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The Biggest Access To Justice Decisions Of 2018

By RJ Vogt | December 16, 2018, 8:02 PM EST

From bail reform to class actions for veterans, 2018 was full of big cases in the realm of access to justice. Here, Law360 takes a look at four of the most consequential court decisions issued this year.

Veterans Win Class Action Ruling

The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims has refused to handle class actions for most of its 30-year history, forcing veterans to challenge decisions about their benefits on a case-by-case basis.

But that all changed this year, thanks to a case brought by Vietnam War veteran Conley Monk.

In 2015, Monk had asked the court to rule that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs must decide disability compensation appeals within a year of their filing, challenging the systemic delays that have long plagued the VA.

As part of his suit, Monk sought to represent himself and thousands of other veterans, who often wait five to seven years while the VA processes their claims.

Initially, the CAVC dismissed his petition, citing its 1991 Harrison v. Derwinski decision, which held that it lacked authority to consider class actions or similar types of aggregate resolution. But after Monk appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, a trio of circuit judges ruled in April 2017 that the CAVC actually does have the authority to certify class actions.

That ruling remanded the case to the CAVC, where an en banc court affirmed its ability to hear class actions in August. Chief Judge Robert N. Davis called the holding "a seismic shift in our precedent."

"The court's decision will shape our jurisprudence for years to come and, I hope, bring about positive change for our nation's veterans and ensure that justice is done more efficiently and timely," he wrote in the watershed opinion.

In Monk's specific case, the court refused to certify the class because of individual differences in the reasons behind various delays. Because there was no common question in play for the proposed class regarding why their disability appeals had yet to be heard, the CAVC held there could be no class certification.

Although it did not grant the class status Monk sought, the CAVC decision opened the door to additional class actions. Bart Stichman, executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, told Law360 that several collective suits have since been filed, including one over emergency medical reimbursements that could affect "tens of thousands of veterans" who otherwise wouldn't have known they had a case to make.

"It's often true that there's a common issue in the way the VA treats claimants," he said. "A class action is a tremendous tool to make sure the VA treats people uniformly."

Texas County Ordered to Overhaul Bail Practices

Camera footage of Dallas County bail hearings, issued in September, shows arrestees in a small courtroom. They appear before a magistrate judge for 30 seconds or less before being assigned a predetermined bail amount — with no detailed discussion of their alleged crimes, ability to pay or likelihood of returning to court.

According to a class of arrestees, the video proved that the county has routinely ignored an arrestee's ability to pay money bail, instead relying on arbitrary bail schedules to set the price of pretrial freedom.

A federal judge agreed with the class within weeks of the video evidence's release, issuing a preliminary injunction against the county that mandates individualized hearings within 48 hours of each arrest.

In a memo accompanying the injunction, U.S. District Judge David C. Godbey wrote that "[Dallas] County's post-arrest system automatically detains those who cannot afford the secured bond amounts ... detention can last for days, weeks, and, in some cases, even months.

"This detention results solely because an individual cannot afford the secured condition of release," he added. "The county's policy of routinely relying on the schedules thus causes the pretrial detention of indigent arrestees."

The ruling was one of several wins this year for bail reform advocates, who have filed class actions in jurisdictions from Texas to New York over pretrial bail proceedings that often leave indigent arrestees wallowing behind bars.

Trisha Trigilio, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said in a statement that the ruling was significant because "it holds counties responsible for providing fair bail hearings to people accused of felonies, which are the majority of people held in jail."

In similar litigation against Harris County, home to the nation's fourth largest city, Houston, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued a February ruling that found "the current procedure does not sufficiently protect detainees from magistrates imposing bail as an 'instrument of oppression.'"

That opinion mostly upheld a district court's 2017 decision to overturn Harris County's bail system for people charged with misdemeanors. The case was brought by Maranda O'Donnell, a woman arrested for driving without a license who wound up spending three days in jail because she couldn't afford $2,500 bail.

Wash. Justices Ban Juvenile Life Without Parole

In the more than two years since the U.S. Supreme Court ordered parole or resentencing for all those previously sentenced to life without parole as juveniles, states have come up with myriad ways for carrying out the order.

Prisoners in states like Missouri are getting a shot at parole after 25 years served; Pennsylvania and Michigan, on the other hand, are resentencing inmates that fall under the high court's order.

But many advocates say the punishment itself should be taken off the table, as was the case this fall in Washington, when the state became the 22nd U.S. jurisdiction to completely ban juvenile life without parole sentencing.

The October decision by the Washington Supreme Court found that sending those less than 18 years to die in prison was unconstitutionally "cruel punishment." It noted that "states are rapidly abandoning juvenile life without parole sentences, children are less criminally culpable than adults, and the characteristics of youth do not support the penological goals of a life without parole sentence."

According to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, Washington's decision will affect nearly a dozen people previously sentenced to life in prison without parole as juveniles, including Brian Bassett, the plaintiff who brought the underlying case. Convicted in 1996 of killing his mother, father and brother when he was 16 years old, the formerly homeless teenager had been sentenced to life without parole when the sentence was still mandatory.

Heather Renwick, the CFSY legal director, told Law360 the ruling marked a tipping point that shows "where the country is today, and where the country will continue to move.

"Ultimately, I think the Supreme Court will look to state reforms as objective indicia of evolving standards of decency and ultimately will hold life without parole for children is cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment," she added.

Detained Immigrants Lose SCOTUS Bail Battle

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained nearly 60,000 people through the first four months of the year, according to data collected by researchers at Syracuse University.

No matter how long those immigrants remain in detention facilities, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in February that they are not entitled to bail hearings, reversing a Ninth Circuit decision that had called for hearings in instances where detentions lasted longer than six months.

The 5-3 decision, penned by Justice Samuel Alito, was a blow for advocates who argued that locking people up without any finding of dangerousness or flight risk violated due process rights. Alito wrote that detaining those seeking asylum or fighting deportation was necessary "to determine an alien's status without running the risk of the alien's either absconding or engaging in criminal activity."

In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, argued that the majority's decision was probably "the first time ever" that America's highest court had found that people could be held for long periods of time without trial or an opportunity to pursue bail.

The case's lead plaintiff, Alejandro Rodriguez, had been detained after being convicted for "joyriding" and possessing a controlled substance, according to court filings. The green card holder who was brought to the U.S. as a baby ultimately kept his status, but only after a three year stint in ICE custody.

President Donald Trump has publicly stated he aims to deport or incarcerate 2 million to 3 million criminal immigrants. Since he took office, the immigration court backlog has jumped to roughly 1.1 million cases, suggesting that wait times for case adjudication will continue to grow.

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.

--Additional reporting by Michelle Casady and Nicole Narea. Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.