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A Memphis probation company that is suing two Craighead County district judges to recoup fees of probationers that the judges have reduced or forgiven has asked a federal judge to ignore a national group's intervention in the case.

"This case is about the fees owed under contract to The Justice Network and how the 'Amnesty Program' instituted by judges [David] Boling and [Tommy] Fowler interfered with the rights of The Justice Network to collect those fees," attorney John Edwards said Tuesday evening in a written response to an "amicus curiae," or friend-of-the-court, brief recently filed by The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Edwards is an attorney for the Justice Network, a company that provided probation services to misdemeanor defendants in the county's nine cities for about 20 years, until Boling and Fowler took office in 2016.

The judges, who preside over misdemeanor cases and traffic infractions in Jonesboro, Bay, Bono, Brookland, Caraway, Cash, Egypt, Lake City and Monette, campaigned for office on a platform of overhauling the probation system, which they said had come to entrap defendants in a cycle of debt from which they couldn't escape.

As part of the change in the county, which stopped doing business with The Justice Network, Boling and Fowler began, earlier this year, holding "amnesty" sessions allowing offenders to significantly reduce or eliminate a cycle of fees and warrants for failing to appear in court, nonpayment of fines or contempt.

In a lawsuit filed June 30 in the Jonesboro Division of federal court, the probation company said the fees it charged probation clients were part of a contract it had with those probationers. They want U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. to issue a declaratory judgment that Boling and Fowler's actions violate laws governing contracts and to block the judges from conducting further amnesty programs. The company is also seeking punitive damages.

Upon hearing about the suit, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a national civil-rights organization formed in 1963, sought to file an amicus brief on behalf of the district judges. Edwards didn't object.

The committee contends that the Craighead County dispute is part of a larger issue that is popping up across the country, and that is represented in a lawsuit the committee filed in August 2016 along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas in the Little Rock Division of the Eastern District of Arkansas.

That case, which also was assigned to Moody, challenges the constitutionality of procedures in Sherwood's hot-check court in Pulaski County. While the suit focuses on practices that have gone on for years in Sherwood, which handles almost all hot-check cases in the state's most populous county, the plaintiffs have said the suspect practices are widespread, affecting defendants in state and local courts throughout Arkansas and across the country.

Moody dismissed the Sherwood lawsuit June 8, saying the case concerns ongoing state-court issues and isn't subject to federal jurisdiction. Meanwhile, the plaintiffs' July 6 request for reconsideration is pending.

The Justice Network argues that the amicus brief goes "entirely beyond the role of an amicus curiae. ... Contrary to the claims of the Lawyers' Committee, this case in no way implicates the ability of judges to 'ensure equal justice and due process in their courtrooms,'" quoting from the brief.

The company also contends that "there is no objectivity or neutrality in the argument of the Lawyers' Committee," and that the committee makes arguments that aren't relevant to the contract-law case.

"This Court should not expand the scope of the issues raised in this case to encompass the claims raised by the Lawyers' Committee in its amicus brief," the Justice Network argued.

It called the committee's claim that the Sherwood case is "related" to the Justice Network's lawsuit a "factual misstatement."

"The conduct complained of in this case implicates the Takings Clause and the Contracts Clause -- claims that are entirely distinct from the constitutional claims litigated in Dade," as the Sherwood case is known, Edwards said.

The response also takes exception to the committee's claims that the company's actions "fell disproportionallyon minority Arkansans," saying, "This claim ... is patently incorrect."

It cites recent Census Bureau data indicating that 81 percent of Craighead County residents are white and 15 percent are black, and says that of the probation clients who received services from The Justice Network in Craighead County, 67 percent were white, 25 percent were black and 4 percent were Hispanic.

"To claim The Justice Network has been targeting minorities is false and without any factual basis," Edwards wrote.

Metro on 11/09/2017

Print Headline: Bar intervenor from suit, probation company asks

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