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Alabama’s New Immigration Law Toughest in U.S.

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As predicted, Arizona’s fiery immigration policies are having a chain reaction effect on other states.  Several states have attempted to institute laws that are similar to Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 law.  The most recent state to join the fray is Alabama, which passed a tough immigration law just a few weeks ago.

Now, we here at LegalMatch have blogged extensively about Arizona’s policies, which touch upon several aspects of immigration including birthright citizenship and employer punishments.  However, Alabama’s law contains many unique restrictions on illegal immigrants that are not included in any other state policies.  The law is poised to go into effect this September and contains the following provisions:

  • All business must check the legal immigration status of all workers using the E-Verify system
  • Schools will be required to find out if all students are in the country legally (data is to be used for the purpose of “statistical analysis” rather than preventing students from enrolling)
  • Permits police to arrest persons suspected of being an illegal alien if stopped for a different reason
  • Makes it a crime for persons to knowingly give rides to illegal immigrants
  • Makes it a crime for a landlord to knowingly rent property to an illegal immigrant
  • Makes all contracts entered into by an illegal immigrant unenforceable

Now that’s an extensive list.  The law also contains other provisions which have not been elaborated upon, including a restriction on voting.

Hands down, the most controversial aspects of the new law are the requirements regarding schools and landowners.  Many feel that the new regulations will allow for more extensive criminal profiling in areas that have traditionally been less vigilant.

Yet, as drastic as it is, Alabama’s new baby is getting much less attention compared to Arizona’s law.  Some writers are surprised at the lack of outrage towards the new law, given its unprecedented reach and scope.  To me there are several reasons why many people don’t know (or care) about the Yellowhammer State’s immigration developments.

For one, the illegal immigrant population in Alabama is not as pronounced as in other states like California or Arizona.  It is estimated to be at about 120,000 people.  While this indicates a nearly 5x increase over the last decade, this is still a very minimal figure comparatively speaking.  Also, the state of Alabama is not really well-known for being reliant upon immigrant work like Arizona is.  So the question of regulating illegal immigrants is somewhat more separate from the economic aspects of Alabamian life.

But I think that what’s really happening is this- we are simply getting used to hearing about the introduction of doomsday-like illegal immigration policies all over the nation.  Most readers are probably saying to themselves, “Oh, another one?”

Some legal experts feel that the law will be able to withstand legal challenges which are sure to be mounted against it.  The main justification is that Alabama has a legitimate state interest in enforcing such strict measures.  And then there’s the argument that illegal immigrants don’t have any citizens rights because they are not part of “The People” as defined in the Constitution.

Personally I agree that the immigration situation is a problem. And I agree with certain measures in the Alabama law, especially the one that requires employers to check and register workers with E-Verify.

However, I do feel that Alabama could accomplish its aims using much less restrictive means.  In particular, the requirements for schools, landlords, and contract rights are questionable in my opinion.  Rather than making national immigration policies more efficient, these requirements seem to exist only for the purpose of frustrating the immigrant population.

In fact, the first thing I thought about when I learned about property restrictions on illegal immigrants in Alabama was America’s immigrant policies during World War II.  During that time in the 1940’s, Japanese-Americans were forbidden from owning real estate, and many Japanese-American citizens lost a significant amount of property due to internment policies.

Granted, that was a time of war and such extreme policies were enforced out of military necessity.  But in this regard, Alabama’s latest law does seem to send the message:  America is at war.  Ok, maybe it’s not an all out military war, but this is definitely a conflict, and certainly one involving boundaries and territory.  For many, illegal immigration is a serious matter that is nearly tantamount to an act of war.

We’ll have yet to see if the times really are so dire as to require these restrictive measures against illegal aliens.  I project that some of the Alabama provisions will stand (namely, the E-Verify requirements) while many of the other ones will be required to stand down.

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Where Does Assisted Suicide Currently Stand Legally?

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Last week brought news of the death of Dr. Jack Kevorkian. As you probably know, Kevorkian was a pathologist who helped terminally ill patients end their own lives. Throughout the 1990s, his actions were at the forefront of the emerging right-to-die debate in the United States, which continues to rage on.

