Monday, October 17, 2011

Bad judges around the world: The Nanking judge who seems to have destroyed Good Samaritanism

After toddler is left to die, China disquieted
By Joshua Norman
October 17, 2011

...According to many internet commentators, the relatively new tendency in China to ignore those in desperate need can be blamed on the "Nanjing judge."

Chinese news aggregator writes that phrase refers to "the 2006 case of a man named Peng Yu who helped a woman to the hospital after she had fallen only to have the old woman accuse him of knocking her down. The Nanjing judge in that case ultimately ruled that common sense dictated that only the person who hit her would take her to the hospital."...

China shocked as hit-run toddler ignored by 18 passers-by
by: Leo Lewis
The Times
October 18, 2011

Many remember a case in 2006 when a 65-year-old woman fell in the street and broke her hip.

Peng Yu, 26, rushed to help, took her to hospital and gave her 200 yuan for good measure.

She later sued him, winning an award of 45,000 yuan because the judge decided that Mr Peng's gift was evidence that he had caused her fall.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The ethics of the San Diego Ethics Commission: keeping secrets from "two-bit newspapers" about lobbyists who serve as its attorneys

“You have an excellent reputation in the community; you are an extremely careful person, and I don’t see why your answer should not be sufficient,” Commissioner and retired Judge William Howatt Jr. told Fulhorst.

The ethics of the Ethics Commission
By Dave Maass
San Diego City Beat
Oct 12, 2011

At a September meeting of the San Diego Ethics Commission, the agency’s executive director, Stacey Fulhorst, presented the mother of all catch-22s.

While inspecting lobbyist-activity records, CityBeat had learned that private attorneys retained by the Ethics Commission are also working as counsel for the Southeastern Economic Development Corporation (SEDC), a city redevelopment agency, and as lobbyists for private companies. The relationships seem to present a potential conflict of interest on multiple levels, since the commission both regulates lobbyists and enforces ethics in city government, including SEDC. Asked about this, Fulhorst said the law firm—Stutz, Artiano, Shinoff and Holtz—and the commission have put several firewalls in place.

However, since attorney-client confidentiality covers legal agreements, Fulhorst couldn’t offer proof of these safeguards without first asking the commission’s seven members to release the information.

“I would personally recommend that you do approve a waiver, a very limited waiver of just, literally, a handful of paragraphs, because I do think it’s important to demonstrate to the public that we recognize it would not be appropriate for us to receive legal services from the same law firm that was providing general counsel to SEDC on SEDC matters,” Fulhorst told commissioners on Sept. 23.

Paradoxically, Fulhorst couldn’t show the commissioners the relevant paragraphs because they’d then become public record. Nor could the commission turn to its legal counsel for advice, since the lawyers were the subject of the discussion.

The commission deliberated for 15 minutes on whether an agency that investigates conflicts of interests should be transparent regarding its own potential conflicts. Some members wondered why CityBeat wouldn’t just take Fulhorst’s word.

“You have an excellent reputation in the community; you are an extremely careful person, and I don’t see why your answer should not be sufficient,” Commissioner and retired Judge William Howatt Jr. told Fulhorst.

Some worried about setting a precedent.

“I just think we should be careful with granting such a waiver,” Commissioner Larry Westfall, an accountant, said. “Once you do it, we start to open the door for every little, two-bit newspaper in town to come here and make requests for information, too.”

Some recognized the public interest in releasing the document, but Commissioner and attorney John O’Neill alone saw that as overriding other concerns.

“I think it puts to rest any suspicion there is any impropriety here,” O’Neill said. “I don’t think it helps us to not give the document.”

The commission voted 5-1 (one member was absent) against releasing the information, rejecting Fulhorst’s offer to conduct more research on an issue that wouldn’t have come up a year ago.

With Proposition E in 2004, San Diego voters authorized the Ethics Commission to hire its own legal counsel instead of relying on the advice of the City Attorney’s office. Proponents argued it was problematic for the city attorney to represent both the commission and the city officials subject to commission investigations. They also noted that City Attorney staff are also subject to commission enforcement actions.

For the first five years, the commission employed a staff attorney, but when the lawyer departed last year, the agency decided to contract with an outside firm to allow more flexibility. The Stutz firm submitted a bid and, Fulhorst said, was selected because of the “unique expertise and knowledge” of Christina Cameron, a longtime City Hall staffer specializing in ethics and campaign reform who’d recently earned a law degree. Under the terms of the bid, Cameron would serve as a general counsel, working under the supervision of “associate general counsel” Prescilla Dugard and Leslie Devaney. All three were serving as counsel to SEDC and lobbyists, but the firm agreed that Cameron would be severed from SEDC matters and no longer register as a lobbyist.

