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The Role of State Attorneys General in National Health Care Reform-Advocating for the Will of the People or for their Party?

October 25th, 2013 · No Comments

Unless you’ve been living under an exceptionally large rock lately, you have been subjected to renewed national debate about the merits of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).   The PPACA, with its expressed goals of expanding health care access to more Americans, providing additional program choices, and reducing health care costs, was signed into law on March 23, 2010.  Several lawsuits were filed challenging the constitutionality of the Act. In June of 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court held that the individual mandate, a key provision of the Act, was constitutional, allowing the health care law to advance toward implementation.  As we watch this process unfold, new legal challenges have emerged to delay or block adoption of the PPACA.  Many of these lawsuits are being filed on behalf of individual or joined states by their respective Attorneys General.  Given the partisan spectacle recently witnessed over the government shutdown and the debt ceiling, should we question the motivation behind these lawsuits? Are the State Attorneys General (SAG) advocating on behalf of their states’ interests or at the behest of their political parties?

It would be instructive to review the role of the State Attorneys General before answering these questions.  Every Attorney General is considered to be the chief legal officer of his or her state.  Duties include: representing the state, its officials, departments and agencies in all cases involving the state’s interest; advising the governor, the legislature, and state officials on questions of law and public policy, and issuing formal and advisory opinions on matters originating from executive, administrative, and legislative actions.

While many legal or policy issues that arise may be unique to an individual state, others may benefit from a regional or national response.    The National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) was founded in 1907 to foster cooperation among the State Attorneys General and encourage sharing of interstate resources and services.  Additionally, there has been a trend toward increased collaboration with their federal counterparts, partnering on issues involving state and federal regulation, enforcement, and implementation (e.g., the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the National Mortgage Settlement, the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, the Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force).   Ideally, these interstate and state/federal alliances will promote nonpartisan implementation and enforcement.

But can we really expect political neutrality on the part of our State Attorneys General in executing their duties? One must truly be a student of local government to discern an answer.  One factor to consider is how we select these 50 state chief legal officers.  According to NAAG, they are elected independently in 43 states by popular vote.  In five states, they are appointed by the state governor (Alaska, Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Wyoming).  In Tennessee, the state supreme court makes the selection, and in Maine, the state legislature.  Terms vary but most SAG are elected or appointed for a fixed time period.  However, in Alaska and Wyoming, that individual serves “at the pleasure of the governor.”  In Hawaii, New Hampshire, and New Jersey, the governor appoints the State Attorney General, but cannot compel removal at will.

If a State Attorney General is elected, it is easier to imagine a degree of independence from any legal or public policy position taken by the governor, the legislative majority, or affiliated political party. But if that person is appointed or subject to removal,  deviation from the administrative or legislative party line seems less likely.

Another factor to consider is whether the Attorney General has higher political aspirations.  State Attorneys General frequently run for higher state or federal office (just look to the 2012 elections for multiple examples).   Positions that are more popular or politically expedient may be taken to solidify a campaign and financial contribution base.

It is interesting to note that there are currently 25 State Democratic Attorneys General and 25 State Republican Attorneys General.  The even split mirrors the polarization of our national political landscape.   If the recent contentious standoff in Congress is any indication, we can expect many legal and public policy battles to play out, whether intra-state between government branches, state against state, or state against federal jurisdiction.

The answer to our original provocative question-can our State Attorneys General advocate for the will of the people or for their party affiliates-will depend on your personal assessment of their performance as they defend or challenge implementation and enforcement of the PPACA to reform national health care.

To find your local Attorney General opinions, policy statements, pending litigation, and other resources on CourtReference.com, select your State, then choose your Court Resource Category (Statewide Court Opinions and Orders, Statewide Self Help and Legal Research) to find links to state Attorney General sources.

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Misconceptions About Court Records Availability

September 29th, 2013 · 3 Comments

While keeping up with developments in court systems, court records, and related online resources, we at CourtReference frequently encounter discussions about the difficulty – or ease – of finding court records online. We’ve discussed the many types of court records available online, right here on this blog; see our posts about More Court Records (Jan 2012),  What to Know Before Searching (Dec 2010), Jurisdiction and Court Records (Oct 2008), Court Records Basics (Aug 2008),  and Where to Find Criminal Records (Feb 2008).

Yet many people still have trouble finding court records. “There’s no such thing as free court records online” is a recurring opinion. We assume that opinion is held by those who had a bad experience with paid record-search sites, or who simply don’t know where to look. Either way, that’s too bad, because it’s not true. There are plenty of free court records online, if you know where to look.

“Where can I find a free national database of court records?” is a recurring question. There is a public-access database of Federal court records, called PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), but it only covers Federal Circuit, District, and Bankruptcy courts. There is no national database of state court records, because each state has its own court system.

Commercial services that charge a fee to search court records may cover all states, but they are actually aggregating search results from all the individual states’ online systems. That may be the cause of some pessimism about the availability of free state court records;  the only way to do a single nationwide search is to pay a service to search many different state sources. But if the searcher understands that each state has a separate court system, then he or she might realize that court records can be searched on a state-by-state basis. Then the searcher will find that many state and local court systems have searchable records online, for free.

That doesn’t mean that all records are available, or that they’re all free. Some court systems charge a fee to search their records, and some don’t have records online at all. It’s true that most court records – except for sensitive records such as juvenile and sexual assault cases – are public records. But if the court system does not have an online search capability, the only way to find those records is to travel to the courthouse and search the hardcopy records. After spending the time and gas money to make the trip, the searcher can only look at the records for free; taking those records home requires paying a copying fee for each page. That’s why some court systems are able to charge a fee for the convenience of online searching: it’s still cheaper than traveling and copying paper documents.

