In this week’s edition of P.S., Texas Access for Justice resumes in-person legal clinics for veterans with multiple June clinic dates, Winston & Strawn’s Tom Melsheimer starts a civil and human rights-related fellowship at Notre Dame, Texas Appleseed launches an effort to make debt collection lawsuits easier for consumer defendants to understand (and participate in their own proceedings), and Kirkland & Ellis scores a pro bono win for a death row inmate in Houston.
— On May 17, the Court of Criminal Appeals issued a final mandate affirming a Houston criminal judge’s finding that death row inmate Joseph Jean meets the criteria for being intellectually disabled, which renders him ineligible for receiving the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment and shifts his sentence to life without parole. Jean has been on death row in Harris County since June 2011, after a jury found that he murdered two teenagers — including the daughter of an ex-girlfriend who he had been stalking since their 2006 breakup — in 2010 with a baseball bat, the Houston Chronicle reported.
Two intellectual property specialists from Kirkland & Ellis, Austin partner Jeannie Heffernan and New York partner Mark McLennan, are leading Jean’s pro bono representation. The ruling follows a new evidentiary hearing granted to Jean by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 2021. The court granted the hearing in 2017 after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Moore v. Texas, which held that the State of Texas must apply the medical community’s current diagnostic criteria when evaluating whether someone has an intellectual disability. According to court records, during the 2021 trial, the Kirkland lawyers provided testimony by five experts from various fields — including neuropsychiatry, neuropsychology, speech language pathology and special education — who testified that Jean met the diagnosis criteria for an intellectual disability. Jean’s family members and friends also testified, corroborating his lifelong impairments. The Court of Criminal Appeals’ recent ruling affirms a rare, from-the-bench ruling made by Harris County District Judge Chris Morton at the end of the 2021 trial. Kirkland declined to comment on the case.
— The Texas Access to Justice Commission announced a series of free legal clinics that will be offered to veterans in six cities across Texas throughout the month of June. The June clinics kick off TAJC’s renewed statewide, in-person legal clinic initiative for veterans that was halted during the Covid-19 pandemic. Texas has the highest veteran population in the country.
The legal clinics, which TAJC is carrying out through the volunteer work of legal service providers and local bar associations, will offer legal advice on issues including family law, wills and probate, consumer law, tax law, property issues and disability benefits. The legal clinics are open to all U.S. veterans and spouses of deceased veterans. No appointment is necessary. Veterans who need additional legal representation in civil matters and qualify financially can apply for pro bono legal services at the clinics.
“Post- Covid, we are renewing our efforts to provide free civil legal services to all Texas veterans who qualify for this assistance,” said Norton Rose Fulbright of counsel Terry Tottenham, who is co-chair of the TAJC’s veterans committee and a former State Bar of Texas president. “The need is now more apparent than ever. Texas lawyers answered the call when we initiated Texas Lawyer for Texas Veterans in 2010, and they are doing so again.”
For more information on the legal clinics, contact DeLaine Ward, executive director of the Austin Bar Association, at (512) 472-0279.
Clinic dates and locations
Waco clinic: June 9 at Veterans One Stop (2010 La Salle Ave, Suite A. Waco, TX 76706) from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Phone number: (254) 710-4244.
Beaumont clinic: June 10 at the Jefferson County Courthouse (1085 Pearl St., Beaumont, TX 77701) from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Phone number: (409) 839-2332.
Houston/Texas City clinic: June 10 at Texas City VA Outpatient Clinic (9300 Emmett F Lowry Expy., Texas City, TX 77591) from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. Phone number: (713) 228-0733.
Lufkin clinic: June 10 at the Charles Wilson VA Outpatient clinic (2206 N John Redditt Dr., A10, Lufkin, TX 75904) from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. Phone number: (512) 372-0279
Austin clinic: June 12 at the Austin VA Medical Center (7901 Metropolis Dr., Austin, TX 78744) from 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. Phone number: (512) 472-0279, ext. 110.
El Paso clinic: June 12 at the El Paso South Central VA Clinic (350 Revere St., El Paso, TX 79905) from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Phone number (915) 585-5142.
— Winston & Strawn Dallas managing partner Tom Melsheimer and his wife, Michelle (Miki) Melsheimer, have established an experiential fellowship at Notre Dame, the Melsheimer Fellows Initiative, with the university’s Klau Institute for Civil and Human Rights at the Keough School of Global Affairs. The fellowship is designed to benefit underrepresented individuals and communities by financially supporting students pursuing national and international learning opportunities.
The inaugural Melsheimer fellow is rising senior Abagail Lamm, who is studying global affairs and will spend this summer in Washington, D.C., assisting with civil and human rights-related research through the Institute of World Politics’ internship program.
“There is a continuing imperative for Notre Dame to be at the forefront of an issue that is a cornerstone of a just society – the advancement of civil and human rights at home and abroad,” said Melsheimer, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Notre Dame. “We wanted to advance this cause by helping provide what we hope will be perspective-altering experiential learning opportunities for Notre Dame students in a broad array of contexts. In so doing, we hope to assist in creating the kind of moral leaders [Notre Dame former president emeritus and civil rights advocate] Fr. [Theodore] Hesburgh envisioned as being critical to a just, peaceful, and prosperous society.”
— Texas Appleseed has launched a plain language letter packet to make it easier for Texas consumers facing debt collection matters to participate in the legal proceedings against them. The letter packet was developed in collaboration with state and national consumer law experts and was funded by a $10,000 grant provided by the Texas Bar Foundation in October 2021, which also allowed Texas Appleseed to conduct a study of the letter packet’s efficacy. They summarized the study’s findings in a report published last month.
The letter packet launch follows two resolutions adopted by the Texas Judicial Council in 2020 to develop a model plain language packet for defendants in light of the dramatic, 87 percent spike in debt claim cases filed in Texas from 2017 to 2021. Of those, 62 percent were default judgments as a result of the defendants failing to answer the lawsuit or appear in court.
The information provided in the packet is intended for Texans facing debt collection lawsuits who are representing themselves for lack of finances to hire an attorney. It’s also intended to get to the defendants by mail before the deadline to answer their lawsuit.
Texas Appleseed recommends that the Office of Court Administration considers using the packet in a pilot study of its own or as a template to fulfill the Texas Judicial Council’s resolutions.