In 2014, when Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman launched a program to have law school students devote their final semesters performing pro bono service for the poor, it was the first of its kind in the nation.
Six years later, that program has hit a snag due to a far more sinister first of its kind entity: the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a result, the Court of Appeals is waiving the Pro Bono Scholars Program for law school students set to graduate this spring. Normally, the students would spend 12 weeks working in a pro bono environment – providing services for free – as an internship.
Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said the Court of Appeals also is waiving a requirement instituted under Lippman in 2012 to require applicants for the bar exam to perform 50 hours of pro bono service.
The issue of expanding civil legal services for the poor was near and dear to Lippman: it was his signature issue as the state’s top judge from 2009 to 2015. DiFiore has made it a priority as well. Low-income New Yorkers need legal help in matters such as child support, credit card disputes, immigration issues and many more. It will remain an issue to watch amid the pandemic.
This year, the Pro Bono Scholars Program will not be an avenue of aid for what Lippman said was a “justice gap” needing to be filled. The decision helps law students who, in a world of virtual court operations and social distancing, would have trouble reaching the required goals.
The Court of Appeals also is waiving the Skills Competency Requirement for Admission that requires bar applicants to establish they have acquired the skills and professional values necessary to competently practice law. It can normally be satisfied four different ways – one of which is completion of the Pro Bono Scholars Program.
Bar applicants still must complete the online New York Law Course and open book New York Law Examination, DiFiore said. But the Court of Appeals temporarily waived the requirement that applicants complete the courses within a year of taking the Uniform Bar Exam. The waiver is for any applicant who completed the courses after July 2019 and takes the Uniform Bar Exam no later than 2021.
As mentioned in this space earlier this month, members of a New York State Bar Association task force revealed that some New York bar applicants regard the NYLE to be a “joke.”
DiFiore recently appointed Associate Judge Michael Garcia to head a group to ensure that the bar exam this fall — scheduled for Sept. 9 and Sept 10. — is carried out safely.
“The working group is considering different solutions and contingency plans to reduce hardship to law graduates in the event that it is not feasible to administer the bar exam as scheduled, including a proposal to provide temporary authorization for qualified candidates to engage in the limited practice of law,” DiFiore said.
The long-awaited sentencing of NXIVM leader Keith Raniere is still scheduled for May 21 before Senior U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis in Brooklyn.
But expect that date to be adjourned.
Attorneys for the 59-year-old Raniere, formerly of Halmoon, filed a motion with the judge on Thursday asking Garaufis to adjourn the schedule for submitting their sentencing recommendations. In doing so, defense attorneys Marc Agnifilo and Teny Geragos noted it was a joint request with Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Hajjar, one of the prosecutors who successfully secured Raniere’s conviction on all charges last June.
The defense lawyers noted that right now, their deadline to file a sentencing recommendation is April 27 (Monday). The prosecution’s deadline to respond is May 4. In the meantime, defense lawyers cannot visit Raniere in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn because inmate visits from lawyers are still not permitted amid the COVID-19 pandemic (at least one inmate tested positive in the lock-up, leading the lawyers to suggest Raniere was a “high risk” for the coronavirus).
Agnifilo and Geragos said their phone calls with Raniere have been limited to 15 minutes each. They mentioned that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has recently extended the date for nonessential businesses to stay closed and for people to work from home until May 15. They asked the judge to set new deadlines for sentencing recommendations: June 1 for the defense, June 8 for prosecutors.
The lawyers asked the judge to set a new sentencing.
Raniere, a disgraced self-help guru known within the cult-like NXIVM world as “Vanguard,” is facing the possibility of life in prison without parole on his convictions for sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy and racketeering charges that included underlying acts of identity theft, obstruction of justice, wire and visa fraud, forced labor, human trafficking, sex trafficking, money laundering, child exploitation and possession of child pornography.