The Proskauer corporate social responsibility and pro bono blog

Pro Bono Spotlight: Ameelio.org – Bridging Financial Barriers for Incarcerated Individuals Trying to Stay in Touch with Loved Ones

Staying in touch with loved ones has become more important today than ever before. While technology offers many ways to stay in contact, incarcerated individuals face barriers to communication. Several prisons have paused in-person visitation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A phone call can cost up to $25, creating a financial burden for many families of the incarcerated. As the United States, which incarcerates more individuals than any other country, confronts the challenges of its criminal justice system, Proskauer’s pro bono client Ameelio, a nonprofit organization, is working to facilitate communication between incarcerated individuals and their families by removing cost barriers.

Ameelio’s Founder, Uzoma Orchingwa, explains below how he is finding innovative ways to keep people connected, no matter the cost.

Could you briefly explain how Ameelio works?

Ameelio serves as a technological bridge to the outside world for incarcerated individuals. We have three core products, our mobile application where loved ones can upload letters, postcards and photos for incarcerated individuals. Our second product is Letters for Organizations, where Ameelio helps organizations, like ministries, rehab groups, and educators send mass mail to prisons. Our third product is “Connect,” which is a videoconferencing tool we are launching in April 2021. Continue Reading

Proskauer Honors Public Service at the 13th Annual Golden Gavel Awards

Proskauer gathered for a firmwide virtual celebration, our 13th Annual Golden Gavel Awards ceremony on February 3, to honor those lawyers and staff members who went far above and beyond to contribute to the Firm’s pro bono, corporate social responsibility, and diversity & inclusion initiatives this year. This past year has been one of immense adversity and challenges. We thank and celebrate the following colleagues who rose to the occasion and made a difference for their communities. Continue Reading

Proskauer Provides Career Readiness Guidance to Veterans and Active Duty Military Spouses

Proskauer is a proud supporter of American Corporate Partners (ACP), a national nonprofit organization focused on helping returning veterans and active duty spouses find their next careers through one-on-one mentoring, networking and online career advice. Each year, Proskauer provides a group of highly committed volunteers who are paired with ACP protégés to offer ongoing guidance and mentorship in pursuing civilian careers.

For many that ACP serves, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the job application process have been particularly challenging. “Our veterans are stellar individuals, but they are at a disadvantage when applying for jobs right now,” said Timothy Cochrane, Senior Vice President at ACP. “Companies will hire back people they let go at the beginning of the pandemic or recent college graduates. Many of our veterans have little or no corporate experience. Translating military skills is the number one issue they confront when finding a new position and having a mentor makes all of the difference in the world.” Continue Reading

First Circuit Upholds Right to Secretly Record Police in Public

On December 15, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of our clients, holding the Massachusetts Wiretap Statute (Mass. Gen. L. ch. 272, § 99) unconstitutional when applied to secret recordings of police officers discharging their official duties in public spaces.  This decision is the first appellate-level decision recognizing First Amendment protection for this conduct.

The Massachusetts Wiretap Statute: This statute makes it a felony to secretly record oral communications, regardless of the other circumstances of the recording.  Our clients—two civil-rights activists in Boston and the plaintiffs in this case—challenged the Massachusetts Wiretap Statute as unconstitutional under the First Amendment as applied to secret recordings of police officers performing their duties in public.  While both plaintiffs have openly recorded law enforcement officials performing their duties in public, both believe secret recording would protect their safety and more accurately document police officers’ behavior in public.

The Decision:  The plaintiffs filed their complaint in federal court against the Commissioner of the Boston Police Department and the District Attorney for the County of Suffolk, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.  After successfully opposing the defendants’ motions to dismiss and engaging in significant discovery (including motion practice during the discovery phase and multiple depositions), the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment.  The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of our clients, holding the Massachusetts Wiretap Statute could not constitutionally prohibit the secret audio recording of government officials, including police officers, performing their official duties in public.  The District Attorney appealed.

In an extensive 72-page decision written by Circuit Judge David Barron (and joined by retired Associate Justice David Souter, and Circuit Judge Bruce Selya), the First Circuit affirmed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment to our clients, finding that the Massachusetts Wiretap Statute violates the First Amendment by prohibiting the secret, nonconsensual audio recording of police officers discharging their official duties in public spaces.

The Impact:  Proskauer has long worked with the ACLU of Massachusetts to ensure government transparency and accountability.  The decision in this case will advance both of those goals not only by enjoining arrests and prosecutions for constitutionally protected activity in Massachusetts, but by establishing important appellate precedent to protect civil liberties throughout the United States.

