a credit related to substance abuse and mental health. We were already the fifth most-expensive-to-remain-in-practice Bar before that change.

Justice Pickering dissented from the addition, noting the minimum $1 million in cost/lost productivity that change would cost, and the entire lack of any empirical evidence that it would actually do any good.

It seems likely that with that new “business plan” being adopted, the CLE Board will make Nevada number one – in cost to remain in practice on zero evidence of any actual benefit to the bench, Bar, or public. Hooray.

VI. RESPONSES BY THE BAR AND SECTION LEADERSHIP HAVE BEEN INADEQUATE

Essentially every entity that participated in the debate over ADKT 499 was solely interested in looking out for its own budget and programs, with scant attention or concern for the lawyers who would end up paying the freight (or their clients, on whom the increased cost of the lawyers remaining in practice ultimately descends). Each entity was focused on trying to secure exemptions from the new fees – for itself.

The State Bar submissions at least claimed to be concerned for the general Bar membership – in addition to the Bar’s own fees and programs, of course – but with all the numbers thrown out during the debate for over two years, no one involved apparently took the time to project what the new policy would actually cost each individual lawyer.

More than anything else, the written submissions looked like Russell Long’s famous summary of input to how tax policy is made in Washington:

Don’t tax you,
Don’t tax me,
Tax that fellow behind the tree.
(William B. Mead, “Congress Tackles the Income Tax” (Money, July, 1973)).

As with the debacle that is e-filing in Clark County, which has been extensively detailed in these notes, it has apparently never occurred to anyone involved that the proper response to increased efficiency, automation, and technology is to lower the cost to the user. If the size of the Bar membership (apparently about 8,000), and the fees that all those members pay, is only growing “incrementally,” then the growth of the bureaucracy’s budget should be likewise constrained to “incremental” increase.

If that is not “adequate,” require the CLE Board to piggy-back on existing State Bar mailings, notices, and staff for functions and communications that can be combined for the purpose of lowering costs.

VII. AN ACTUAL SOLUTION TO THE “PROBLEM”

It is worth circling back to the policy that is supposedly being served by creation of this CLE bureaucracy and the massive money it takes to run it: improving lawyer competence, ultimately for the benefit of the public hiring those lawyers.

The actual “solutions” that would serve that policy goal are simple and cheap, as detailed in Legal Notes 33 and 54 seven years ago: If you want to ensure that lawyers are actually learning something at CLE, require providers to test them on the subject matter of the course. If you want the public to hire the best trained and most educated lawyers, have the Bar publicly post the CLE record of all lawyers so that the public can see the currency and validity of attorneys’ continuing education.

What is not helpful to either lawyers or the public is to fund an ever-better-paid CLE bureaucracy primarily fixated on its own perpetuation and growth.

VIII. CONCLUSIONS

By my estimate, the cost of CLE in Nevada just (at least) doubled, while the number and variety of available offerings has been drastically reduced. Half a dozen companies have pulled out of Nevada entirely, and free CLE offered by law firms has essentially disappeared. Our CLE Board is actively discouraging anyone from wanting to provide either education to others, or scholarship and authorship. The new policy is counterproductive in virtually every imaginable way.

Only the Nevada Supreme Court can do anything about this. The CLE Board will never do anything to reduce its own budget and growth, and neither will the Bar. Both of those entities report to the Court, which should start with figuring out what end results it is trying to produce, and then target policies and directives to actually achieve them.

Given the enormous costs in both time and money, it may be time to re-evaluate the value of the entire system. Getting empirical evidence as to whether mandatory CLE actually does any good would seem to be a good first step.

At bare minimum, policies that discourage volunteering and scholarship should be reversed. There should be no fee of any kind for providing CLE without charging for it, and there should be no fee of any kind for seeking credit for scholarly articles and publications. It would be a good idea to have some kind of sliding scale beyond that, so that folks that have a modest charge to attendees (for example, to finance lunch or renting space) are not punished for providing a public service.

Overall, the concept is that the CLE Board should be focused on facilitating the actual providing of useful information and training to members of the Bar at the lowest possible cost, rather than maximizing revenues to perpetuate its own bureaucracy.

The CLE Board long ago lost all sight of the purpose of CLE, and the bureaucracy spawned is now solely concerned with its own perpetuation, expansion, and increase in budget. As currently constituted, the Nevada mandatory CLE system does nothing measurable to improve the competence of lawyers or judges, and the Bar does nothing to let the public get any potentially useful information from or about it. CLE is now about nothing but funding.

