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Pro Bono Digest - Spotlight on The Brennan Center

Thursday, September 02, 2004

  • By: William J. Dean
  • Organization: Volunteers of Legal Service

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, founded in 1995 as a living tribute to U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr., is a public interest legal advocacy organization which develops and implements an innovative agenda of legal action and public education. The center's three program areas are poverty, democracy and criminal justice, along with a newly added special project on liberty and national security. Its mission statement reads, in part: "The Center takes its cue not from Brennan opinions written for a past era, but from the singular Brennan spirit of asking the hard questions, transcending conventional wisdom, keeping faith in the power of open and honest discourse, and building unlikely coalitions around practical solutions."

The Brennan Center's staff, supplemented by major pro bono commitments from law firms, litigates cases, drafts legislation, prepares amicus briefs and assists community coalitions. The following three matters are examples of the close pro bono collaboration between Brennan Center staff and pro bono lawyers.

Florida Minimum Wage Initiative

As part of its Poverty Program, the Brennan Center serves as legal counsel to the national "living wage movement," helping to design, enact and defend higher minimum wages at state and local levels. This past July, a proposed constitutional amendment to create a state minimum wage in Florida starting at $6.15 an hour - a dollar an hour above the current federal level - qualified for the November ballot. If approved by voters in November, the proposal would raise pay for 300,000 working Floridians who currently earn less than $6.15 an hour. Analysts estimate that another 400,000 workers, who now make slightly more than $6.15, will also see their pay increase. The new minimum wage is indexed to inflation to ensure that rising prices do not erode its value over time.

Close to 1 million Floridians signed the petition to place the minimum wage initiative on the ballot. Brennan Center staff drafted the initiative at the request of the center's grassroots partner, Floridians for All, and teams of pro bono lawyers at Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler in New York and White & Case in Miami provided critical legal assistance in the initiative process.

Last fall, Michael D. Sant' Ambrogio, newly arrived at Patterson, Belknap after having concluded a clerkship for a Hawaii Supreme Court Justice, learned of the Brennan Center's need for pro bono assistance on this matter. He expressed his interest to Lisa E. Cleary, a partner and chair of the firm's Pro Bono Committee. She, in turn, contacted partner John D. Winter who has a long-time interest in election law matters.

Mr. Winter and Mr. Sant' Ambrogio teamed up to create a legal framework for collecting a million signatures; "a fairly significant endeavor," as Mr. Winter modestly puts it, in dramatic understatement, especially since, as Mr. Sant' Ambrogio points out, "Florida election law is very complicated and unclear." The two lawyers set out to identify the hurdles and the "do's and don't's" in petition gathering, with the aim of making the signatures, to be gathered by Floridians for All, as challenge-proof as possible. In the course of his work, Mr. Sant' Ambrogio discussed process and procedures with Florida state officials, finding them "helpful and responsive."

One of many challenges was the geographic requirement that a certain number of signatures had to be collected in at least 12 of the state's 23 congressional districts. Patterson lawyers advised on campaign issues generally and also on non-profit organization legal issues. There were weekly teleconferences among the Patterson lawyers, Brennan Center staff, Floridians for All leadership, and White & Case lawyers.

Mr. Winter found his work on the initiative to be "immensely gratifying." He continues: "This was a huge undertaking on an important issue - a living wage for many people. Here was an effort to better the lives of people through higher wages. This is legal work of a high social utility."

For Mr. Sant' Ambrogio, working with the Brennan staff was fruitful and productive. "They are great people to collaborate with. I was afforded a lot of responsibility by my firm. It is exciting to impact on the lives of so many people."

In support of the initiative, White & Case partner Faith Gay appeared before the Florida Supreme Court - - "in a spirited argument," in her words - - to contend that the initiative met all procedural requirements to appear on the ballot. In addition, she shepherded through the court the financial impact statement concerning the initiative which also will appear on the ballot. Her White & Case colleagues on the case were Brian H. Koch and Rima Y. Mullins.

"These pro bono lawyers," says Nathan Newman, associate counsel at the Brennan Center, "provided critical energy and resources. They brought immense dedication to the task, as well as the prestige of their firms."

