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Friday, November 14, 2008

MSBA weighs in on DOJ hiring practices

The Minnesota State Bar Association is making its voice heard on the controversy that came to light this summer over the hiring practices by the Department of Justice.

In a recent letter to Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, MSBA president Michael Ford (at right) notes that the organization recently passed a resolution affirming its long-standing support for legal services to the disadvantaged. The resolution, Ford writes, was “compelled” by recent reports that DOJ staff had “categorized public interest legal experience of prospective interns and employees on an ideological basis, and had denied employment to those applicants deemed ‘liberal’ by virtue of their involvement with legal aid, public defender, and related organizations.” Ford notes that several of the organizations identified in the reports are in Minnesota.
“By potentially dissuading lawyers and law students from participating in these efforts for fear that it could harm their careers, the [DOJ’s] actions reduce critical resources for legal aid and pro bono programs,” the letter states.

To that end, the MSBA is requesting that the DOJ “take immediate, concrete steps” to insure that no one is denied employment because of their involvement with legal services organizations and that it communicate to all law students and lawyers its support for equal access to justice.

It’s just one voice, but hopefully the DOJ hears it.

As an aside, according to an article in the Washington Post yesterday, president-elect Barack Obama’s transition team is looking into how it can restructure the DOJ to avoid the infusion of politics into the organization. I, for one, am encouraged that this seems to be a priority for the incoming administration.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bob Woodward on lawyers, George W. Bush

Delivering the keynote address at Dorsey & Whitney 's 19th annual corporate counsel symposium earlier today, author and legendary journalist Bob Woodward cracked a couple of jokes and shared his thoughts on President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. The following clip is an excerpt of Woodward's speech, delivered at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Minneapolis.

For the YouTube version, click here.

What would 'Tricky Dick' say?

Today Dorsey & Whitney's is having its annual Corporate Counsel Symposium, which is a good way to keep up on some of the major corporate law issues. Dorsey also traditionally has some prominent keynote speakers at the event's luncheon. Two years ago it was former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; last year it was former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin; this year it's legendary journalist Bob Woodward.

We at Minnesota Lawyer thought we might take some video of Woodward's speech so that we could put a clip on this blog for those of you who wanted to get a taste. Being the polite folks we are, we ran it by the Dorsey folks to make sure that was OK.

No problem, we were told, so long as we would only be using brief excerpts. It seems that the journalist instrumental in breaking Watergate restricts the amount of taping that can be done when he speaks. Fortunately, this idea never occurred to President Nixon ...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Ramsey bar lauds veteran SMRLS lawyer

Congratulations are due to St. Paul attorney Hugh Markley, who was honored last weekend by the Ramsey County Bar Association for more than three decades of pro bono work on behalf of Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services.

Markley received the Ramsey County Bar Association's 2008 Pro Bono Award at the recent Bench & Bar Benefit in Roseville. Taking time out from his general practice, Markley has devoted thousands of hours to taking on family law and child custody cases for low-income clients throughout Ramsey County.

Markley spent time as a foster child, something that has given him a keen appreication of the needs of at-risk kids and families. The current and coming tough economic times mean more and more lawyers like Markley will be needed -- here's hoping he's an inspiration to young and old lawyers alike to give a little bit back.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Supreme Court elections elsewhere: not Minnesota nice

A sharp-eyed reader noting our headline that said that this year’s appellate races offered few surprises wrote to remind me about Supreme Court races in other states. In a Mississippi race that shows where John Grisham gets his ideas, three justices running for second, eight-year terms lost: Chief Justice Jim Smith lost to Jim Kitchens, Justice Oliver Diaz Jr. lost to Randy “Bubba” Pierce, and Justice Chuck Easley lost to David Chandler. A fourth, Justice Ann Lamar, who was appointed last year by Gov. Haley Barbour, won her race. Diaz was indicted in 2003 in what he calls a political prosecution in connection with a loan to defray campaign debts, and acquitted. He claimed to have been targeted for defeat by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Oddly, the Mississippi Business and Industry Political Education Committee gave Smith a 72 % rating while giving Easley and Diaz 27 and 28 % respectively.The Smith-Kitchens race reportedly cost over $1 million.

In Michigan, Chief Justice Clifford Taylor was defeated by Judge Anne Hathaway, a nominee of the Democratic Party. Reports are Taylor raised over $1.7 million but Hathaway had Bruce Springsteen at a “Vote for Change” concert in which she said her opponent's judicial philosophy is "a death trap, a suicide rap..." An October television ad claimed that Taylor fell asleep during oral argument, which he denied.