There is no defensible rationale for what has metastasized into the current hot mess. The State Bar, on behalf of the general membership, should ask the Court to assess the efficacy and impacts of mandatory CLE, and the Court, on behalf of the lawyers and the public, should do so.

IX. QUOTES OF THE ISSUE

“In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control, and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.”
– Jerry Pournelle (Pournelle’s Law of Bureaucracy)

“Bureaucracies force us to practice nonsense. And if you rehearse nonsense, you may one day find yourself the victim of it.”
– Laurence Gonzales, Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things

“Bureaucracies are inherently antidemocratic. Bureaucrats derive their power from their position in the structure, not from their relations with the people they are supposed to serve. The people are not masters of the bureaucracy, but its clients.”
– Alan Keyes

“You will never understand bureaucracies until you understand that for bureaucrats procedure is everything and outcomes are nothing.”
– Thomas Sowell

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For some of the CLE materials and articles produced by the Willick Law Group, go to https://willicklawgroup.com/cle-materials/ and https://willicklawgroup.com/published-works/. For the archives of previous legal notes, go to https://www.willicklawgroup.com/newsletters.

If there are any problems with or suggestions for these newsletters, please feel free to email back to me. Thanks.

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In June I wondered whether the Nevada Bar would be first to impose an unconstitutional speech code on their members. In May, that Bar’s governing board had filed a petition asking the state supreme court to amend a lawyer professional conduct rule, specifically ABA Model Rule 8.4(g).

Purporting to prohibit lawyers from engaging in harassing or discriminatory conduct, the new, vague, and over broad ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) would have chilled free speech; weaponized lawyer discipline; and infringed on lawyers’ free exercise rights.

Surprise, surprise, surprise!

As it happens, though, another state beat Nevada to the punch. In August, Vermont surprised a lot of people — not the least being Vermont lawyers — to become the first and so far, the only jurisdiction to adopt the ABA’s suggested model rule.

Noting how there were “zero public comments submitted,” law professor Josh Blackman wrote on his blog, “The bar counsel for the state’s professional responsibility program boasted, “So as you can see, this rule obviously had a lot of support.” 

Opposition in Nevada

As for Nevada, acknowledging that “many comments were filed in opposition . . . that caused the Board to pause,” the Nevada Bar backed off its rule change petition in a letter to the state high court declaring “it prudent to retract.” Just the same, in what seems little more than face-saving, the Board also expressed its “reservation to refile” if and when supposed inconsistent language in other jurisdictions is sorted out. That all this so-called inconsistency in other jurisdictions was already well-known is, of course, unmentioned. Every jurisdiction, after all, is free to adopt its own professional conduct rules.

It’s also worthy of note that though the court twice extended the public comment period, no comments were ever filed in favor of the Bar’s petition. All comments filed were opposed. The Board’s request was granted September 25, 2017.

So Vermont notwithstanding, the proposal has to date continued facing strong opposition not just in Nevada but elsewhere. The key is lawyers being adequately informed about it. What has to be overcome are the preferences of mandatory bar majordomos inclined toward the enactment of onerous initiatives as fait accompli with little preceding notice, detection or commotion. But when lawyers are told and widely noticed the opportunity to comment, legal elites have problems flying their officious meddling under-the-radar.

So far the proposed ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) has been turned back in other states, including Illinois, South Carolina and Louisiana. It has been roundly criticized in Texas and failed to find traction in Montana. See “Montana legislature says ABA model rule on discrimination and harassment violates First Amendment.”

The rule is currently under review in Utah but has encountered powerful headwinds there, too. It is opposed in Idaho. And in Arizona, opponents are galvanized to fight an ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) petition queued up for January 2018.

Yet despite all this, this month the ABA Journal took artistic license to soft pedal the reality of this mounting widespread antagonism to the lawyer speech code, writing, “States split on new ABA Model Rule limiting harassing or discriminatory conduct.”

Vermont, apparently, wasn’t an outlier. “States split,” they say.

And I’m a superhero.

Alternative facts, alas, remain in vogue.

 

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Credits: “Oral Exam,” by Ben Sutherland at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution; “What,” by Alexander John, Flickr Creative Commons Attribution; “40+112 Superhero Fail,” by Bark at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution.

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Note: The following story was originally published by ProPublica, “an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.” It is republished with permission.

