Announcing NYSBA’s Federal Priorities for 2021

By Hilary Jochmans

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The Jan. 6th armed insurrection left the  Capitol building riddled with broken glass and a shattered sense of peace, and leaving the members of the 117th Congress with having to face the physical and emotional aftermath. A new president was inaugurated, and another president was impeached.

So, it is no surprise that Congress only recently turned its attention to its usual work of passing the nation’s laws. And when that happened, the New York State Bar Association’s legislative priorities were ready for Congress’ consideration.

After consultation with the sections, committees and task forces, NYSBA’s legislative policy committee works with the government relations department to come up with its priorities, which are then approved by the executive committee. The association advocates for provisions that will ensure access to justice, the integrity of our justice system and equal access to justice.

The federal priorities this year include student loan relief, funding for broadband, support for Legal Services Corporation funding, firearms, immigration representation, cannabis and sealing records of criminal conviction.

  • Provide Greater Student Loan Relief for Attorneys and Non-Attorneys in Rural, Suburban and Urban Areas

More than 40 million Americans, mostly people under age 35, have student loan debt. COVID-19 has exacerbated the financial challenges these individuals face. While Congress did provide relief, more needs to be done, including extending the moratorium on payments, expanding the program to private loans and providing targeted monetary relief in cases of economic hardship.

Student loan forgiveness was a key plank in President’s Biden’s election platform, as well as a top priority for key members in the House and Senate. It is expected that the chambers will address it in the context of another COVID relief package. Canceling student loan debt faces an uphill battle in the House and the Senate, and it is unclear if the president would have the authority to act unilaterally.

  • Funding for Broadband

The pandemic and resulting stay-at-home orders left millions of Americans working, educating and socializing in a virtual world. It has become abundantly clear that broadband service is an important communications tool that has become vitally necessary for educational purposes and medical care, as well as access to justice.

There is a lack of technology infrastructure in vast portions of New York State and limited or no broadband availability. Appropriate funding is critical for the expansion of a 21st-century digital infrastructure sufficient to provide adequate broadband access to all areas of the nation. Funding may be included in a COVID relief package.

  • Support for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC)

LSC is an independent nonprofit corporation established by Congress in 1974 to provide financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans. LSC promotes equal access to justice by providing funding to 133 independent nonprofit legal aid programs.

LSC grantees serve low-income individuals, children, families, seniors and veterans in 813 offices in every congressional district. It is critically important that Congress provide adequate funding for LSC to provide access to justice for those who need assistance. NYSBA consistently advocates for this funding each year, and Congress has been supportive.

  • Firearms and Mass Shootings

The United States has more mass shootings and more casualties from mass shootings than any other developed country in the world. NYSBA believes lawyers have a special role to play in addressing gun violence in America.

In 2018, NYSBA created the Task Force on Mass Shootings and Assault Weapons to understand the incidence and causes of mass shootings, to describe the role of assault-style weapons and to make recommendations to reduce the number of mass shootings and casualties.

The non-partisan report makes recommendations to address this national crisis without running afoul of the Second Amendment. They include bans on assault weapons, large-capacity magazines, bump stocks and “ghost guns”; enacting universal background checks; extending the time for background checks to be completed before finalizing the sale of a firearm; expanding the category of individuals who are prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms; ensuring all disqualifying events for gun ownership are reported to National Instant Criminal Background Check System; passing extreme risk protection laws, also known as red flag laws; imposing penalties for failure to notify the authorities of stolen or lost guns; imposing penalties for unlocked and unsecured guns; and requesting federal funding for agencies to collect, maintain and analyze data on causes of mass shootings.

New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney has introduced legislation addressing many of these recommendations.

  • Legislative Reform To Address the Crisis in Immigration Representation

The position of immigrants who face civil immigration detention, removal and likely permanent expulsion from the United States is often undermined by the lack of competent counsel to navigate the complexities of immigration laws.

Without competent counsel, a vast majority of noncitizens are ill-equipped to know where to turn for help or how to proceed in an immigration matter. NYSBA is committed to the enactment of a statutory right to appointed counsel to ensure justice for immigrants in legal proceedings.

This priority might be considered in the context of broad comprehensive immigration reform, which is one of the first major policy issues Congress will consider this year. On Feb. 18, the president’s immigration plan was introduced in Congress. This 300+ page bill, called the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, does not have bipartisan support, but elements do have backers on both sides of the aisle and they may be considered individually.

  • Cannabis

As states seek to regulate adult use of marijuana, the conflict with existing federal regulations hinders the ability of states to craft effective and legal policies. Congress should enact legislation that: (1) exempts from the Controlled Substances Act any production, distribution, possession or use of marijuana carried out in compliance with state laws; (2) removes marijuana from Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act; and (3) encourages scientific research into the efficacy, dose, administration and side effects of commonly used and commercially available cannabis products in the U.S.

These provisions were endorsed by the American Bar Association in 2019. Last year, the House passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act to remove cannabis from the U.S. Controlled Substances Act. The legislation was not acted on in the Senate before the end of the year and, as of the writing of this column, has not been introduced this year.

  • Sealing Records of Criminal Conviction

The collateral consequences of criminal convictions are numerous and profound, perpetuating a cycle of unemployment and disenfranchisement that can lead to recidivism. While New York and a majority of states have some form of record sealing or expungement, there is still no federal law that allows for those convicted of federal crimes to seek the sealing of their criminal records. Federal law should allow those convicted of nonviolent federal offenses to petition the court to have records of their conviction sealed.

In addition to these specific policy requests, NYSBA also advocates for three public policy priorities: support for the legal profession; support for states’ authority to regulate the tort system; and integrity of the justice system.

As we have experienced this year, we live in a fast-changing world in which the state Legislature and Congress must act quickly to respond to health, safety and political events. NYSBA’s priorities are intended to serve as a blueprint for NYSBA action for 2021, but we will need to be responsive to events and adjust priorities as necessary throughout the year. Flexibility may be critical.

However the year develops, NYSBA will continue to be a staunch advocate for policies that promote our core values and mission to promote equal access to justice for all. Please check the Government Relations page on the NYSBA website for updated legislation information.

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