Santa Fe Minimum Wage Ordinance

In June, a New Mexico state court judge upheld the Santa Fe minimum wage ordinance, one of the nation's first laws raising the minimum wage for workers at all the large private businesses in the city. The ruling means that 9000 low-wage workers in the city, like maids and dishwashers, will begin receiving at least $8.50 an hour.

Since 1994, according to the Brennan Center, more than 110 cities have enacted living wage laws that increase the minimum wage for workers at businesses performing city contracts. (This is the situation in New York City.) Now, in an important new trend, cities like Santa Fe are enacting broader minimum wage laws that raise pay for workers at private businesses in their communities, not just those performing city contracts. San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have enacted similar minimum wage laws in recent years. Indeed, the center drafted the "living wage" ballot initiative that was approved by voters in San Francisco on Nov. 4, 2003.

"We are enormously gratified by the decision which will benefit the low-wage workers of Sante Fe." said Sidney S. Rosdeitcher, a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. The Brennan Center and Paul Weiss joined with the Santa Fe city attorney in defending challenges to the ordinance.

Mr. Rosdeitcher views the living wage movement "as a civil rights issue for the 21st century." Paul Sonn, associate counsel at the Brennan Center, says of Mr. Rosdeitcher: "He made all the difference in presenting a really effective defense to the challenge to the ordinance and winning a precedent-setting ruling. He feels deeply committed to the cause and gave our team the leadership to mount a strong defense. Paul Weiss did the lion's share of the work and Sidney was the key strategist on the case."

Additional Paul Weiss attorneys participated in extensive pretrial discovery and motion practice. Mr. Rosdeitcher conducted the trial. A reporter for the Albuquerque Journal described the trial as "a week long courtroom drama in which economists for each side argued about the economic impact of the law, low-wage workers told stories of having to scrape to get by in Santa Fe and business owners voiced their concerns about the effect of the law on their bottom line."

The Santa Fe minimum wage ordinance went into effect on June 25, requiring most businesses with 25 employees or more to start paying an $8.50-an-hour wage.

Mr. Rosdeitcher made numerous trips to Santa Fe on this matter. He says of the case, "I had the great satisfaction of doing something very important in the lives of people with very limited means, many of them holding two jobs. The precedent established in this case could be useful in other jurisdictions."

Assisting Mr. Rosdeitcher from Paul Weiss were Carmen Cheung, Solomon Klein, Lauren McMillen, Evan Norris and Geoffrey Upton, and former Paul Weiss associates, Matthew Gaul and Matthew Kalmanson.

Felon Disenfranchisement

Florida deprives more than 600,000 state residents of the right to vote because of a past felony conviction, even though they have fully served their sentences of incarceration, parole or probation.

As part of its Democracy Program, the Brennan Center commenced an action, Johnson v. Bush, to restore voting rights to this class in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. In July 2002, the court granted summary judgement for the state. In December 2003, following argument by Brennan Center attorney, Jessie Allen, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed the District Court decision, with two judges ruling in the favor of the plaintiffs and one judge dissenting. The case was remanded to the lower court to hear equal protection and voting rights claims. On a subsequent motion by the state, the Court of Appeals has decided to hear the case en banc this fall.

Deborah Goldberg, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, describes the pro bono role of James E. Johnson, then a partner at Morrison & Foerster, as being a "driving force behind this case. His high level of expertise has been very helpful in terms of strategic thinking and preparation." For a period of time, Morrison & Foerster provided two associates who worked full-time on the case at the Brennan Center. Mr. Johnson, who recently moved to Debevoise & Plimpton, serves as a Board member at the Brennan Center.

"Our pro bono partners," says Tom Gerety, Executive Director, "contribute invaluable time, energy and expertise to the Brennan Center. Their efforts are essential to our work. In a very real way, these attorneys and their firms share in all of our achievements toward creating a more just and more generous society. They are model citizens and professionals, and they make me and my colleagues proud to be part of a profession with working and effective ideals."

William J. Dean is executive director of Volunteers of Legal Service. This edition of Pro Bono Digest also appeared in The New York Law Journal on September 2, 2004.

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