The behavior of Bill Kephart, who led the murder prosecution of Fred Steese, was repeatedly lambasted by the Supreme Court of Nevada. But that didn’t stop him from becoming a judge. This month he was charged with misconduct in that position too.

by Megan Rose, ProPublica

May 26, 2017

In the legal world, prosecutors are rarely called out by name. Their misconduct is usually attributed to unidentified prosecutors or the “State” in rulings by appellate judges. But as a Las Vegas prosecutor, Bill Kephart — now a judge — achieved a dubious distinction: He was chastised publicly.

The Supreme Court of Nevada took the rare step in 2001 of ordering him to prove why he shouldn’t be sanctioned for his behavior in one of his cases with a fine or a referral to the state bar for “violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct.” The ruling was disseminated statewide and, in Kephart’s own words, “professionally embarrassed” him. In his response, he wrote that the ruling had “already had a great impact” on him and promised that there wouldn’t be “a bona fide allegation of prosecutorial misconduct against me in the future.” The justices nevertheless fined him $250.

Fred Steese served more than 20 years in prison for murder even though evidence in the prosecution’s files proved he didn’t do it. But when the truth came to light, he was offered a confounding deal. Read the story.

The Supreme Court’s rebuke was particularly notable in Nevada, where the judges are elected and part of the state’s insular legal community. They typically rule unanimously and seldom come down too hard on prosecutors. As one retired chief justice put it: “Picking fights with district attorneys might not be the best thing for [a judge’s] career continuation.” But Kephart’s behavior challenged that status quo, compelling one or more of the justices to issue dissents in several cases, saying his behavior called for convictions to be overturned.

Overall, the Nevada high court has noted prosecutorial misconduct in at least five of his cases over a dozen years, not including his actions during the trial of Fred Steese — who was tried by Kephart for a 1992 murder and ruled innocent 20 years later after exculpatory evidence was found in the prosecution’s files. In the cases in which Kephart is not named, he is the prosecutor whose misconduct is cited:

  • In 1996, the court noted “several instances of prosecutorial misconduct” in a sexual assault case. The conviction was upheld, but one justice dissented, saying that Kephart had “infected” an already “muddled case” and it warranted reversal. (In 2001, a judge granted the defendant an evidentiary hearing and he was released.)
  • In 1997, the court reversed the murder convictions of two men based entirely on the “deliberate” and “improper comments” made by the prosecution during cross examination and closing argument. The DA’s office had sought the death penalty, which in Nevada increases costs by about a half million dollars on average, making this and other reversals based on Kephart’s behavior expensive screw-ups for taxpayers. (Both men were retried and convicted again in 1998, one sentenced to life in prison and the other to death.)
  • In 2001, in the case he was fined $250, the court said Kephart gave the jury a misleading explanation of the standard for reasonable doubt when he instructed them: “you have a gut feeling he’s guilty, he’s guilty.” A justice said at a hearing that the remark seemed “like deliberate misrepresentation.” The court upheld the conviction, but noted that Kephart’s “improper remark was particularly reprehensible because this is a capital case and the remark was gratuitous and patently inadequate to convey to the jury its duty…”
  • In 2002, the court took issue with Kephart for assaulting a witness. During the trial of a sexual assault case, Kephart said he wanted to demonstrate how the victim said she was choked, pressing his forearm into the defendant’s neck while he was on the stand. The court upheld the verdict, but noted there was “absolutely no reason” for Kephart’s behavior, which went “well beyond the accepted bounds of permissible advocacy.” One justice dissented, saying “the instances of prosecutorial misconduct were pervasive and substantial…an accused who takes the stand runs many risks. One of them should not be that the prosecutor would physically assault him or her.”
  • In 2008, the court tossed out a murder conviction in another death penalty case, saying, among other issues, the prosecution’s misconduct was “significant” and “occurred throughout the trial,” including Kephart’s remarks during jury selection and in closing. One judge dissented, saying the prosecutorial misconduct and other issues didn’t require reversal. (The defendant eventually pled guilty in 2014.)

In 2002, Kephart prosecuted another highly contested murder case against Kirstin Lobato, then 19, which has garnered national outcry for the meager and sometimes contradictory evidence against her. Lobato was recently granted an evidentiary hearing and is represented by the Innocence Project. This month, the prosecuting officer for the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline filed misconduct charges against Kephart for a media interview he gave about the case last year, in which he said it “was completely justice done.” Kephart’s “statements could affect the outcome or impair the fairness of Miss Lobato’s case,” according to the formal statement of charges. The statement said Kephart violated several rules of the judicial code of conduct. He has not yet filed a reply.