Dr. Kevorkian reportedly assisted 130 terminally-ill people in committing suicide. He was tried several times for assisted suicide, and was acquitted all but once. In 1999, he was convicted of second-degree murder, after assisting a terminally-ill man in suicide, by administering a lethal injection. His medical license had been revoked several years earlier.

This incident was unique, because Dr. Kevorkian actually administered the injection himself. Usually, he would hook the patient up to an apparatus that would deliver the lethal drugs, but the patient had to physically activate the mechanism, to ensure that the patient had absolute control over the decision. In this case, however, the patient was mostly paralyzed and not physically capable of activating the device himself.

The whole incident was videotaped and broadcast on 60 Minutes, and is what led to his trial and conviction for second degree murder. He was paroled for good behavior and deteriorating medical health after serving 8 ½ years.

Though Dr. Kevorkian brought the debate over voluntary euthanasia to the forefront 20 years ago, the debate is far from settled. The legal and public policy discussion on the issue of physician-assisted suicide has made only moderate progress.

So, where does the law on assisted suicide currently stand? It should be noted that, in the vast majority of states in the U.S., it remains illegal. Anyone who aids or abets a person in committing suicide will be tried for some form of homicide, in those states.

However, three states in the U.S. – Oregon, Washington and Montana – have legalized doctor-assisted suicide, under very limited circumstances. Both laws legalizing assisted suicide were passed by voter initiative, and won by fairly significant margins. And nationwide polls suggest that around 70% of Americans support at least a limited right for terminally ill patients to seek the assistance of a doctor in ending their own lives.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled some time ago that there is no constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide. This means that both the state and federal governments have the power to criminalize it, if they so choose. The Supreme Court did, however, hold that the federal government cannot interfere with a state’s right to legalize assisted suicide, should it so choose.

So, this means that the question of whether or not assisted suicide should be legal is going to be determined on a state-by-state basis, with a patchwork of different laws across the country being the norm for the foreseeable future. However, it appears that the trend is in the direction of legalizing assisted suicide, rather than restricting it. In the two states where it is currently legal, the controversy appears to have died down.

And it should be noted that, even when assisted suicide is legal, it comes with some pretty heavy restrictions. And this is reasonable, considering the fact that, if there’s one right that we don’t want to see abused, the right to die would be it. So, the laws that allow assisted suicide require strong medical evidence that the patient is terminally ill, with less than six months to live. They also require a psychiatric evaluation, to determine that the patient is mentally competent to make the decision. There is also a waiting period. The patient must also make the request voluntarily, without any evidence of coercion whatsoever. The patient’s medical prognosis must be verified by two physicians. Their mental competency must be verified by at least two psychiatrists.

Finally, when all of these facts are verified, the doctor is allowed to prescribe to the patient a drug cocktail meant to cause death as quickly and painlessly as possible – typically a combination of sedatives, painkillers, and antihistamines. The patient must administer the drugs to themselves, to provide an additional level of assurance that the act is completely voluntary. Studies in Washington and Oregon have shown that most patients who are prescribed these drugs don’t end up actually taking them. However, both the patients and their loved ones take a good deal of comfort in the knowledge that the option exists.

Personally, I think that this approach is the best one. I firmly believe in the right of a terminally-ill individual (assuming they are of sound mind) to end their own life, and to seek the assistance of a willing physician, to ensure that their death is as dignified and painless as possible.

Of course, I’m a realist. I recognize the potential for abuse of such a right, if it is unlimited. For that reason, strong safeguards against abuse need to be put into place, such as a waiting period, a psychiatric evaluation to ensure that the patient is of sound mind, as well as verification of the patient’s medical condition by at least two independent physicians, should be in place.

Clearly, the debate regarding assisted suicide is far from over, and few other topics elicit such an emotional response, from both sides of the issue. However, it’s a debate that we need to have.

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Lunchtime Can Tip the Scales of Justice

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Lawyers frequently have to explain to clients the myriad reasons why their cases didn’t go as expected. In any given civil or criminal case, there are usually a range of legal factors to consider, many beyond the control of the parties.

But what about non-legal factors? A new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), suggests that these non-legal factors matter more than you might think. Impressively, the study concludes that a significant factor in getting a favorable decision is when the judge last had a lunch break.

