New Jersey State Bar Association - The voluntary Bar Association of New Jersey, serving members since 1899.

Capitol Report

April 26, 2010

This is a status report on recently passed and pending legislation, regulations, gubernatorial nominations and/or appointments of interest to lawyers. The report may also include information about appearances of NJSBA representatives before legislative committees, and the involvement of the NJSBA as amicus in appellate court matters. It is compiled by the government affairs department of the New Jersey State Bar Association. Following each bill number is the sponsor's name, the NJSBA position, if any, bill description and status. Full and previous versions of the Capitol Report with links to related text are available online at www.njsba.com.

NJSBA ACTION IN TRENTON

NJSBA President Allen Etish testified before the Assembly Budget Committee on the FY2011 state budget last week. Each year, the NJSBA offers important information to the Legislature as the largest professional association representing the interests of attorneys in our state. Continuing in this tradition, Etish spoke on a variety of issues that have a direct impact on the practice of law in New Jersey.

Etish appealed for adequate funding in order to facilitate the criminal and civil justice system in New Jersey. Specifically, he advocated for agencies like Legal Services of New Jersey (LSNJ), the Office of the Public Defender and the attorney general.

Funding Legal Services of New Jersey

Currently, state funding for LSNJ is $29.6 million, but the governor has proposed a 33 percent cut in this funding to $19.9 million.

The NJSBA's written testimony advised that an increase in revenue is critically needed to maintain staff and civil legal services for thousands of low-income New Jersey residents. Presently, Legal Services programs meet less than 20 percent of the legal needs of the 1.7 million low-income New Jerseyans who qualify for services. Unfortunately, only one out of every six persons seeking legal assistance actually receives it. This "justice gap" is anticipated to get even wider in today's economic climate.

Despite valiant efforts of the private bar through the Campaign for Justice's annual fundraiser and through many other pro bono services, like the NJSBA's Military Legal Assistance Program, which has provided free legal assistance to over 100 New Jersey residents serving in the armed forces, New Jersey continues to feel the effects of this justice gap. Most of the state's lawyers work in small and solo firms, and have felt the negative effects of the tough economy, thus making it difficult to increase the level of pro bono service.

"They are impacted by the economy just as much as any other business," Etish asserted. "There just are not enough hours in the week to allow for that kind of replacement."

Further, the economic downturn has reduced one of LSNJ's primary revenue sources - the Interest on Lawyers Trust Account program (IOLTA). Declining interest rates and a deteriorating real estate market has reduced IOLTA funding to LSNJ, so it has become more dependent on state appropriations.

In advocating for increased state funding Etish said, "The private bar is actively involved in pro bono participation in the attempt to make the cuts to Legal Services and the Office of the Public Defender easier to absorb. But, he added, "The problem is more than any one group of private individuals can do."

Department of Law and Public Safety

On behalf of the Department of Law and Public Safety, the NJSBA's written testimony pointed out the fact that the department has not been able to fill deputy attorney general vacancies as they occur due to budget restrictions. As a result, the department is down over 100 attorneys general positions. In addition, frozen salaries have resulted in more and more attorneys general being attracted to the private sector. This further complicates issues because the present staff in some areas has less experience and maintaining the quality of their advocacy takes that much more time.

To supplement its efforts, the department has initiated a pro bono opportunity for New Jersey attorneys to gain experience arguing cases on behalf of the state of New Jersey. This novel program is helping to fill some of the void created by the present hiring freeze. However, there is still a substantial need for increased staffing. Thus, the NJSBA offered strong support for any additional funding for this critical department.

Office of the Public Defender

Etish respectfully urged the committee to maintain funding for the Office of the Public Defender, which unlike Legal Services of New Jersey, handles criminal and quasi-criminal matters guaranteed under both the New Jersey Constitution and the United States Constitution. The public defender plays a crucial role in the criminal justice system. Ninety percent of all indictable criminal cases are handled by the public defender. The Office of the Public Defender's criminal representation also includes requirements under Megan's Law for tier classification hearings, and civil commitment hearings after sex offenders have served their prison sentences. The office is also responsible for perhaps the most important, and most complex and time-consuming matters - representing indigent parents and, through the Office of Law Guardian, neglected children in termination of parental rights cases. It is critical for that office to receive adequate funding to fulfill its vital role in all of those settings.

The Office of the Public Defender also plays a central role in our justice system, as does Legal Services of New Jersey. These entities help to ensure that courthouse doors remain open to even the most downtrodden and neglected New Jersey residents. Both offices deserve adequate funding so they can fulfill their critical missions.

To obtain a copy on the NJSBA's full written testimony before the Assembly Budget Committee, visit www.njsba.com.

To hear the full oral testimonies on the Senate and Assembly budget hearings, go online to
http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/media/archive_audio.asp?SESSION=2010.