Kephart, who joined the DA’s office in the early 1990s as a brash young attorney, once got in a shoving match with a defense attorney. Another time a judge had to admonish him for repeatedly shaking his head, making faces and rolling his eyes. His behavior eventually led to minor reprimands from the Clark County District Attorney’s Office, according to several people who worked with him during that time. In 2002, after Kephart’s reasonable-doubt flub, the entire DA’s office had to complete a two-hour ethics course and continuing legal education classes, which the deputy district attorneys tagged the “Kephart CLE.” That same year, Kephart was briefly banned from trials. Regardless, he later became a chief deputy.

Kephart also was called before the state bar for his behavior in Steese’s murder trial, but, according to lawyers at the hearing, his boss made an appeal on behalf of him and the other prosecutor on the case, and neither was sanctioned.

Kephart declined several requests for comment.

Despite these repeated critiques of his conduct, Kephart was voted onto the bench in 2010 as a justice of the peace and in 2014 moved to the Eighth Judicial District Court of Nevada, where he today he presides over civil, construction and criminal cases.

Update, May 31, 2017: In his official written response to the disciplinary commission, Kephart has denied charges that he violated judicial canons with his remarks to the media about an open case. His response said that he had “participated in interim rehabilitation by taking classes,” and the commission should consider his honest motives, clean judicial disciplinary record, and “character and reputation.”

Megan Rose covers the military for ProPublica. Previously she was the national correspondent at Stars and Stripes.

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Clarence Thomas - Caricature | by DonkeyHoteyU.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas told a meeting of lawyers last week that “unchecked judicial power” means “we leave it for the least accountable branch to decide what newly discovered rights should be appended to our Constitution.” To his point, the role of courts is to interpret constitutions not to make or enforce law. (I won’t repeat that umpire analogy).

Likewise among the states, their supreme courts are supposed to interpret and rule on the constitutionality of statutes not make law from the bench. But when things don’t go precisely like they’re supposed to, you notice.

Which brings me to what happened in Arizona last week. It was the state supreme court decision in the public employee pension case of Honorable Phillip Hall Et Al., v. Elected Officials Retirement Plan/State of Arizona.

Without diving into the weeds, Hall was about retirement benefits and contributions and whether they’re part of an ’employment contract.’ It was also about the Gift Clause in the Arizona Constitution. For an accessibly excellent commentary, see Arizona Republic Columnist Robert Robb’s aptly titled “Pension reform is now impossible in Arizona.”

Yipee! Project 365(3) Day 250 | by Keith Williamson

Pension reform matters because according to a 2013 report by the independent financial research group, Morningstar, most states’ pension plans continue to be underfunded below the 80 percent level considered healthy. As summarized by Ballotpedia, “Decreased funding and increasing liabilities since the 2008 recession continued to put pressure on local and state budgets, in some cases leading to bankruptcy. Higher pension costs can have the following consequences:

  • higher taxes
  • less intergovernmental aid for services
  • lower credit ratings
  • higher interest rates on state borrowing”

I agree completely with Justice Clint Bolick’s dissent in the Hall case. It was well-reasoned and persuasively argued. Most of all, it was refreshingly candid. Reading the majority opinion, you have the sense they didn’t much care for the demurrer.

How bracing, though, to hear a dissenting voice on this state’s high court — so welcome, so invigorating, so rare. Four of the five sitting justices recused themselves because the case would have had a bearing on their own retirement plans. But because Justice Bolick joined the high court after the law was changed, he had no such conflict nor did the four guest justices also deliberating.

Grisham-like legal fiction.

J.C. Hallman 10.06.09 | by kellywritershouse

Bolstered by a sharp wit, Justice Bolick’s keen analysis evoked nods and smiles from the first page. He likened the Court’s 51-year old finding that at-will state employees actually had a contract with the state to “a work of legal fiction to which the likes of John Grisham could only aspire.”