The study surveyed 1,000 parole decisions of eight Israeli judges over ten months. In each case the judge could either grant or deny parole. Judges were far more likely to grant parole at the beginning of the day. They were also more likely to grant parole directly after lunch and a mid-afternoon break.

*Image taken from PNAS report, showing the proportion of favorable decisions over time.

Attorneys reported that they thought that factors like the severity of the crime and the amount of time served were likely to affect a judge’s decision to grant or deny parole. The data presented in this study demonstrates otherwise. Apparently, there is more of a correlation between the decision and when the case was heard, than whether the crime was severe.

The idea that external factors influence legal outcomes is not new. Legal realism, a philosophy of law that dates back to the 19th century, suggests that since humans are subject to whims, biases and external pressures, the legal system as a human construct is also subject to the same. In short, legal realism says, “a case turns on what the judge ate for breakfast.” Now, social science is validating that sentiment.

The authors of the study conclude that, as the judges become more fatigued, they are more likely to go with the easier choice—denying parole. And after rest periods, judges have more energy to go with the more difficult and time consuming choice—granting parole.

It’s well known that our courts are overtaxed in the United States.  Judges of all sorts do their best to keep up with ever mounting caseloads. This study then, assuming the results can be generalized, points to a huge problem in our legal system. Cases should be decided on their merits, not on whether a judge has had a break recently.

All this leads to two pressing, though obvious, thoughts. First, we need to examine what else we can do to ensure that everyone actually gets a fair day in court. And second, it’s past time for Congress to finally give up the charade of judicial nomination blockades.

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We Can’t Stop the Twisters, But We Can Stop Price Gouging

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Natural forces are blind to what they destroy. People aren’t. In the past month, tornadoes and flooding in the South and Midwest left behind crippled lives, destroyed homes, and eviscerated infrastructure.

Now as the victims of the tornadoes try to rebuild, they are left vulnerable to another foe—people who use the disaster for economic gain by price-gouging.

Price-gouging occurs when merchants artificially raise the price of consumer goods that are in an emergency or natural disaster. For example, it’s price-gouging, when after Hurricane Katrina, people were forced to pay $7 for a bottle of water.

Thankfully, there are legal protections against price-gouging in many states, including those that recently declared a state of emergency: Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Virginia. In each of these states, the price-gouging statutes allows the attorney’s general to investigate and prosecute instances of price-gouging once a state of emergency is declared.

The definition of price-gouging is not settled in some jurisdictions. In Virginia and Tennessee, for example, price-gouging is an “unconscionable” or “unreasonable” price-hike. The exact definition of those terms is then left to the discretion of the AG in the first instance, and then to a judge or jury if a case is tried. In other words, it’s open to interpretation and litigation.

Other states have taken an approach that more clearly delineates what is or isn’t price-gouging. Arkansas follows a more strict approach, prohibiting price increases above 10% for storm recovery products (i.e. water, batteries, food, fuel, and construction materials). Meanwhile, Alabama allows for higher price-hikes than Arkansas. It only prohibits raising prices above 25% of the average price for the previous 30 days.

The consequences in prosecuting a price-gouging crime are also different from state to state. So the same price-hike in one state could carry with it a penalty of $10,000, but in a different state it would only be $1,000 per violation.

How does any of this help the victims of natural disaster? In theory, the threat of these consequences will deter potential price-gougers from profiting excessively from the misfortune of others. This is why Attorney Generals in the affected states have made public statements warning price-gougers and asking citizens to report incidents of price-gouging.

It may not be much of a comfort to people who are currently the victims of price-gouging that state Attorney’s General try to prevent gouging. But there can be additional ways for victims to get help. States, like New York, are considering creating a private cause of action in these cases, allowing victims to sue to stop the price-gouging practice and to collect damages. And in other states, like Vermont, there is a right of action under consumer fraud statutes.

The availability of recovery all depends on the laws of your state. But in all of the tornado affected areas, there are means to deter and punish price-gouging. If you suspect that you are a victim of price-gouging, you can check out your state’s attorney general’s office, or consult a knowledgeable local attorney.

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Will the U.S. Soon Face a Shortage of Lawyers?

