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On The Merits

Supreme Court Sheds Some Light on Itself

We have previously discussed the importance of our courts being transparent and the related impact on the public’s confidence in our justice system. One of the less enthusiastic proponents, the U.S. Supreme Court, recently began turning the tide, albeit slightly, with a new set of policies designed to provide the public with more and better information about the Court’s work.

The resulting media coverage largely has focused on the Court’s decision to abolish “line-standing,” or allowing members of the Bar of the Supreme Court of the U.S. to pay individuals to stand in line on their behalf so they can claim reserved seating for Court arguments. While this change is a good one, two other new policies enacted by the Supreme Court should prove to be more beneficial to the public and the perception of the Court itself.

In what is likely a response to a 2013 article published in the Yale Journal of Law, the Supreme Court says it will begin posting archived copies of web pages that are cited in its opinions. The law review article revealed that many Supreme Court opinions issued during a 14-year period ending in 2010 included inactive – or “dead” – links. The new policy not only makes sure that the appropriate record will be preserved for future cases, but it also shows that the court is working to protect the public record.

The other notable shift announced by the Supreme Court will, for the first time, allow the public to see what changes are made to already-published opinions. The Court’s practice of making ostensibly minor (but sometimes significant) changes to published opinions without notifying the public was revealed in another article published last year by a Harvard Law School professor. As part of this new policy, the Court has set up a “Sample Opinions” page that shows how such amended opinions will be displayed on the Court’s website.

While these changes fall far short of actually allowing cameras into the courtroom – something our own Texas Supreme Court has done enthusiastically and successfully --  they do represent a step forward.  Let’s hope there’s more to come.    

Posted: 10/9/2015 2:48:16 PM by Jessica Tilley | with 0 comments

New ABA President Has Big Plans

The legal profession took another leap forward last week when the American Bar Association inaugurated Paulette Brown as the group’s president for the coming year. Brown, a partner with Locke Lorde in Morristown, New Jersey, is the first woman of color to serve in this prestigious post. Her predecessors include Watergate Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, and former President and Chief Justice of the United States William Howard Taft.

And she is not letting this opportunity go to waste. She’s announced an ambitious agenda, including working to improve diversity in the legal profession, combating racial bias in the judicial system, encouraging a week of pro bono service in October, and reaching out to all lawyers by visiting every state in the nation during her tenure.

These are all great initiatives, and we wish her well as she moves our profession forward. All lawyers and the public we serve will be the better for it.


Posted: 8/7/2015 11:21:28 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments

What are LLLTs and Why Should You Care?

Critics of the legal profession often point out – with some justification – that lawyers are slow to adapt to changes in culture and the legal marketplace. They also note that lawyers are too expensive for the average person, especially for certain basic legal needs that most Americans will need at some point, such as assistance with creating wills and getting divorced.

Responding to this dynamic, lawyers in Washington state are doing something about it. Several years ago, Washington created a novel new program to create a category of legal professionals that could handle certain, basic legal matters that the state determined could be sufficiently handled by non-lawyers with basic training in certain areas of law. These professionals – called Limited License Legal Technicians – are licensed to provide legal advice and assistance to clients in certain areas of law without the supervision of a lawyer. LLLTs can practice either under the umbrella of a law firm or on their own.

Now comes word that seven people have completed all requirements, including passing the licensing exams, to become the first LLLTs in the nation. Washington is hoping that these new entrants to the legal profession can help close the “justice gap,” which keeps the price of legal services out of reach for too many people who need them. Other states are watching closely to see how the Washington model progresses and whether it might be a viable solution to the justice gap, which is present in Texas and every other state as well.

Lawyers traditionally are very protective of their prerogatives, and for good reason, but this can sometime stifle innovative ways of improving our duty to provide justice to all Americans. Kudos to the lawyers in Washington for bravely venturing forth into what is likely to be the wave of the future, whether some attorneys like it or not.