In West Virginia, former Chief Justice Elliot Maynard didn’t survive a primary after pictures of him vacationing in Monte Carlo with a business executive who had a pending case came to light. The case, Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Company, is awaiting a possible grant of certiorari from the U.S. Supreme Court over whether another West Virginia Supreme Court justice must step aside in the case. The Caperton plaintiffs won a $50 million fraud verdict against Massey but the West Virginia court has twice set aside the verdict by a 3-2 majority. According to the New York Times, Justice Brent D. Benjamin, both times a member of the Caperton majority, won his seat with the help of more than $3 million from the same Massey executive who took the former chief justice to Monte Carlo but has refused to recuse himself from cases involving Massey. The Times says the Caperton case turns largely on whether millions of dollars in campaign support from an interested party creates an appearance of impropriety so strong that recusal is required. Two other cases involving West Virginia are pending at the Supreme Court, both of which involve the state’s odd law that denies companies a right to appeal punitive damage awards.)

Some of these justices may have been turned out of office deservedly, but our reader reminds us, brace yourselves, Minnesotans, for 2010 when a majority of the Minnesota Supreme Court will be on the ballot.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Coleman/ Franken recount re-examined

As has been reported elsewhere, the recount of the Senate race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken is only the second recount of statewide election results in Minnesota since the 1962 gubernatorial race. The other recount was, of course, just a couple of months ago -- and that came in a judicial election.

As loyal readers of this blog will no doubt recall, Supreme Court Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea faced three challengers in the primary -- public defender Richard Gallo, Minneapolis attorney Jill Clark and Hennepin County District Court Judge Deborah Hedlund. In judicial races, which are nonpartisan, the top two vote-getters earn a place on the November ballot. Gildea finished on top with about 54 percent of the vote; Gallo was the bottom vote-getter with about 11 percent. That left Clark and Hedlund to vie for the second spot on the general election ballot. Statistically, they were both fairly evenly split, with both getting between 17 and 18 percent of the vote. Hedlund had an edge in the unofficial tally -- 1,369 votes of more than 316,000 cast in the race. Because state law requires a recount if an election is decided by less than a .5 percent margin, an automatic recount was triggered. Clark narrowed the margin by just seven votes in the recount, not nearly enough to displace Hedlund as the number two vote-getter. Hedlund went on to the general election, where she lost her challenge against Gildea.

The Coleman/ Franken recount -- which hasn’t even started yet -- has already proved to be a lot less smooth. Last Wednesday morning -- the day after the election -- the unofficial tally had Coleman ahead by 725 votes out of more than 2.8 million cast. However, as counties double check and verify their reporting, Coleman’s lead has shrunk to just 204 votes.

The Coleman/ Franken recount will be much more controversial than the judicial race recount for many reasons, including:

  • The margin is much closer -- 204 votes in a race where each candidate has about 1.21 million votes vs. 1,369 votes in a race where the candidates each had between 55,000 and 57,000 votes.
  • Primary races tend to be not as closely watched as general election races, since the “winners” only go onto the November ballot rather than into public office.
  • Judicial races garner much less attention than presidential, congressional or even state legislative races. We have chronicled on this blog the many ways that this fact is unfortunate, but that doesn't stop it from being true.
  • Senate races, unlike judicial races, are partisan. This makes a difference for many reasons. For example, in a nonpartisan race, you don’t have to worry as much that a voting issue in a GOP or DFL stronghold will affect the candidates disproportionately; you also don’t have to worry about politics affecting vote counters’ decisions about which votes to count (and not count).

I could go on, but I think you get the general gist. No matter what happens with this recount (and I have every confidence that Secretary of State Mark Ritchie will do all he can to make it as clean as possible), the race will provide the political blogosphere conspiracy-theory fodder for many years to come.

Conspiracy theories aside, our imperfect system of paper ballots and scanning technology with recounts by hand is just not set up well for elections this close. Even an error of just one vote tabulating every 10,000 recounted will yield a difference of 240 votes when counters are sifting through 2.4 million ballots. Are you confident you could work your way through 10,000 ballots without making a single mistake? I sometimes have difficulty double checking my change when I purchase something. Yet I don’t think many of us at this point want to shift our elections completely over to computers. All it would take would be one really good hacker or one really bad virus to make Joe the Plumber the president of the United States. No thanks!

I think for the time being we are stuck with our imperfect system. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it’s the worst system in existence, except for all the other systems.