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Bear with me on this. I know it sounds crazy, especially for those in the legal industry. Over the last few years, an attitude of doom and gloom about employment for recent law school graduates has become almost axiomatic: students go to law school for the wrong reasons, law schools embellish their employment statistics, the ABA will grant full accreditation to a taco truck with a handwritten sign that says “Lawskool,” and, every year, there are more new law school graduates than there are law jobs.

There are quite a few bitter lawyers and law students out there right now, who feel that they’ve been duped. While I believe that the law school system could certainly use some reform, and that every major player, including the schools themselves, the ABA, U.S. News and World Report (which provides the only rankings for law schools to which anyone pays any attention), the student loan industry, and law firms could stand to do a better job in giving people considering law school an accurate picture of what the practice of law is like, I don’t consider myself a crusader against the “law school scam,” as it’s so often called.

Anyway, the point of all this is that it’s generally assumed that the legal market will be over-saturated forever. But, is this necessarily the case? The word about the current state of the legal job market has gotten out, and law school enrollment is down. The UK has gone through a similar drop in law school attendance, and a decrease in the number of new lawyers over the last few years. However, as the global economy gradually kicks back into gear, there seems to be a shortage of entry-level attorneys in that country.

There was a recession in the early 90s, which, as with this recession, hit the legal industry pretty hard, and enrollment in law school went down. As the economy picked up, and businesses engaged in more activity, and therefore needed more legal services, law firms found that they could not find enough new associates, and this drove salaries for new associates way up, as firms competed for talent.

As the economy in the U.S. recovers, could this come to pass here? I’m sure a lot of people who graduated law school in the last 1-3 years are hoping so, and desperately want to believe that this is how it will play out here. And maybe it will. After all, the legal industry, especially the type of work done by large corporate firms, is increasingly global. On top of that, the legal systems in the US and UK are pretty similar.

If this comes to pass in the U.S., I’m sure a lot of young lawyers will welcome the news. However, in the experience of many lawyers I know, if you have been out of law school for more than a few years without a “real” legal job, many firms see you as “damaged goods,” and will pass you up for a new graduate, or someone who worked for them over one summer in law school.

This, I think, illustrates a problem in the industry, which may, in part, be the cause of some of its other problems: snobbery.

A lot of lawyers, particularly at large law firms, seem to look down on people who didn’t go to prestigious law schools ranked in the top 14 in U.S. News and World Report. Why are the top 14 considered particularly prestigious? Why not top 15, top 10, or top 20? Apparently, since the U.S. News and World Report began ranking law schools, the same 14 schools have always ranked in the top 14. They’ve switched places within the top 14, but none have ever dropped below number 14, to be replaced by another school. However, on a few occasions, an additional school has (sort of) made it into the top 14, but only by tying with one of the more “traditional” top 14 schools.

Anyway, big law firms overwhelmingly hire from those schools, and schools ranked near them. In this market, they rarely hire from outside the top 50. This leads to elitism on the top of the legal profession, and inferiority complexes on the lower.

Why is this a problem? It’s problematic for a few reasons. First of all, it creates a bit of an “us vs. them” atmosphere between different “classes” of lawyers.

Secondly, if you watch any movie or TV show having to do with the legal system, it typically focuses on the type of work mostly done by big firms, or at least it depicts young lawyers living a lavish lifestyle that only a big firm salary could provide (not that you’d have much time to spend all that money). This leads to many young people developing an unrealistic idea of what the legal profession is like, and leads to them going to law school for the wrong reasons.

If you’re considering law school, I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but I’m going to go ahead and reiterate: don’t go for the money, or the prestige of working at a big firm. First of all, only a minority of law graduates land jobs at big firms. Second, if that’s the only reason you go to law school, chances are you’ll end up not enjoying the work, and you’ll be working longer hours than most employees. Also, if you don’t have a passion for the law, it’s unlikely that you’ll do well enough in law school to get a job at one of these big firms in the first place.

So, what can the legal industry do about this? It could start by getting over itself. Obviously, the work done by lawyers is important – perhaps more important than most people realize. But, it’s not as if they’re philosopher-kings, and it would be nice if TV and movies would stop giving that impression.

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