Thursday, December 29, 2005

It's, It's -- It's ALIVE!

Well, Here I Am, Again

Wow! It’s been a long damn’ time since I added anything to this effort. Way too long, I’m afraid. What was it John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you have other plans.” No kidding.

Things have been a little, hummm, hectic around the office the last few months. As I may have noted in some past post or other, we rely on law student interns to eke out staff, both trial staff and me, the appeals department. We usually have a couple all the time, either academic (i.e. they pay their law school for the privilege of working for us and they get credit for the experience), or regular part-time employee interns (i.e. we pay them and they work their butts off). Well, welcome to the wonderful world of County budget games!

Like most government entities in my State, the County runs on a fiscal year that tracks the actual calendar year. Used to not, but a few decades back, the State said this fiscal year starting in July (or October) is silly and we’re not going to do it any more. So. . . from about June to November the County board puts their pointy little heads together with the County Controller and the County Administrator and start to hammer out the budget for the following year. This year, no big surprise to anyone who was paying attention, they discovered there was going to be about a 1.4 million shortfall for 2006. Even better, our Controller came from the private sector and is pretty much clueless about how government agencies work.

I know a fair number of the readers of this enterprise work for government or quasi-government entities, so you know what I’m talking about. You go into December with Department budgets that look pretty healthy, heck, you may even have some surpluses! Then everyone starts submitting accounts payable items immediately, on receipt of the invoice. Something that may 30 or more days the rest of the year gets submitted Right Now! Sometimes on the same day.

Why, you may ask, those of you who work in rational worlds. Well, because in my world, about a week into January, the County comes along and cleans out all the Department accounts (i.e. sets their balances to zero and transfers the amounts to the County General Fund) in preparation for setting up the next year’s (now the current year’s) accounts. That is to say, if there is still money in a Department’s budget at the end of the year, the Department will never see that money again. In government circles this is fondly known as the ‘use it or lose it’ rule. This has been true from my first unit assignment as an eager young 2LT in 1972, through my days with the Army Reserve, to my time with our intermediate appellate court, right down to last year with the County. There is nothing to be gained by giving back unused funds. Because in the next budget season, people are going to remember that you didn’t need all that money you asked for.

But I digress. We got into a budget bind for this year (2005) when the County decided we couldn’t use the funds tagged in the line item for ‘contract services” (e. g. a special APA to fill in for someone on family leave) to pay interns in the months of November and December. After all, our interns are, technically, contractors if you squint at the IRS code real head and hold your head just so. . .

Actually, this is kind of a big issue, masquerading as a little one. There is a fairly substantial argument (in this State, anyway) that a County Board (legislative branch) imposing a rigid line item budget on, for example, the Prosecuting Attorney (executive branch) is a clear violation of the separation of powers. In plain words, the Board can tell us how much money we get (and some specific items that are clearly spelled out in the statutes) but not how to spend it. Alas, the boss didn’t think this was the issue to draw the line in the sand over. He’s pretty sure one is going to come along, but this just wasn’t it.

So, we have one intern doing what two or three were doing through September. Add to this a change in staff that returned the termination of parental rights appeals to my desk for the foreseeable future, and I’ve been writing just about non-stop since I last posted.

I know I have mentioned that the kind of writing appellate attorneys do is exhausting work. Finicky procedural rules, everything is on deadline, in many cases the issues are boring but still need to be given the full treatment -- for the thousandth time! Yes, you can recycle your gems of advocacy for some of the recurring issues. But many appellate issues are issues of fact. That is, the law is pretty much settled. But how it is applied depends on the facts of the case. I can cut and paste the law on consent searches in about 30 seconds, but applying that law to the facts of the case in front of me, and reducing it all to a clear statement that fairly address the questions raised may take several hours.

So that’s what I’ve been doing. Along with all the other stuff I get to do as a APA, like on call warrant duty (due to a freak alignment of the regular on call schedule and the Holiday on call schedule, the APA who follows me in our more of less alphabetically duty roster and I have pretty much been the only people on call for the month of December. I had a regular week, she had a regular week, then I had Christmas week, now she has New Year’s week -- and the fun thing about on call duty is it just isn’t the weekend warrants, it’s all the in custody warrants for the week. When you are arrested, you have a right to be presented to a magistrate for, among other things, a bond determination, within 48 hours. This means some assistant prosecutor has to review a warrant request before a police officer and swear out the warrant and present it, and you, to the magistrate. Lots of fun.

The upshot of all this fun is that I just put the whole appeals thing (except for questions, court appearances, and phone calls from opposing counsel) on hold from the 23rd to the 3rd. Amazingly enough, my batteries have been recharged to the extent I actually installed the Blogger toolbar in Word (this is a big deal, ‘cause I really don’t like Word) and am using it to prepare this post. Now it’s time to see if I can publish from here.

More over the next few days.

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