Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Pro Bono Judicial Summit

By Judge Matthew C. Lucas, Thirteenth Judicial Circuit

On May 17, 2013, more than 20 state and federal judges gathered at the Chester H. Ferguson Law Center for what is believed to be the first pro bono judicial summit in our circuit. Although many worthwhile opportunities abound to engage lawyers in the important work of providing legal service to the poor and indigent, this conference instead focused on the judiciary’s involvement in this important area. Judicial officials from the county and circuit courts and the Second District Court of Appeal joined federal magistrate, bankruptcy, and district judges to hear presentations from local pro bono service providers and to share ideas about how judges may effectively — and ethically — promote pro bono service in their respective courts. (Members of the judiciary are governed by numerous restrictions as to what extent they may permissibly support pro bono service and service providers under the judicial canons and ethics opinions. See, e.g., In re Amendments to the Code of Judicial Conduct, 983 So. 2d 550 (Fla. 2008) (modifying judicial canons and explaining limitations on judicial participation in pro bono events and ceremonies).) The event was widely appreciated as an opportunity to discuss an ongoing dilemma in our judicial system ― how a litigant’s constitutional right of access to court may be hindered by a lack of legal representation.

Members of the judiciary hold a unique vantage of the need for legal services in their courts. Indeed, under Canon 4(b) of the Code of Judicial Conduct, “[a] judge is encouraged to . . . participate in other quasi-judicial activities concerning the law, the legal system, [and] the administration of justice.” (The commentary to this canon states, “[s]upport of pro bono legal services by members of the bench is an activity that relates to the improvement of the administration of justice.”) After hearing presentations from Circuit Judge Matt Lucas, who moderated the program, and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Catherine Peek McEwen, the chair of the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit’s Pro Bono Committee, about strategies and limitations of which judicial officers should be aware when trying to foster pro bono service, four legal aid organizations offered presentations about the scope of their services.

First, Nancy Lugo, pro bono manager for the Bay Area Volunteer Lawyers Program of Bay Area Legal Services (BALS), talked about the various kinds of legal representation BALS organizes throughout the Tampa Bay area, particularly in the area of family law. Next, Rosemary Armstrong, who helped sponsor the summit, introduced the judges to a new organization, Crossroads for Florida Kids, which was “created to promote and facilitate pro bono legal representation of children in dependency and delinquency proceedings.” Michael Shea of St. Michael’s Legal Center in Tampa talked about his program’s efforts to provide and organize pro bono service for families whose limited resources may be above qualifying poverty levels but below the ability to hire an attorney.

Finally, speaking to the importance of instilling pro bono service early in a legal career, Amy Bandow, an assistant director at Thomas M. Cooley School of Law, discussed her school’s Service to Soldiers: Legal Assistance Referral Program, as well as the availability of the school’s students to serve supporting roles (as “associates”) for practitioners representing pro bono clients.
It is hoped that this summit will be a catalyst for future meetings among the wider judiciary as we continue to address this important topic.