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A pro bono program that aids military members grappling with legal matters

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

Heather Rosing

In 2008, with the economy well into a tailspin, San Diego County Superior Court Judge Kevin Enright approached the San Diego County Bar Association and then-president Heather Rosing with a nagging problem. 

Presiding judge at the time, Enright noticed that among a flurry of collection matters his court was grappling with were cases against military members who’d failed to show up to hearings because they were serving overseas.  Despite a federal law designed to deal with the problem by allowing service members to temporarily stay their civil cases, his court didn’t have a system for determining whether litigants qualified and to appoint attorneys to help them if they did.

Rosing ended up putting together a committee that launched the Servicemember Civil Relief Act Pro Bono Program, named for that federal law, which assigns volunteers to help active military personnel secure a stay of proceedings in unlimited and limited civil cases and family law matters.  The program went live in November 2009 and has helped military personnel in more than 350 cases since then.

Rosing, now a member of the State Bar Board of Trustees, said although the need may seem obvious, the program was one of the first of its kind and there are still few like it.

“If you’re a service member on active duty, you have a limited right to have your case stayed while you are on active duty,” she said. “You can’t participate. It would be too stressful to participate.”

“Sometimes they don’t want the stay,” Rosing added. “Sometimes they aren’t aware an action is pending against them.”

Enright said the program has allowed the court to comply with the law and fulfill its duty to help active duty military.

“It was a very difficult issue, and we would find out they were active and deployed in a very haphazard way,” he said. “The military embraced this completely, thinks it’s wonderful.”

A collaboration of the San Diego and North County bar associations, the court, the Navy Legal Services Office and the Marine Corps, the program consists of roughly 60 volunteer attorneys who have been vetted using the same strict standards as the San Diego County Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral and Information Service, Rosing said.  If a litigant doesn’t respond in a case and the court suspects they might be a military member on active duty, it assigns a volunteer attorney. The attorney then goes about the task of tracking down the service member, confirming his or her status and obtaining the stay if appropriate.

Although the goal of the program is to help take some of the stress off deployed soldiers and sailors, it’s been a relief for the court as well, Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Barton said.

Judicial liaison to the program, Barton said the court used to have a few attorneys it would ask to handle stays for deployed military, but their time was limited and it was on an “ad hoc basis.”

“It’s been really helpful for us,” Barton said. “Sometimes as judges you are faced with unfunded mandates, but no mechanism to carry that out.”

John Schweitzer, who was on the committee that formed the program and now volunteers his time for family law cases, knows firsthand the communication difficulties that result from being deployed in a foreign country. A former Marine officer now in the reserves, Schweitzer was deployed in Iraq in 2003.

“I think the interesting thing is we have become so adept at using technology. People think we have email [abroad] … It doesn’t work all the time,” he said.

“It’s another environment. Everyone doesn’t go out there with a laptop. When you have downtime, you don’t really have downtime because you’re always on edge.”

A judge advocate since his active duty days, Schweitzer has assisted deployed military members with stays in custody and visitation matters and, on occasion, soldiers left completely blindsided by divorce papers.

“I’ve had cases with sailors who were being served as they were walking to the ship,” he added. “I think the worst part of it is the person who is deployed [has to get] their mental state together to deal with this.”

As helpful as it is for clients, the program doesn’t end up being a huge pro bono time commitment for volunteers, Rosing said. In fact, it has proved invaluable for young attorneys looking to get some courtroom experience.  She said it has also been gratifying to be able to give back to service members.

“It’s just a really, really cool thing,” she said.