A Letter from the Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association

2015-04-13 16:23

To The Readers of the Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

On behalf of the 13,000 members of the Philadelphia Bar Association, the oldest association of lawyers in the United States, I am pleased to have the opportunity to tell you about some of the important things we have been busy working on this year.

Decision 2015 Pennsylvania Supreme Court Candidates Forum

Most recently, we hosted Decision 2015, an interactive forum with candidates seeking election to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Ten candidates, Judge Cheryl Lynn Allen, Judge Christine L. Donohue, Judge Kevin M. Dougherty, President Judge John H. Foradora, President Judge Michael A. George, Judge Anne E. Lazarus, Judge Judith Ference Olson, Justice Correale F. Stevens, Judge David N. Wecht and Judge Dwayne D. Woodruff participated in the 90-minute forum. The program was moderated by Carl A. Solano, a partner at Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP, who also serves as co-chair of the Philadelphia Bar Association's Appellate Courts Committee. Each candidate made opening statements about why they seek election to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, followed by a question-and-answer opportunity with attendees. This was a free event hosted not only for our members, but also our community at large. Thanks to Pennsylvania Cable Network for covering and streaming, making it possible for all Pennsylvanians to watch the event.

Commission on Judicial Selection and Retention

The Philadelphia Bar Association’s Commission on Judicial Selection and Retention is in the process of releasing its ratings of the nearly 60 judicial candidates for the 15 open seats on the Court of Common Pleas and the Municipal Court. The Commission is the only independent and non-partisan source of ratings for the judicial candidates; including both lawyers and lay-members, the Commission rates each candidate “Highly Recommended,” “Recommended,” or “Not Recommended.” The Highly Recommended rating is new this year and is designed to better inform voters about extraordinary candidates. Also new this year is the inclusion of rating appellate court candidates who maintain a principal office or chambers in Philadelphia. By early May, all candidates will be evaluated and their ratings released.

We are delighted to now offer a Highly Recommended category to help better inform the public of extraordinary candidates who are considered preeminent in the profession. Voters are encouraged to learn more about this new category and view the entire ratings list by visiting our website at www.philadelphiabar.org. The Association wants voters to know why the judicial elections are so important and that the Commission invests the time and energy needed to thoroughly review and rate the candidates in a comprehensive, non-partisan, objective manner.

As an independent and non-partisan source of judicial candidate ratings, members of the Commission include community leaders, officials such as the chief public defender, city solicitor, the president judges of the Court of Common Pleas and Municipal Court, and representatives of minority legal groups and various sections of the Bar. 

The ratings by the 30-member Judicial Commission follow extensive study and investigation by the Commission's own 140-member investigative division, which includes 30 non-lawyer members. Candidates found Recommended satisfied a cumulative review of criteria including qualifications such as legal ability, experience, integrity, temperament, community involvement and judgment. Candidates found Highly Recommended are extraordinary individuals who, in addition to meeting the Recommended criteria, are preeminent in the profession, exceptionally skilled in the law, possess a reputation for the utmost integrity and significantly will enhance or have enhanced the quality of the judiciary. 

Boots on the Ground Community Initiative

With our new Boots on the Ground Community Initiative I have been encouraging our legal community to increase its commitment of service extending beyond pro-bono services, writing checks and serving on boards. Philadelphia faces many changes as a major city, such as having the highest poverty rate, which is why the Philadelphia Bar Association is partnering with leaders of existing community service organizations to find opportunities to enhance our service.

As lawyers, we as a group are very generous with our talent and our treasure but perhaps not so much with our time. Time is our least expensive, but most precious commodity. This reminds me of a quote from the late poet Maya Angelou, who said “I may not remember what you said to me, I may not remember what you did to me but I will always remember the way you made me feel.” I believe spending time with someone does that. It is my hope that when any of you tell someone that you are a Philadelphia lawyer, their response might be “thank you for your service.”

The Bar Association will also propose the adoption of diversity and inclusion action plans, in which Bar leadership will be asked to individually take on diversity and inclusion initiatives and responsibilities. I have asked Bar members for help in promoting programs to help veterans, including seeking legislative solutions for their community and participating in military assistance programs. These programs include counseling military personnel about predatory lending practices and explaining to and assisting veterans in receiving the benefits to which they are entitled.

Legislative Action Center

Legal services are currently exempt from the sales tax in Pennsylvania. However, Pennsylvania Governor Wolf’s budget proposal would broaden the application of the sales tax to include many professional services, including most legal services.

The Philadelphia Bar Association believes that it would be a bad public policy to impose a sales tax on legal services. This is not a tax on attorneys; rather, it is a tax on the individuals who seek legal help, often at a time when they are most vulnerable and stressed. The proposed tax would be harmful to individuals in need of legal help, in that many people who are financially struggling may forego hiring an attorney and suffer the consequences inherent with lack of representation.

A sales tax on legal services would also be harmful to Pennsylvania’s law firms, as clients would seek legal representation from firms in the vast majority of states that do not have such a tax. To save clients’ money, firms that have offices in multiple states will shift legal work to offices outside of Pennsylvania. In addition, the administrative burden on Pennsylvania lawyers in charging, accounting for and paying to the Commonwealth sums owed on fees collected from clients would make Pennsylvania law firms less competitive than those in neighboring states.

The Philadelphia Bar Association urges all Pennsylvanians to contact their state legislators to discuss with them the negative implications for expanding sales taxes to include legal services.

Resolutions

The Philadelphia Bar Association Board of Governors adopted a resolution supporting legislation to abolish civil asset forfeiture on March 26, 2015. The Philadelphia Bar Association is committed to advancing the fair and effective administration of justice. Currently, Pennsylvania’s civil asset forfeiture laws authorize law enforcement to forfeit property alleged to be connected to a crime in a civil in rem action against the property. The forfeiture proceeding may go forward whether or not the owner of the property has been charged with or convicted of a crime.

The Philadelphia Bar Association calls on the Pennsylvania General Assembly to take immediate and effective steps to abolish civil asset forfeiture in Pennsylvania and to ensure that forfeiture occur under state law only after the property owner is convicted of a crime, as part of the underlying criminal proceeding. This will guarantee: that no property is forfeited by default, and that in every case the government proves the connection between the property and the crime for which the property owner was convicted; that property owners receive adequate notice of the government's intent to seek forfeiture in the criminal charging document; that property owners have a right to appointed counsel when contesting forfeiture; and that people convicted of crimes can challenge forfeiture of their property without sacrificing their constitutional rights in their criminal case. The Philadelphia Bar Association believes that all proceeds from forfeiture should be deposited into the state treasury where there is transparency and accountability, instead of accruing directly to the law enforcement agencies that are charged with making decisions about when to pursue forfeiture.

Moving forward, we will continue to support these important initiatives throughout the year.

We invite you join us as your partner for justice. Please visit the Philadelphia Bar Association’s website at philadelphiabar.org, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter (@PhilaBar and @2015Chancellor). I thank you for this opportunity.

Sincerely,

Albert S. Dandridge III