Board expands eligibility for clerkship program, supports H-4 spouses, indigent defendants

April 27, 2018
President’s Message By Hal Coffey

Your ACBA Board of Governors and leadership has been extremely busy lately and though we have provided regular updates within our email Sidebar, I feel this column is a perfect space to capture some of the most important events of the past month.

Each summer for the past decade-plus, the ACBA has run a summer clerkship program for diverse first-year law students. This program started off drawing students from our local law schools (Pitt and Duquesne) and placing them with law firms, corporate legal departments and government and judicial offices. It has expanded to include diverse applicants from the law schools at West Virginia, Penn State and other universities.

During that time, the definition of “minority” for purposes of eligibility of the student applicants, we used the EEOC definition. However, as our programming and membership has continued to grow within various diverse and affinity organizations within the ACBA, our Committee for Diversity and Inclusion examined whether we should expand our definition to include students who are LGBT+, of Middle-Eastern decent or from other ethnically diverse populations underrepresented in the Allegheny County legal community, as well as students with physical disabilities.

After consideration and input by all of the affinity organizations of the ACBA, as well as those from the various participating law schools, the Board of Governors passed a resolution so changing the definition of a “diverse” 1L for our summer clerkship program to include those additional categories of students. The Board of Governors also concurred with the Committee for Diversity and Inclusion in keeping the program open to students from law schools outside of Allegheny County and choosing not to expand the program to include second-year law students so as to keep the focus on the original intent of the program in providing early access to opportunities for 1L students.

Appreciating the concerns voiced from our affinity groups and members of the Board of Governors as to the potential impact this decision has in expanding the pool of 1L candidates, we also are launching an effort among you, our members, to add law firms and corporate legal departments to the supply of opportunities. There are numerous graduates of the ACBA summer clerkship program who now hold leadership roles in Allegheny County and within the ACBA, not least of whom are Committee for Diversity and Inclusion co-chair Tynishia Powell, associate counsel at the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and Katie R. Jacobs, a director at Cohen & Grigsby, P.C. We will be concentrating an outreach for greater employer involvement for the summer of 2019, so be on the lookout. And feel free to contact ACBA Director of Diversity and Gender Equality Alysia Keating for more information on the program.

We strongly believe that this action is in concert with our Mission Statement for “promoting equality and diversity among” our membership. Another key tenant of our Mission Statement is “supporting and advocating for a fair and effective judicial system that is accessible to every individual regardless of economic status.” To continue that position, we sent a letter to the Criminal Procedural Rules Committee of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, supporting proposed amendments and further additions to the Pennsylvania Criminal Procedure Rules to protect the rights of indigent defendants who lack the ability to pay legal financial obligations in summary cases. These amendments relate to magisterial district courts where indigent defendants are jailed for their failure to afford court fines, costs and restitution.

Our advocacy for a fair and effective judicial system was also the impetus for my statement regarding PA House Resolutions 766-790, which called for the impeachment of Justices David N. Wecht, Debra McCloskey Todd, Christine Donohue and Kevin M. Doughtery. As I noted in my statement, we insist “that courts must be able to operate independently without political interference and impeachment threats.”

Another measure that the Board of Governors acted upon was the proposal of the ACBA Asian Attorneys Committee to provide comments to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to the proposed revocation of employment authorization eligibility for H-4 dependent spouses. This measure came before the board as part of a program initiated this year in which each affinity group of the ACBA makes presentation to educate and update the board on what that organization has been working on and what goals they have for the future. With strong support from other groups within the ACBA – including the Women in the Law Division – the Asian Attorneys Committee proposal will guide me in sending a letter to Homeland Security expressing our support for continuing to give opportunities to spouses of H-1B visa holders to be able to seek employment while already in this country along with the primary H-1B spouse.

Without such relief, the communities where these H-4 dependent spouses currently live will be deprived of their knowledge and skill sets through employment options. A significant number of such H-4 dependent spouses hold advanced degrees in diverse areas such as engineering, law and medicine, which they could use to benefit their communities in the United States.

Though my term only has a few more months remaining, we expect to continue to be busy and active in providing more opportunities for our members, groups and the public at large through various new and continuing initiatives of the Board of Governors and the ACBA as a whole. I look forward to finishing strong and handing over the reins to Bryan S. Neft on July 1 for an ACBA that keeps advocating for our core mission and strengthening the practice of law in Allegheny County and beyond.