Equally remarkable, too, was that across its 21 pages, the majority failed to mention taxpayers — the poor slobs who’ll face higher taxes or cuts in services to pay promised pension benefits. To be fair, the majority did reference “the State” but in doing so, seemed to gloss over taxpayers who are ultimately the ones saddled with funding shortfalls in the State’s largesse. Indeed, Justice Bolick appeared to chide the majority’s rather cavalier observation that the retirement plan’s “actuarial soundness is within the Legislature’s control” — because it can always hike taxes and court fees — “apparently ad infinitum.”

Judges Gavel“Of the judges, by the judges, and for the judges.”

But the money paragraphs were these from Justice Bolick:
“If  ever  there were a  case in  which  we  should  seriously indulge  the  presumption  of  statutory constitutionality,  this  is  it.   The majority winks  at  that rule,  then  utterly fails  to apply it.   It  repeatedly invokes  the  mantle  of  judicial restraint  while  casually  invalidating  a statute designed  to  preserve  the financial stability  of  a  public  employee pension  plan,  a  purpose  so  important  that  the  voters  made  it  part  of  our state’s organic law.
 
 “The  majority  opinion  portends  a  huge  financial windfall  for the  class  members,  a  burden  the  taxpayers  will  shoulder.   Under  such circumstances,  we  should  act  with  great  restraint,  lest  the  rule  of  law be undermined by  a  public  perception  that  this  decision  is  of  the  judges,  by the  judges,  and  for  the  judges.   On  this  important issue,  the  majority exhibits  no such  restraint,  and we  therefore  respectfully  dissent.”

Outcome-based jurisprudence.

If there’s one thing you learn in law school is that courts sometimes back into their decisions. Adopting what’s called outcome-based jurisprudence, they first decide what the outcome of a case should be and then work backwards to find the reasoning that reaches the desired conclusion. A criticism of this approach was made in March when a split U.S. Supreme Court left mandatory union dues in place in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.

In my opinion, the Arizona Supreme Court found the outcome it wanted, which was to shift policy choice burdens away from active employee retirement plan members and place them instead on taxpayers “by freezing employee contribution rates in perpetuity” to quote Justice Bolick. Indeed, he referred to some of the majority’s rationale as “pick-and-choose jurisprudence.”

https://cdn.morguefile.com/imageData/public/files/p/pippalou/03/l/1363479372ipbgy.jpgIn Nevada, I remember its version of “pick-and-choose.” It was the 2003 Nevada Supreme Court case of Guinn v. Legislature, which came about when the Nevada Legislature deadlocked over the state budget. Nevada’s late Governor Kenny Guinn petitioned the Nevada Supreme Court for an Order declaring the Legislature in violation of the Nevada Constitution. More to the point, he wanted the Court to compel the legislature to fulfill its constitutional duty to approve a balanced budget; to ignore the 2/3rd super majority Nevada Constitutional requirement to raise taxes; and to appropriate funds for public education during that fiscal period.

A child's primer of natural history (1899) | by CircaSassyBut there was a fly in the apothecary’s ointment. Notwithstanding the Court’s decision, the Nevada Constitution at Art 4. Sec. 18(2) enacted in 1996 by voter initiative was not to be ignored. The voters and taxpayers enshrined in their state constitution the 2/3 super majority tax hike requirement to make raising taxes difficult. And that was the rub.

It’s clear the Court had the outcome in mind to fund education — a meritorious end to be sure. But to do so, it had to find justifiable means. So it parsed the super majority requirement to pirouette over the voter imposed 2/3 majority prerequisite. It said the requirement was “procedural” while the affirmative constitutional obligation to fund public education was “substantive.”

And so procedural rights were thrown under the bus when the Court decided the substantive right was more important even as Nevada’s Constitution Article 11, Sec. 6 only required that “the Legislature shall enact one or more appropriations to provide the money the Legislature deems to be sufficient, . . . .”

To its credit, Nevada’s high court reversed itself as part of a subsequent 2006 opinion.

But don’t expect a similar reconsideration in Arizona.

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Credits: Clarence Thomas – caricature by DonkeyHotey at Flickr Creative Commons attribution license; Yippee, by Keith Williamson at Flickr Creative Commons attribution license; J.C. Hallman, by kellywritershouse at Flickr Creative Commons attribution license; A child’s primer of natural history, by CircaSassy at Flickr Creative Commons attribution license.

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SG_01_IMG_3458_MFI was disappointed to recently learn from a colleague about the demise of the Washoe County, Nevada volunteer program known as SAFE, Special Advocates for the Elderly. SAFE’s purpose is to assist judges by independently gathering and evaluating information about elders under or facing guardianships.

