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Friday, June 6, 2008

Dogs to get their day -- in court, that is

As an animal lover and a lawyer, I feel compelled to pass along this interesting little legal tidbit from Norway.

The nation’s Supreme Court ruled yesterday that police dogs are public servants -- which means an assault on a police dog is just as serious as an attack on any police officer.

The precedent-setting case centered on Casper, who was attacked while on duty. (Some news reports say the dog was a Belgian Shepherd, like the one pictured here.)

A 29-year-old man was caught breaking into an apartment in the city of Bergen. He fled when police tried to arrest him, but Casper caught up and collared the suspect. Despite being continuously kicked and punched, the dog managed to hang on until the human officers were able to handcuff the suspect.

The man was charged not only for the break-in, but also with assaulting a police officer -- in this case, Casper.

Two lower courts dismissed the assault charge, saying the offense only applied to human officers. But the high court sent the case back down, with instructions on how to interpret the law properly.

“The Supreme Court finds that the concept of assault must also be used to cover assault on a police dog that is being used to help the police,” the court ruled. “An attack on a police dog must be judged on the same basis as an attack on a public servant.”

I, for one, am thrilled with the decision, and hope other countries will follow suit. Maybe a criminal suspect will think twice before harming a dog who is only doing what he was trained to do. Hummm … I wonder if Casper can bring a civil assault claim against his attacker as well?

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Some public defenders to lose jobs; others to take unpaid leaves

The State Board of Public Defense voted on June 5 to cut the public defender work force by 15 percent across the state to meet its $3.8 million budget deficit. The cut means the loss of the equivalent of 53 full-time jobs, in addition to leaving 19 currently vacant jobs unfilled. About half the reduction (23 positions total) will come from actual layoffs; the rest will come from employees voluntarily taking unpaid leaves and from other measures.

The board’s action means the loss of 69 full time equivalent public defenders at the District Court level, out of a total of 441 positions, and three appellate lawyers.

The board also decided to cut public defender services by no longer representing parents in abuse and termination of parental rights cases, which it is not required to do by statute. In Hennepin County, parents will still be represented because the cost is paid by the county and not the state.

The board also decided that public defenders will no longer represent clients in problem-solving courts after their adjudications of guilt. Cuts in the appellate public defenders budget likely will mean a longer time before appeals are handled.

The service reductions were designed to preserve the public defenders’ resources for its priority cases, which are criminal defendants in custody, said State Public Defender John Stuart. “Some of the cuts are very hard to recommend because [the services] are very important to the courts and the people of Minnesota,” he said. However, the courts and the counties are also concerned that in-custody cases be handled expeditiously because jails are crowded, he said.

The staff reductions will mean that a public defender’s average caseload will be 812 cases, more than twice the American Bar Association recommended 400 cases.

Microsoft CEO to print media: you’ve only got 10 years left

You may have heard that Minnesota Lawyer is celebrating the Big 10... In fact, we're including a retrospective anniversary section with next Monday's paper.

We really hope you enjoy this special publication, because if Microsoft's CEO is right, the next 10 years will kill the printed page.

In an interview published today in the Washington Post, Steve Ballmer says the next decade will turn the world of media and communications upside down. He further delivers this prediction:

"There will be no media consumption left in 10 years that is not delivered over an IP network. There will be no newspapers, no magazines that are delivered in paper form. Everything gets delivered in an electronic form."

I have a feeling that paper will linger a bit longer. But even if Ballmer is correct, your beloved Minnesota Lawyer won't simply disappear. When our 20th anniversary rolls around, we'll just beam our special coverage directly into that chip embedded in your cerebral cortex.

That is, assuming anyone bothers to exist in meatspace at all.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Fantasy sports geeks rejoice: player stats are fair game

That muffled applause you heard yesterday was the sound of cheering from idle office cubicles all over the country by fantasy sports players, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection of an appeal from Major League Baseball Advanced Media and the MLB Players' Association.

The two groups wanted the high court to overturn lower court rulings in favor of CBC Distribution and Marketing Inc., the parent company of St. Louis-based CDM Fantasy Sports. CBC won a 2006 court case to gain legal protection from using Major League Baseball player names and statistics without a license.

MLBAM argued that the commercial use of such data without a license was a breach of its rights. It is estimated fantasy sports generate more than $1.5 billion annually from millions of participants.

The court’s denial means that earlier rulings allowing CDM Fantasy Sports to use players' names and statistics without a licensing fee remain intact. It also means that while you’re comparing Todd Helton’s on-base percentage to David Ortiz’s while you’re supposed to be working, the worst you have to fear is getting busted by your boss.

Strib on AGO: 'Minnesotans deserve better'

I think the Star Tribune's editorial today ("Minnesotans deserve better from AG's office") provides a pretty good assessment of the situation at the office of Attorney General Lori Swanson.

Here are a few of the money quotes:
  • "When this office is in turmoil, as it has been for some time,
    Minnesotans should pay attention";
  • "The findings [of the Office of the Legislative Auditor] are not
    the exoneration that Swanson's office portrays them to be. If anything, they
    reinforce that the situation bears scrutiny."
  • "Although Swanson may not have crossed legal lines, Nobles' report gives
    good reason to doubt that she and her predecessor, Mike Hatch, have been the
    best possible stewards of that asset."
  • "Swanson is a smart attorney and hard worker. But the state's top legal
    job also requires her to be something more: a good manager. It's a different
    skill set than that which has carried Swanson far in her career. But it's
    something she can -- and must -- learn."
Thanks to those of you who brought this important issue to the public's attention. It is highly unfortunate that the badly needed scrutiny came only at great personal and professional cost to the young assistant AG involved, Amy Lawler.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The auditor's report: A quick analysis

The report released by the Office of the Legislative Auditor this morning appears to offer something to both sides of the employment dispute in the Minnesota Attorney General's Office. (See also prior post.)

