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Public Service and the American Dream

Posted in Administration on Monday August 18 2014 @ 12:40pm

Much could be said about former Pittsburgh mayor Sophie Masloff, who died this week at age 96. She led an interesting life, and brought a unique combination of progressive politics, budget-biting, and homespun style to her post. Her malapropisms and activism made her a memorable and effective politician. She was the first woman and first Jewish person to serve as mayor of her city.

Of course, court-o-rama greatly admires her statement about her light approach: In some situations, where you have to listen to a lot of boring speeches, I can't resist the opportunity to say something silly. This is exactly what we try to do -- mix silly with smart, and hope at least one sticks.

What many might not know is that Masloff started her career in public service in the courts. According to her NYT obituary, "In 1938, she became a clerk in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. She worked there for 38 years, eventually becoming assistant chief clerk." In her seventies, she entered politics.

Public service careers fit in well with the American dream that Masloff lived. Born to Romanian immigrants, only Yiddish was spoken in her home as a child. Masloff did not learn English until she went to school. With a high school education, she became a secretary and bookkeeper. Employment in the courts was a natural progression.

It seems odd that we would highlight common sense, but it is far less common than it ought to be, and far too valuable to be taken for granted. Let's hope that the next 90 or so years brings us more people like Masloff, who used common sense to help the public good.

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Margot Adler: Planting the Seeds of Justice

Posted in Jury on Monday July 28 2014 @ 8:43pm

We were sad to hear that Margot Adler passed away.

Adler, an NPR reporter, did two great services for the legal system. The first, of course, was Justice Talking. This program was a sane option for radio listeners. It provided solid background for people seeking to understand legal issues. Rather than give yet another outlet for the loudest, shrillest voices in the room, Adler let researchers explain the topics. Thus, rather than hear screaming and shallowness, one could hear Valerie Hans talk about the right to a jury trial.

The second great thing was that some courts made podcasts of the series available to jurors during their courthouse wait. What better time to introduce this series, and to what better audience? The topics available were screened by court staff, so that they would differ from any issues a juror might be pondering for trial.

The result was a perfect cycle, legal programming that was about and for the legal system.

We did not know until hearing news about her death that Adler was Wiccan. See Margot Adler: Pagan and NPR Correspondent, Roberta Hershenson, NYCitywoman. The UU scuttlebutt is that she taught a course on neopaganism at Meadville Lombard Theological School.

While surprising, in hindsight it makes perfect sense. One Adler story that has stayed with us since we heard it was her deeply moving account, Storm Downs Beloved Trees IN Central Park, Margot Adler, All Things Considered (August 20, 2009). Again, an expert dovetailing of surroundings and story.

Radio like this is rare. Hopefully, Adler planted the seeds for better legal coverage. May that future forest thrive.

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Thank You, President Nixon

Posted in Access on Friday July 25 2014 @ 11:47am

What's older than the Federal Rules of Evidence, Wheel of Fortune, and the Betamax? The Legal Services Corporation, which turns 40 today.

Nearly 21% of the U.S. population qualifies for legal aid -- almost double the number from 1974, when only 12% met the requirements.

According to Senator Mary Landrieu, over 25% of Louisiana qualifies. These are difficult economic times, and people who never before found themselves struggling now rely on legal services to maintain fair housing, child support, and other basic needs.

Others who benefit from legal services include:

* Victims of the Oso mudslide in Washington state
* Law students who pursue public interest careers
* Innovators in the technology field, such as LawHelp Interactive
* Veterans facing foreclosure

Still, legal services is struggling mightily, as it has for decades. Rural providers are closing their doors, and urban providers are stretched to their limit. Meanwhile, LSC funding is only slightly above the all-time low. Who knew we would be pining for Nixon?

A 40th Anniversary Kick-Off will be held September 14-16 at the Omni Shoreham in Washington, DC. Who knows, maybe Richard Nixon's head will be among the guests.

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Bald, Hostile Aliens Eat Probate Court!!!!!!!!!

Posted in Probate on Thursday July 24 2014 @ 1:13pm

No, they didn't. But the entertainment world is abuzz with mundane news about wills and estates.

How did this happen? What about stars behaving badly? What about new summer blockbusters? Is everyone at TMZ studying for the bar? (Fun fact: the founder of TMZ has a law degree.)

The so-called news about Philip Seymour Hoffman leaving his estate to his partner is the simplest legal problem ever. See, e.g., Philip Seymour Hoffman Didn't Want Trust Fund Kids, Filing Says, Christie D'Zurilla, L.A. Times (July 21.2014).

The spouse (or, here, longtime companion, but still mother of his children) takes, unless there is a step-parent, in which case the step-parent shares with the surviving children. This handy National Paralegal College guide to Intestate Succession Rules makes the process easy to understand. You don't even need a will to accomplish this.

Simple? Utterly. Rare? Not at all. Newsworthy? Perhaps, in that Hoffman was a famous actor who died before his time, but not because he did anything unusual with his will. Startling headline? Nope! The media might just as well have proclaimed, Philip Seymour Hoffman Ate Breakfast Daily, While Alive!

So what have we learned? Entertainment news just made a big deal out of an everyday legal issue. Because the topic is wills, something everyone will have to deal with some day, it could have been informative. Rather, the trending story has people thinking that leaving your estate to your spouse is some kind of probate circus trick.

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Holiday Reading

Posted in Hype on Friday July 04 2014 @ 5:35pm


Constitution of the United States.

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I Hope A Gerrymander Falls On You

Posted in Elections on Tuesday June 10 2014 @ 9:04pm

I thought you said she was dead!
That was her sister, the Wicked Witch of the East. She's worse than the other one!

