PILS is the ‘conscience of our profession’

first_imgPILS is the ‘conscience of our profession’ PILS is the ‘conscience of our profession’ Associate EditorFormer Bar President Terry Russell confessed to those gathered at the Public Interest Law Section luncheon that he does not share one-tenth of the knowledge of the people who served on the Bar’s Commission on the Legal Needs of Children.When last year’s president, Tod Aronovitz, asked Russell to chair the commission’s implementation committee, because of his legislative lobbying prowess, Russell said he thought about it, talked about it with his wife, Mary Kay, and agreed to give it a try.“But you’ve got to put people on there who really know what they’re doing, because I’m simply going to direct traffic to try to keep the process focused,” Russell said he told Aronovitz.The problems of “unparented, underprivileged, and abused children” are daunting, Russell said, and implementing the recommendations of the Bar’s commission (which ended three years of study with a final report in 2002 available on the Bar’s Web site at www.flabar.org) is an enormous task.“So far, to me it’s like looking down an endless, bottomless pit. I don’t see an end to it,” Russell admitted. “I can’t quite figure out where the beginning is. I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know how you change human nature and make sure people properly parent their kids and be responsible about bringing them into this world and moving them on. As I look at this problem, it is going to be forever.“The first thing I noticed, as we started this process, was that since the problem was going to take forever to fix, we probably needed a committee that was going to last that long. And we have recommended to Miles (McGrane) — and how could the timing be better to have a child advocate as president of The Florida Bar? — our first concrete recommendation was he make the committee we are serving on now a permanent standing committee of the Bar.”On June 26, the day before the PILS luncheon, Russell said McGrane informed him that he intends to do just that. Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead, Russell said, “advised me that he was really thrilled that was our first recommendation. So we are now looking forward to the process of creating a standing committee, a larger committee.. . with permanence, complete permanence, so that this problem from year to year, one step at a time, can be tackled.”One of the primary recommendations of the Commission on the Legal Needs of Children to tackle, Russell said, is to create a Statewide Office of the Child’s Advocate. With help from children’s advocate lawyers Sharon Langer, Gerry Glynn, and Bernie Perlmutter, Russell said, they are drafting legislation to accomplish such a goal that would provide lawyers for children, in addition to guardians ad litem. That proposed legislation will be the focus of the implementation committee’s September meeting.Getting a Statewide Office of the Child’s Advocate funded, Russell acknowledged, will be a challenge “considering what we’re dealing with right now in Tallahassee.”“We will tackle this thing one major project at a time,” Russell said. “I’m excited about how it’s going. It looks good. But it looks enormously challenging. I’m pleased we have gotten as far as we have. I have to tell you that the knowledge that those who served on that commission have, the dedication they have, the belief they have in this cause, is inspiring. It is unbelievably inspiring. Thank God that we have people that, like you, are interested in securing the rights and improving the lives of the most innocent among us — children. I am pleased to be part of it, though, frankly, I feel I am the least qualified part of it. I’m happy to be there and watching all of you people do what you do.”Looking out at many child advocates and legal services lawyers in the audience, Russell said: “I want to thank you for your dedication to the profession. Kent Spuhler, (of Florida Legal Services), I’m going to steal this from you: ‘The Public Interest Law Section is the conscience of our profession.’ Kent said that as I was walking in the door. And I said, ‘Yes, Kent, and sometimes we don’t like to hear what our conscience has to say, because you give us tough messages sometimes.’”The day before, at The Florida Bar Foundation meeting, Russell said, he was listening to a discussion about prisoners’ rights, the way people charged with horrible crimes had their rights denied them.“There are two parts of your brain working. Part of you says: ‘OK, so what?’ But the rational side says: ‘How we treat the least among us is how we should expect to be treated ourselves. If you can’t protect the rights of prisoners, then how can we hope to protect our own?’“That really is the test of dedication when you can step in and try to assist someone who you know shares none of your values, probably deserves to be precisely where he or she is, but whose rights have been violated by those who don’t understand the importance of human rights. I applaud you for that dedication.”Civil Legal Assistance Act R ussell gave an update on his pet project as president: state funding for civil legal services for the poor through the Civil Legal Assistance Act.“Somehow, we managed to get more money somehow. I think we begged,” Russell said, of a 2003 legislative budget “where there is not a single turkey.”He said he was grateful for this year’s $1.5 million, even though it was less than last year’s $2 million.“The idea was to get the money to go up. But when we finally looked at the legislative agenda this year and saw the amount of money they were going to be spending, we knew there was simply no way to break the impasse in terms of revenue. We felt very grateful to keep this program going. It’s still a pilot program. It’s going to take about $5.5 million to get the program spread statewide.”Russell called Rep. Dudley Goodlette, R-Naples, “a hero to the profession.. . . He has been an awesome performer at the Florida Legislature for us. And if you know him or see him, please thank him. Because without his support last year, or his support this year, we could not have gotten this legislation passed or this bill funded.”The challenge, Russell said, is to find a permanent, recurring source of funding, because so far the money, strangely enough, has come out of the state highway fund.The Foundation will be appointing a task force, Russell said, toward that end.Russell said members of the legislature heard this “powerful and pure message”: “We let them know how much we – you – do in the area of delivery of legal services to the poor. The numbers are enormous, tens of millions of dollars worth of your time, millions of dollars of your contributed money, a $50-million-a-year program in this state. All of that effort only translates into helping one out of three.“That message worked. They understood it. And they understand the need. The governor told me this, as late as two weeks ago, that he is happy with the program and happy he is part of it. There is common ground,” Russell said,“People ask me, ‘How did you do that?’ Look for common ground. I don’t challenge where I can’t win. You don’t want to beat yourself to death up against a stone wall. Bide your time.”Russell ended with this encouraging prediction:“I believe things will begin to improve for the Florida justice system within a year or two or three. Because there are young leaders in the Florida Legislature who understand the need and are moving into leadership positions. I have confidence in them, and I think they, ultimately, will help.” August 1, 2003 Jan Pudlow Associate Editor Regular Newslast_img read more