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State bar outlines legislative priorities

In this file photo, a supporter of marriage equality holds a sign at a rally outside the Capitol in Albany. The New York State Bar Association is asking state lawmakers to prioritize several issues this year, including legalizing same-sex marriage, reforming government ethics laws and preventing wrongful convictions. AP Images

The New York State Bar Association has a few legislative priorities it would like state lawmakers to take action on this year.

President Stephen P. Younger is asking Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the Legislature to enact sweeping reform of state and local government ethics laws, legalize same-sex marriage and ensure that individuals are not wrongfully convicted of crimes.

“In terms of government ethics, that issue has been a major part of our initiatives this year,” Younger said. “We came out with a comprehensive government ethics report that was approved by our House of Delegates. We think it’s an important issue for the state and it’s an issue the electorate spoke about in the fall.” See the report on ethics here.

Younger said it is time for Albany to move past its era of dysfunction and that it is important for the public to know a full set of ethics are being adhered to by its government officials.

Younger sent a letter to lawmakers last week on behalf of the 77,000 state bar association members. He asked lawmakers to act on the priorities during the final weeks of the 2011 regular legislative session, noting the three issues “are of vital importance to the association and to the people of New York state.”

Younger said the association has stood for marriage equality for years and hopes the Legislature will get there this year. He said for members, it is a legal issue they have brought up in terms of challenges for same-sex couples in a variety of matters including property rights, financial support, estates, health care and responsibilities to children.

Stephen P. Younger

“We think it’s time to bring this form of discrimination to an end,” Younger said. The state bar also has a report and recommendations on marriage rights for same-sex couples. Click here to go to the report.

As for wrongful convictions, Younger said every time there is one, it casts doubt upon a basic tenet of the criminal justice system that the guilty are put behind bars and the innocent are set free.

Younger said the association has identified some of the main causes of wrongful convictions and some changes in laws that may help prevent them.

Some of the causes, identified in NYSBA’s 2009 report by a Task Force on Wrongful Convictions, include errors by a government official, witness misidentification, mishandling of evidence, use of false confessions and jailhouse informants, and defense attorney errors. See the report on wrongful convictions.

“With each reported wrongfully convicted and imprisoned individual, it becomes clearer that steps must be taken to lessen the likelihood of wrongful convictions,” Younger wrote. “It is essential that our criminal justice system ensures that the innocent remain free and that the truly guilty are not free to commit more crimes. Moreover, the eradication of wrongful convictions is essential to maintain the public’s trust and confidence in our criminal justice system.”

Younger said these three issues were the most important legal issues the bar association saw on the legislative table this year.

“I think the main thing is it’s good to see that Albany’s moving again,” Younger said. “It’s important that the legislators pay attention to issues like this so we can continue to move the progress of law forward in the state.”