Posted: 6/5/2015 11:04:26 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments

Caddy Smack

The PGA Tour is a billion-dollar business led by recovering-attorney-turned-commissioner Tim Finchem. Based on its affiliations with several charities, the Tour operates as a non-profit entity, which ensures millions of dollars in tax breaks every year. Those savings help the Tour provide professional golfers with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual tournament payouts and a yearly salary for Finchem eclipsing $5 million. The Tour’s pocketbook also isn’t hurt by the fact that many of the people who work at its events are unpaid volunteers affiliated with charity partners.

Despite the PGA Tour’s ability to avoid taxes and turn players into multimillionaires, it seems there’s not much left in the kitty for one group of workers who make far less than the players themselves. We’re talking, of course, about the caddies, who recently filed a lawsuit over being required to wear so called “bibs,” which cover the valuable space on their shirts that otherwise could be sold for corporate sponsorships.

According to the lawsuit, the PGA Tour makes roughly $50 million each year for including corporate logos on the bibs that the Tour requires caddies to wear, while the caddie themselves actually make, well, nothing.  Not a dime.  Instead, the caddies work for the players themselves, but they’ve acquiesced to the Tour’s demand that they wear the bibs for years for fear that not doing so would put them, or their player employers, in peril. That was until the recent lawsuit was filed.

The highest-profile caddie in the world, Steve Williams of “I-used-to-be-Tiger Woods’-caddie” fame, recently joined the lawsuit and told reporters he was fined by the PGA Tour seven different times at $500 a pop during one season for taking off his bib on the 18th hole of various tournaments. Williams, a multimillionaire himself, certainly had the money to pay up. However, risking such fines is unthinkable for the many caddies who actually lose money when they work a tournament where their player doesn’t finish high on the leader board.

Thanks to lawyers, this may change.  Lawyers are often accused of stirring up trouble, but here they are doing what they do best:  representing the little guy.  We don’t know if the caddies will ultimately prevail and be allowed to share in some of the massive revenue that they help make possible, but thanks to lawyers they will get the chance to make their case.    


Posted: 3/31/2015 11:52:11 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments

​Tort Reform Hits GM Ignition Switch Cases

In addition to limiting damages in civil lawsuits, tort reform has become a relied-upon weapon in the campaign arsenals for local, state and federal politicians in Texas and across the U.S. By further demonizing the legal profession and highlighting outlier verdicts, albeit sometimes incorrectly, tort reform advocates have amassed intense support from the public and political parties alike.

The Texas Tort Reform Act was signed into law in 2003 under the notion of establishing and maintaining a fair, honest and predictable system of justice that balances the rights of everyone involved. Supporters point to Texas’ tort reform efforts as the reason why thousands of additional doctors have begun working in the state since 2003 and why they pay lower medical malpractice insurance rates, although many prominent studies and researchers disagree.

One stark example of tort reform’s impact on certain tort victims is the subject of a recent, lengthy article from The New York Times focusing on victims of the well-publicized ignition switch defect in General Motors automobiles. The GM ignition switch defect has allegedly been responsible for more than 40 deaths and countless injuries during the past 10 years. Attorneys for those victims and several media organizations have exposed GM’s extensive efforts to conceal the related dangers and the government’s inability to monitor and stem the problem.

According to the NY Times story, many GM ignition switch cases were settled under confidential terms before the public even knew about the defect. In those cases, what GM knew about the defect and when may never be known. The article also details individual cases where victims’ families have been unable to find a lawyer willing to take on their cases based on restrictive limits on damages, including Wisconsin’s $350,000 cap on loss of society claims.  

While tort reformers’ stated goal of achieving a “fair” and “honest” justice system sounds great in theory, those are not the words that come to mind when potentially meritorious claims are left by the wayside because there’s no chance for a victim to have her day in court to seek a reasonable financial recovery.

Posted: 3/12/2015 6:57:41 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments

About This Blog

Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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