In the first half of 2011, the Ethics Commission paid the Stutz firm $48,000 in fees, and another $3,000 to a second firm that handles cases when a conflict arises. During the same period, the Stutz firm collected at least $203,000 from SEDC. As a lobbying organization, the firm represents EverFlow Resources, Staff Pro and Western Towing.

Fulhorst, Cameron and Devaney described to CityBeat many of the physical and procedural measures in place to protect against a conflict. The firm also amended its lobbyist reports following CityBeat’s inquiry to better reflect Devaney and Dugard’s involvement with the Ethics Commission: Each provided less than an hour of legal services in the first half of the year.

Tracy Westen, CEO of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles-based watchdog organization, says he’s less concerned with the specific SEDC issue than he is alarmed to learn that registered lobbyists are providing legal advice to lobbyist regulators.

“Ideally, if you contract for ethics advice with outside counsel, you want that outside counsel to give you independent advice,” Westen says. “But if the outside counsel is also lobbying the city, its advice may tilt in favor of lobbyists in general. Simply recusing themselves from judgments involving a client they’re lobbying for is a good idea, but it does not purge them of pro-lobbyist sentiments.”

Of the 106 complaints processed by the commission in 2010, 38 percent—the largest portion—were alleged violations of the city’s lobbying ordinance, according to the commission’s annual report.

“If a matter were heavily related to lobbying and I felt it was inappropriate to talk to [Devaney or Dugard] because they are registered lobbyists, then I have other partners and other senior attorneys that I can work with if I need to,” Cameron says.

Westen says that’s not enough. “It’s very difficult for a law firm to purge itself of this appearance of a conflict if some partners are lobbying and others are not,” Westen says. “I think the city really needs to go to a law firm that is not doing lobbying.”

Fulhorst says that’s an impractical idea coming from someone “working in academia,” since the “vast majority of law firms” in San Diego are registered as lobbyists under the city ordinance...

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Clarence Thomas Didn't Report $700K Paid to His Wife: House Dems

Clarence Thomas Didn't Report $700K Paid to His Wife: House Dems
By Cynthia Hsu
October 3, 2011

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas failed to disclose that his wife received paychecks from conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation.

And the sum is no small chunk of change. House Democrats say that Virginia Thomas received $700,000 between 2003 and 2007.

They are now requesting an ethics investigation into the matter.

So did Thomas deliberately exclude the payout? Or was this simply an accident?

One thing is for sure: this isn't the first time the justice has omitted some information.

In January, Thomas corrected about 20 years worth of documents after a watchdog group noticed that he never disclosed where his wife worked.

Thomas said that this was a simple accident due to a "misunderstanding of the filing instructions."

But strangely enough, the amended reports indicate that his wife worked at the Heritage Foundation from 1998 to 2003.

Okay, so he knew that he had to disclose where his wife worked during those years.

But then why not go back and fill in all the gaps? Why only bubble in that his wife worked at the think tank between the years of 1998 and 2003 when he knew that she worked there from 2003 to 2007 as well?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Expensive Lawyers Being Replaced by Robo-Lawyers

Expensive Lawyers Being Replaced by Robo-Lawyers
By Cynthia Hsu
October 11, 2011

Attorneys everywhere: watch out. You might get outsourced soon, replaced by an army of hard-working robo-lawyers.

No, robo-lawyers aren't android-like machines sporting pinstripes and looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger from "Terminator."

Instead, these automated machines are more like software. They can process disputes and help settle claims, much like a regular attorney. Except at a fraction of the cost. This is why even large global companies like General Electric are turning to "robotic" help.

GE is currently testing out the computer program in Italy. Right now it's being used mainly on disputes amounting to $65,000 and less.

Why the computerized help? Doesn't GE want to pay lawyers hundreds of dollars per billable hour? Guess not.

As it turns out, sometimes it's just not worth it to hire an attorney. GE says that it costs around $10,000 to pursue a claim through typical arbitration methods. So if you're trying to settle a claim that is only worth $10,000, arbitration seems extremely expensive.

It makes sense that they'd want to cut costs somehow.

And it seems like a step toward the future. More and more work these days are outsourced to computers and actual robots. There's the iRobot Roomba, a robot that could smartly vacuum your house. There's also Asimo, Honda's take on a humanoid robot.

Basically, we might need to prepare for a future where robots will take over all. Maybe robots will soon drive our cars, wash our clothes, and do all our legal work for us.

Is that really such a bad thing? Maybe a robo-lawyer will actually be more friendly and personable than a real attorney already lacking in social skills.