Based in Reno, NV, the Washoe County SAFE program became a victim of the great recession when grants and donations apparently dried up during 2008 to 2010. The sad consequence was that an indispensably meritorious organization was forced to shut its doors. A shame I’m late on the news.

SAFE

rep.5 | by simajeSAFE volunteers are appointed by the court in civil or criminal matters involving allegations of exploitation, abuse or neglect of a vulnerable adult or ward. In addition to acting as the court’s eyes and ears, SAFE volunteers provide essential companionship that improves the quality of life and enhances the dignity of at-risk elders. And unlike financially motivated stakeholders, these volunteers work autonomously for the court as trained advocates not conflicted by financial self-interest.

The model for SAFE is the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program for children. CASA advocates “for the timely placement of abused and neglected children in safe, permanent homes and for the highest quality of their care while they are under the court’s jurisdiction.”

rep.1 | by simaje

SAFE volunteers are trained to investigate the appropriateness of guardianship for elders by visiting residents in nursing homes and other facilities. They review court documents and accounting records. They interview witnesses, family members, attorneys, and facility staff. Advocates prepare reports of their findings for the court and attend court hearings for the wards.

I’ve been remiss not keeping up with the topic of elder financial abuse here as I once did. The problem hasn’t gone away. Far from it. In fact, I still think SAFE ought to be duplicated throughout the country.

Happily, the SAFE program created 6 years ago in Douglas County, NV continues to thrive. I’ve even heard Douglas County’s SAFE has become a state model and that it may be adopted by other Nevada counties.

https://i1.wp.com/cdn.morguefile.com/imageData/public/files/b/bjwebbiz/preview/fldr_2008_11_02/file000228637046.jpgIndeed, last week the same Nevada colleague speculated that SAFE’s laudable objectives may even be gaining traction with a Nevada Supreme Court statewide commission created a year ago to study the administration of guardianships in Nevada’s Courts.

Under Nevada Supreme Court Administrative Order ADKT 0507, the Commission to Study the Creation and Administration of Guardianships in Nevada’s Courts has been reviewing the processes for creating guardianships and conservatorships, stakeholder accountability, court documentation and tracking, judicial training, and any resources available or needed to assist Nevada’s courts in administering guardianships.

While it’s commendable Nevada’s high court has tasked a state commission to undertake this comprehensive review, why does it always seem such praiseworthy initiatives only occur in temporal proximity to media scrutiny, scandal and public embarrassment?

the Clinquant of the Future | by DerrickTLike in other jurisdictions, including Arizona’s, probate court reforms come in fits and starts and seemingly only after disconcerting media revelations. In 2011, for example, The Arizona Republic published a multi-part investigation, “Probate Court: A Troubled System,” which “revealed that Maricopa County Probate Court is allowing the life’s savings of vulnerable adults to become engines of profit for attorneys, for-profit fiduciaries and care providers. Their fees can drain a large portion of the assets of people who have lost the ability to take care of themselves.” Court reforms and remedial legislation followed.

In Nevada, ongoing problems with the probate system in Clark County came to light in a series of Las Vegas Review-Journal articles published in April 2015. “Cases high­lighted by the newspaper showed a lack of oversight by the courts, such as failing to require guardians to file annual accounts of a ward’s finances even though it is required by state law.”  Two months later, there was a statewide guardianship commission.

DSCF1286 | by rahnekat

But no matter the timing or how belated, this ought not diminish the importance of the Commission’s charge. Past Supreme Court Chief Justice James W. Hardesty is Chairperson and is joined by stellar state jurists with longstanding interests in doing right by Nevada’s most vulnerable populations.

Additionally, the Supreme Court’s Order limited the Commission membership to no more than 20 representatives from the public and private guardianship system. And in a refreshing departure from the insular approach too often taken by Arizona’s high court, Commission members also include members of the state legislature and even the news media. Public testimony has also been taken statewide.

And so strong is the Commission’s interest in getting it right that the deadline for the its final report was recently extended by the current Chief Justice to September 30, 2016. The Commission’s website has news, documents and forms as well as meeting recordings. I will keep you posted.

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Credits: “rep.5” and “rep.1” by sima dimitric at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution; “the Clinquant of the Future” by Derrick Tyson at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution; “DSCF1286 Nevada Supreme Court in Carson City. January 18, 2011” by Rahne at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution; other photos via Morguefile.com no attribution required.

 

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