Addressing the legal needs of children.
Understanding the challenges of persons with disabilities.
Advocating the homeless should not be charged with crimes because they have no place to live.
Protecting the First Amendment.
Working on preserving the family.
All are embraced by the Public Interest Law Section, where the issues are as diverse as its 431 members.
Often referred to as “the conscience of The Florida Bar,” the Public Interest Law Section, created in 1989, is open to all who have a common interest in advocacy and enhancement of constitutional, statutory, or other rights that protect the dignity, security, justice, liberty, or freedom of the individual or public, according to PILS Chair Lisa Kane DeVitto of Tampa.
She noted the section prides itself as a forum for discussion and exchange of ideas leading to increased knowledge and understanding of the areas of public interest law.
DeVitto said PILS stands slightly apart from the Bar’s other sections in that it is more diverse in terms of its focus. Public interest lawyers practice in a variety of areas, from administrative law, to creating policy or legislation, even civil litigation.
“A lot of sections relate specifically to a practice area, but public interest law may or may not be your direct practice area,” said DeVitto, noting section members run the gamut from legal aid lawyers and public defenders, to civil rights lawyers, professors, and private practitioners at big firms.
“We have members in private practice who are very strong advocates and provide litigation assistance or advocacy assistance for homeless people,” she said.
PILS’ substantive committees include Civil Rights, Delivery of Legal Services, Disability Law, Family Preservation, First Amendment Law, Homelessness, and Legal Needs of Children.
“We have adopted a number of legislative positions, most recently opposing the habitual misdemeanor offender law — which disproportionately affects homeless persons and persons with disabilities — opposing the shackling of juveniles in court appearances, and proposing to treat certain violent crimes against homeless persons as hate crimes,” DeVitto said.
“We hold a high number of CLEs on a variety of topics, including Social Security Disability Law — a longstanding favorite — as well as several recent Presidential Showcase CLEs, and a seminar in conjunction with the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty.”
Those Presidential Showcase programs at the Bar’s Annual Conventions have included “So You Want to Represent a Kid: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Advocating for Children,” which PILS put on in conjunction with the Family Law Section. Another program titled “Children Are in Need — Every Lawyer Can Help: What You Can Do and How to Do It,” was a joint project of PILS and the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section, and resulted in more than 50 lawyers promising to represent at least one child in dependency court.
A sampling of legislative positions advocated by the section includes:
• Supports legislation recognizing the state’s legal obligation to provide medical, mental health, and developmental services to all children in state custody who need such services.
• Supports legislation prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing, and accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation.
• Supports extending jurisdiction of the juvenile courts through age 21 for young adults who remain in foster care beyond their 18th birthday.
• Supports legislation providing for court-appointed attorneys for children who are subject to abuse and neglect proceedings to advocate for the children’s interests in legal proceedings affecting their placement and needed services.
• Supports legislation that would give a criminal court judge greater latitude to impose the most appropriate sanction on a juvenile offender.
• Supports legislation stating that persons with any disabilities should not be deprived of any right guaranteed by law and should be free from any discrimination because of such disability.
• Supports legislation to require that a child have a meaningful opportunity to consult with an attorney before waiving his/her right to counsel in a delinquency proceeding.
Vice Chair Maria Elena Abate of Ft. Lauderdale said the section is working hard to get the word out about PILS’ good work, recruit new members, and build relationships with other legal organizations and Bar sections.
“The most important thing for PILS in general is to reach out to the various advocacy organizations that already exist and get people together in order to pool our resources so that we can have a stronger effect on the legal community with public interest law issues,” Abate said.
DeVitto said the section is working on strengthening its relationships with law students, and the Bar’s Young Lawyers Division recently appointed a liaison to the section.
“We want to make sure young lawyers know about opportunities for a profession in public interest law, as well as advocacy opportunities for those in private practice,” DeVitto said.
The section actively encourages law students to participate in its meetings and pointed to the help the section was able to provide a young University of Miami law student who was researching the habitual misdemeanor offender law.
“We were able to refer him to some of our members and practitioners who had been active in lobbying against the law,” said DeVitto, noting the section provided the student with perspective and information.
“We’re encouraging law students who are doing research papers to participate in our section meetings and present their findings,” DeVitto said. “It’s a very helpful give and take.”
DeVitto said the section is most effective when it brings a network of people together to address issues that cut across practice lines and when it educates lawyers through its continuing education programs.
“We do that through CLEs and also through focusing on issues that need to have legislative impact,” DeVitto said. “The only way we can be successful is to pool together and be a source of communication for PILS attorneys.
“We put on a lot of good programs and CLEs and there’s something of interest for nearly everyone,” DeVitto said.
The section’s Legal Needs of Children Committee is planning a seminar for the spring or early summer regarding the impact of the Adam Walsh Act and the Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act with regard to juveniles who are adjudicated sexual offenders. Specifically, the CLE will contemplate the efficacy of labeling children, as young as 14 years of age, as sexual offenders and the impact these laws will have on their future education, housing, and ability to live in society.
The Public Interest Law Section also presents two awards on an ad hoc basis. The Terl Award is given in recognition of excellence in advocacy on behalf of individual rights and responsibilities. The Honorable Hugh S. Glickstein Award is given in recognition of the child advocate of the year.
For information about joining the Public Interest Law Section, contact Carolyn Shovlain, section administrator, at (850) 561-5624 or [email protected]