***

It was my privilege to lead the Proskauer team on this appeal, which included Partner John E. Roberts, and to lead the Proskauer litigation team at the District Court, which included associates Jim Anderson, Lucy Wolf, and Hena Vora.

Francis Lewis High School Makes Semi-Final Run in Moot Court Competition

For over 30 years, Proskauer lawyers have worked with students from Francis Lewis High School in Queens to help prepare them for moot court competitions. This year’s program was unlike any other with practices held over Zoom from living rooms and bedrooms across the City; and, instead of walking up to the lectern at the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse, a grand classical revival landmark in lower Manhattan, each student argued at home in front of a laptop. Despite the challenging situation, the competitors made it to the semi-finals of this year’s Metropolitan Mentor Moot Court competition for the first time in ten years. Continue Reading

New York City Bar Report Recommends Changes in the Appointment and Assignment Process for Family Court Judges

Delays in New York City Family Court proceedings too often result from an inadequate number of judges combined with a court structure that makes it difficult to allocate judges where they are most needed.  Although these structural faults require legislative and constitutional changes, there are certain steps, according to a recent New York City Bar Association report, that the Office of Court Administration (OCA) and the Mayor’s Office should take now to improve the judicial appointment and assignment process.

As members of the work group that produced the report, we are struck by the almost impossible burden placed on court administrators to manage efficiently an archaic and confusing system of 11 separate and distinct trial courts with varying jurisdictions.  Due to the lack of sufficient Family Court judges, OCA assigns judges to the Family Court on a temporary basis from other courts.  Every time a judge moves from one court to another, cases are reassigned, causing delay and confusion among litigants.  Moreover, when judges are assigned without experience or expertise in family law as they take over cases lacking familiarity with prior proceedings, they understandably do not perform at the same level of efficiency as fulltime Family Court Judges.

It is not simply, however, the assignment process that causes delay. Indeed, too often there is a lag between a Family Court vacancy and the appointment of a new judge.   The Mayor’s Advisory Committee on the Judiciary (“MACJ”), which is comprised of 19 highly qualified members of the New York Bar, is responsible for nominating judicial candidates for appointment and reappointment by the Mayor.

To help alleviate delay in Family Court, the report makes certain recommendations which include:

  • Training: Judges who are new to the Family Court should be better trained in the substantive areas they are adjudicating and in case management.
  • Data Collection: OCA should collect, compile and analyze data in each county as to the length and frequency of delay caused by vacancies, which would help track caseload and staffing needs and would also help identify the causes of delay.
  • Transparency and Coordination: OCA and MACJ should improve communication and planning to avoid any unnecessary delay in the appointment process and should announce appointments and reassignments so that stakeholders and the public are given sufficient notice.
  • Expanding MACJ: Given the substantial work load, the appointment process would benefit from increasing the number of MACJ members.
  • Expeditious Appointments:  Where possible, the Mayor should select appointees before vacancies arise.

This report lays bare serious issues that need to be addressed not only through the report’s recommendations but through broader reform efforts in New York to simplify the court structure and thereby unify the various trial courts.

Indeed, the work group that produced this report heard directly from practitioners and institutional providers who described the real-world impact of extended judicial vacancies, the rapid turnover of jurists, and the failure to be notified in a timely fashion of reassignments.  As the report states, “the current system leaves the Family Court in a state of constant flux . . . that compromises the administration of justice, often at critical points for the safety and security of families and children.”

Bloomberg and Proskauer Sponsor Equal Justice Works Fellow at Mount Sinai Medical Legal Partnership

COVID-19 has been catastrophic for the wellbeing of low-income Americans, particularly in communities of color. The costs to health and human life have been devastating and the substantial collateral damage on the financial and social fabric of the country is expected to be felt into 2021 and beyond. One of this country’s leading hospitals, Mount Sinai, is addressing the legal needs of its patients through the Mount Sinai Medical Legal Partnership (MSMLP).  Serving one of the most diverse populations of any hospital, MSMLP addresses critical and urgent legal needs that may be affecting a patient’s health such as income maintenance, housing, education and employment, legal status and personal and family stability. This vital work is needed now more than ever.

To this end, Bloomberg and Proskauer are sponsoring Equal Justice Works Fellow Rita Gilles who will work at MSMLP under the supervision of the LegalHealth division of New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG). Rita, a recent graduate of Yale Law School, will provide legal aid to low-income families of children and adolescent patients at Mount Sinai. Continue Reading

LexBlog