Now that we know that many court systems do have searchable court records online, where do we look? Does each state have a statewide database of court records? Sadly, no. Happily, some do. The quickest way to find out what searches are available in any give state is to use CourtReference. Select the state you’re interested in searching, then select “Search Court Case Records” in the Choose a Court Resource Category.

  • If you started with Connecticut, you are in luck; you’d immediately see that Connecticut has a single free statewide search of all types of Superior Court case records, with advanced search options.
  • If you started with New Jersey, you’d see that New Jersey has a free statewide record search, but that it’s limited to Superior Court civil cases.
  • If you started with Alabama, you’d see that Alabama has a statewide search of its Circuit and District Court records, and that there is a fee to use the service. You would also see that a few local courts have their own Probate Court record searches.
  • If you started with Indiana, you’d see that Indiana is a little more complicated. It has a free basic search of that covers Circuit and Superior Court cases in most counties, and for some city and town courts; advanced search options are also available, but for a fee. It also has separate statewide searches for criminal records and protective orders, and another free search with advanced search options that covers Circuit and Superior Courts in most counties.
  • If you started with Texas, you’d see that Texas is more than a little complicated. It has no statewide search; all searches must be done at the county or municipal level, many county and municipal courts do not have records online, some counties have separate searches for different levels of courts – and did I mention that Texas has 254 counties? When searching for court records in Texas, it really helps to know exactly which court has those records.
  • At the opposite end of the spectrum, if you started with Massachusetts, you’d see that no Massachusetts courts have online record searches. At least Massachusetts provides information about which types of records are available at the clerk’s office. And CourtReference Guide to Massachusetts Courts tells you how to find the clerk’s office.

At this time, Massachusetts, West Virginia, and Wyoming are the only states with no statewide, countywide, or local court record searches. Every other state has record searches, although some states only have a few at the local level and no statewide or even countywide search. As more court systems add online record searches, you’ll be able to find them at CourtReference.

→ 3 CommentsTags: Alabama · Connecticut · Court Systems · Courtreference.com · Finding Court Records · Indiana · Massachusetts · New Jersey · Texas

Everything I know about the Legal System, I learned from the Movies

September 21st, 2013 · No Comments

Think for a moment about the influence of popular culture informing your opinions about the legal system.  Whether a consumer of film, television, radio, music or literature, you have likely been exposed to broad, thematic messages about law and justice.

These messages may be inspirational and enlightening, or distorted and inaccurate representations of our legal system.  Legal professionals may be vilified or sainted, redeemed or doomed, but their portrayals often linger long after we leave the theater.  Who can forget Jack Nicholson bellowing at Tom Cruise in  Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth!” or  Al Pacino verbally going off the rails in  And Justice For All: “You’re out of order! You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order!”   We love those climactic scenes; we assume that the such rants are routine, and that courtroom drama is a daily occurrence.  Until we attend an actual trial!

In movies, it is difficult to capture the realities of the legal system, particularly with the limitations of a 90-minute film.  The details, structure, and complexities of the process are not exactly riveting cinematic fare.  Most films about litigation and the delivery of justice minimize the tedious aspects of trial preparation and procedure, substituting instead sensationalized trials with unexpected plot twists and unforgettable “gotcha” moments.  That makes for good theater, but not good civic education.  Lawyers have begun to realize that much of what the public believes about our system of justice is derived from motion pictures;  expectations need to be adjusted, or more lawyers need to attend film school.

Despite these indictments of Hollywood, I cannot pan all legally-themed movies.  My moral compass has been set by several epic  films about the pursuit of justice.  Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird inspired me to become a lawyer (along with countless others, I’m sure).  When I applied to law school, I was advised to watch The Paper Chase, a movie about a first-year Harvard law student intimidated by a stern professor and the Socratic method of teaching.  It was instructive, and eerily similar to my first-year property class experience.

Full disclosure-movies have significantly influenced my notions of justice and the law (as well as my original career path).   I’d like to share with you my list of favorite legal films, along with the American Bar Association Journal’s   “25 Greatest Legal Movies” (ABA Journal, posted 8/1/2008 by Richard Brust).  I expect comments if any of your favorites are missing!

 

My favorite legal movie list (no particular order):

To Kill a Mockingbird, Presumed Innocent, Primal Fear, Michael Clayton, Class Action, Philadelphia, Fracture,  A Few Good Men, Defending Your Life, The Verdict, In the Name of the Father, A Civil Action, Breaker Morant, 12 Angry Men, And Justice for All, Inherit the Wind, Kramer vs. Kramer, Liar, Liar, My Cousin Vinny, Jagged Edge, and  all the Grisham adaptions: A Time to Kill,  The Chamber, The Client, The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Rainmaker, The Runaway Jury

The ABA List (ranked by the best first)

To Kill a Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men, My Cousin Vinny, Anatomy of a Murder, Inherit the Wind, Witness for the Prosecution, Breaker Morant, Philadelphia, Erin Brockovich, The Verdict, Presumed Innocent, Judgement at Nuremberg, A Man for All Seasons, A Few Good Men, Chicago, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Paper Chase, Reversal of Fortune, Compulsion, And Justice for All, In the Name of the Father, A Civil Action, Young Mr. Lincoln, Amistad, and Miracle on 34th Street

 

Consider replaying some of these legal classics on your favorite media device.  Prepare to be inspired, transported  and possibly duped!  But when you need reliable, accurate information about the legal system in your area,  search CourtReference.com.  Select the Self Help and Legal Research or Legal Aid and Lawyer Referral categories for your particular state and county to find links to legal information, legal service providers, and frequently asked questions and answers about the legal process.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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