For AG Lori Swanson, it offers affirmation that none of the complained of conduct in her office falls within the ambit of something that the OLA investigates. For the "at will" attorneys in the office who say they felt pressured to act in ways they believed were inappropriate, it offers a nod by calling on the Legislature to review their status to determine if they should continue to function "at the pleasure of the Attorney General" or should get some employment protections, such as the civil-service protections afforded some other state agency workers.

Given the limited review powers of the OLA, this "split-the-baby" approach seems fairly reasonable.

One added item of particular interest in the report: The OLA specifically mentions that most of the criticisms fell on Swanson's predecessor and mentor, Mike Hatch, rather than on Swanson herself.

Legislative auditor finds no basis for a full investigation of the AG's Office

The Office of Legislative Auditor James Nobles has concluded his preliminary investigation into the public complaints made about Attorney General Lori Swanson's office, finding that there was no basis exists for a full investigation of the AG's Office by his office. However, in an unusual move, Nobles calls upon the Legislature to review whether the legal services provided by the AG’s Office require that all of the attorneys in the office serve "at the pleasure" of the AG.

During the course of its preliminary investigation, the Office of the Legislative Auditor spoke with seven individuals. (Given the limited scope of its investigation, he OLA did not speak with AG Lori Swanson or former AG Mike Hatch.) The individuals testified that they felt pressured to act inappropriately, but that no inappropriate, unethical or illegal conduct had resulted.

"[T]he individuals we interviewed linked the pressure they felt to the fact that attorneys in the Attorney General’s Office work 'at the pleasure' of the Attorney General; in other words, they can be dismissed or demoted 'at will' rather than 'for cause.' In addition, they said it was 'well-known' that termination, demotion, or reassignment often fell on an employee who lost favor with the Attorney General," the OLA wrote. (The OLA also notes that many of the complaints concentrated on Hatch rather than Swanson.)

The OLA goes on to state:

"While the individuals we interviewed provided sworn statements based on first-hand knowledge, their testimony did not establish a basis for further investigation by OLA. OLA has authority to investigate alleged noncompliance with legal requirements related to the use of public funds. ... OLA’s preliminary assessment confirmed what some members of the Legislative Audit Commission concluded on March 28—the allegations presented by Representative [Steve] Simon are not the kinds of issues the Legislative Auditor addresses through an investigation."

The second part of the report, calling for the Legislature to review the "at will" status of attorneys in the AG's office, will undoubtedly be of interest to the attorneys in the office seeking employment protections. The OLA notes that state office are mixed on how they treat full-time employees of constitutional officers, with some offering civil-service protections and some not. The OLA recommends the Legislature review the classification of employees at the AG's Office, notwithstanding lawmakers reluctance to become involved in the recent unionization dispute.

For the full report, click here.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Auditor set to release report on AG Lori Swanson's office tomorrow

Tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. Legislative Auditor James Nobles will release the results of his preliminary assessment of the allegations concerning the Minnesota Attorney General´s Office.

The results will be presented in a letter to members of the Legislative Audit Commission. The letter will be posted on the Office of the Legislative Auditor's website, http://www.auditor.leg.state.mn.us/.

Lindbergh got a lot of air time in Senator Coleman's speech

Senator Norm Coleman’s speech accepting the GOP’s nomination last Friday contained quotes from and allusions to the usual politician’s lineup of historical heroes, including Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln (twice!) and Benjamin Franklin. There was even a reference to an unconventional hero or two, such as Julius Irving (“Dr. J”). However, one named kept coming more than the rest -- Charles Lindbergh.

I counted four references to the famed Minnesota aviator. Coleman presumably wanted to make sure to include references to a local hero in his speech. Lindbergh, a farm boy hailing from Little Falls, Minn., apparently filled the bill. The only problem is that this local hero has a somewhat checkered past. Lindbergh’s aviation achievements -- including piloting the first nonstop solo transatlantic flight -- are beyond dispute. He was an air mail pioneer and an inventor. However, he also later became a public spokesperson for a controversial isolationist movement called America First that opposed the United States’ entry into World War II. In 1938, Lindbergh visited Nazi Germany and accepted a medal from Hermann Goring, a decision that would later come back to haunt him. A proponent of eugenics who was very outspoken in his views, Lindbergh was believed by some to be an anti-Semite (a charge he vehemently denied). Certainly some of his statements and writings on the subject of race would not pass muster today.

I don’t suspect that Coleman was thinking of any the darker stuff when he kept bringing up Lucky Lindy. Still, I couldn’t help feeling a wee bit uncomfortable when, in an otherwise nice moment, he referred to the 6-year-old cancer victim he brought up to share the spotlight with him as a “young Lindbergh.” But human beings are complex creatures, while heroes need be very simple ones. Lindbergh had a great spirit of adventure that is worthy of emulation. Let’s just leave it at that.