"Just as police and firefighters are considered essential to peace and public safety, so too are court-appointed lawyers," bar chancellor Sayde Ladov wrote to Mayor Nutter two days ago.
"Many attorneys cannot afford to take on court-appointed cases or participate as an arbitrator. Further, lacking the ability to pay for investigators and associated costs, many attorneys will seek continuances, with trials being delayed and further costs incurred.
Ladov concluded, "Justice delayed is justice denied."
So, it's a pithy letter, right?
Pffft, says Gary Server, a lawyer who makes his living on court-appointed cases.
"We've been complaining to the bar for months and they've done nothing for us," says Server, who is owed thousands of dollars.
"This is too little, too late," he says of the bar's plea and its request that attorneys like him continue representing their clients for at least another 30 days.
"We don't have another 30 days," he says. "We're in crisis."
Ladov tells me that the bar has been lobbying City Council and Harrisburg on this issue, behind the scenes. She's appalled that these attorneys and arbitrators are regarded as "vendors."
"It rankles me," she seethes. "It shows a lack of understanding of the very valuable function they perform."
What rankles more?
She hasn't heard a peep of sympathy from the mayor or the umpteen city officials she copied on her letter.
Not that she - or Server - blame the city, really. Harrisburg, they agree, is to blame for this one.
Of the 43,000 cases in criminal court, 67 percent of defendants are poor and represented by the Defender Association of Philadelphia, a staff of salaried attorneys. Another 13 percent are poor clients represented by private, court-appointed lawyers such as Server, who are assigned cases when there might be a conflict with Defender representation. (For example, if two co-defendants are being tried for the same murder, both can't be represented by the Defender Association attorney.)
The remaining 20 percent of cases hire private attorneys, on retainer.
In Family Court, the numbers are harder to track, explains court administrator Dave Lawrence, because cases require multiple attorneys, for the child, parents and other involved parties.
At least the fees are easy to break down.
Homicide cases, for example, pay a $2,000 preparation fee, plus $400 per day for each day of trial after the first day. A pittance, compared to the $25,000 that many private attorneys charge, up-front.
Routine expenses, like photocopying and postage, aren't covered, either.
Court-appointed lawyers also "have difficulty retaining experts and investigators, since the fees approved are extremely low, below the market value, and there are long delays in payment," argues attorney Sam Stretton in the federal lawsuit that he has filed in U.S. District Court challenging the amount that court-appointed attorneys are paid.
The suit heads to trial in October. He will ask the court to either increase the fees paid to court-appointed lawyers for the indigent, he says, "or release the defendants from custody, since we can't give them adequate representation."
The situation is a holy mess. It's exacerbated by the belief among many court-appointed attorneys I've spoken with this week that the work they do is looked down upon by well-paid corporate attorneys who can't understand why anyone would bother representing the poorest among us.
Server describes what he does as "a form of public service, second to serving in the military."
"So why," he wrote to Ladov, "do the lawyers who dedicate themselves to protecting abused and neglected children and to putting families back together have to have their own families ripped apart by the same indigency that affects their clients?"
Harrisburg, are you listening?
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