Before you go celebrating the demise of Eric Cantor's career, consider what happened here: he was regarded as too leftist for voters. That's right: too left.

How did he lose? His opponent created or took advantage of the perfect twister. Thanks to wonky friends in high places (namely Bill Raftery and Roger Hartley), we can sum it up as follows:

Passion over paper. Opponent Brat's people pounded the pavement and knocked on doors, creating a groundswell of support. Meanwhile, Cantor played it old school, sending flyers via snail mail. Which do you suppose was more effective? People vote with their hearts, not with their heads. As Bill says, Passion and commitment beat out money.

Labels. Brat labeled Cantor as a left-wing Obama-loving candidate. The label stuck. This may not make sense to some of you, but let me explain. In some circles, anyone who voted to reopen the government was siding with Obama. (One label that didn't stick -- Cantor's attempt to label Brat as a liberal professor. All professors are liberal, right?)

So-Called Amnesty. Immigration is a hot topic for people, particularly those who feel (rightly or wrongly) disenfranchised for whatever reason. For example, it is a popular idea that immigrants are here for the FREE MONEY. (Apparently, they give FREE MONEY to people who travel extraordinarily long distances to work in poultry plants.) Supporting that long and somewhat illusory Path to Citizenship was a factor, although not *the* deciding factor, in Cantor's loss. (As for what that means for future support of immigration reform, see Why Did Cantor Lose? Not Easy to Explain, Nate Cohn, June 10, 2014.)

Gerrymandering. What happens when a diabolical plan is a little TOO successful? See: GOP gerrymandering in the Commonwealth. Surround yourself with the most die-hard, rightward population, and the Tea Party is guaranteed a seat. Hartley says, The GOP has imprisoned themselves into districts they will not be able to escape from. For more insight and several nifty visual aides, see America's Most Gerrymandered Congressional Districts, Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post (May 16, 2014).

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To Read

Posted in Criminal on Saturday March 15 2014 @ 8:27am

The new New York Review of Books is in, and as usual there is so much to see. We are going to focus on the ads -- yes, the squillions of book ads, all of which look good but some of which may be particularly interesting to court-o-ramans:


This list is not exhaustive! Happy reading!

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The Five Percent

Posted in Criminal on Tuesday March 04 2014 @ 11:55am


What is cruel and unusual for the purposes of the Eighth Amendment? The U.S. Supreme Court held, in Atkins v. Virginia, that executing mentally retarded defendants amounted to cruel and unusual (again with capacity!), and was thus unconstitutional. What that decision left out, however, was what was meant by mentally retarded or intellectual disability.

States established criteria in their crazy patchwork way. As one can imagine, the results are not uniform. The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) compiled a state-by-state list of definitions.

Many states require a particular IQ -- usually around 70. But what about statistical deviation? IQ tests are only so accurate (and, some might argue, not very). Florida requires a 70. IQ is usually determined as a score, plus or minus 5. So, what of those plus-or-minus-5 group? One death row inmate in Florida is seeking reprieve due to his raw score of 71. See Supreme Court to Revisit IQ Rule in Death-Penalty Cases, Jess Bravin, Wall Street Journal (March 2, 2014). See also Hall v. Florida: Florida's Attempt to Limit Atkins' Constitutional Protection, John H. Blume, American Constitution Society (February 20, 2014).

See the SCOTUSblog resources on Hall v. Florida for more.

How could an outcome for Hall affect states in the future? See the DPIC's States That Have Changed Their Statutes to Comply With the Supreme Court's Decision in Atkins v. Virginia. If the Court finds for Hall, expect a similar update incorporating language and guidance from the opinion.

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Underage On All Counts

Posted in Juvenile on Sunday March 02 2014 @ 7:33am

Minors can't consent to sex -- the age varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but it is usually 16 or so, sometimes with various qualifiers. See Age of Consent in North America, Wikipedia. Moreover, anyone under the age of 18 lacks capacity to contract. So how can a minor be prosecuted for doing a combination these things -- contracting to sell sex?

They are. Rather than services or housing or even -- gasp! -- sex ed, children picked up for prostitution are being prosecuted for a crime they cannot possibly have the capacity to commit. One court (at least) is taking another approach. See Courts Take A Kinder Look At Victims Of Child Sex Trafficking, NPR Staff (March 1, 2014). See also the wonderful policy resources provided by the Polaris Project: Sex Trafficking of Minors and Safe Harbor.

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We're 6 and We Know It

Posted in Hype on Tuesday December 31 2013 @ 9:21am


Six years ago we came up with the idea of court-o-rama.org. As the courts are purportedly the least dangerous branch of government, so would this be the least dangerous blog. Sure, there were scores of legal blogs (blawgs), but almost none devoted to the courts themselves.

Six years ago it seemed like a crazy idea that just might work. My good times at the Jur-E Bulletin had come to a close. Although we branched out into new adventures, we always kept one foot in the court administration policy world.

Since then, we've brought you annual holidays such as Valentine's Day at probate courts around the country, and haunted Halloween courthouses. We continue to rail against both piss-poor research and bad ideas. To our great surprise, we grew readership beyond our starter Jur-E audience, and shot into the greater blawgosphere, meeting a bunch of interesting people along the way.

What's in our future? We plan to continue this blog, and we pray that people will keep reading and contributing. Whether we find ourselves discussing the rise of bitcoin, the extinction of the landline, or yet more traffic court basics, we promise to keep it real and fun.

In 2014, we wish all courts better funding, continued staff dedication (seriously, have you ever met some of these people? So committed!), and better public understanding. Happy birthday to us, and Happy New Year to you!

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