Daniel Rubin: Phila. 'a city being held hostage'

Posted: August 13, 2009

Sign of the times spotted in the Criminal Justice Center:

We are out of paper. No copying folks. (Unless you supply!!)

Here's another sign. Defense attorney Sanjai Weaver has started taking SEPTA to work. The court has not paid the former prosecutor and judicial candidate since May, though she continues her court-appointed advocacy.

"It finally dawned on me last Monday," she says, "You can't pay for parking, you can't pay for the gas." She is owed more than $15,000.

As the economy has turned downward, Weaver has relied more and more on assignments from judges to represent the poor in criminal cases. Such work now represents close to 90 percent of her income. But government work turns out to have been a gamble.

She had to give up her parking space as of Aug. 1 and buy a monthly pass to travel from her Northwood home to the Center City courthouse, bad hip and bum ankle notwithstanding.

"Thank God I don't have a jury trial right now," she says, "because I don't know how I'd lug all those files around."

Looking around for a small violin to play as you read this? But this issue is not so easy to dismiss.

What you're hearing is the sound of the wheels of justice riding on the rims. You can thank the state's budget impasse. And you can thank the system of paying those who represent poor children and criminal defendants, which is burdened even when the state honors its bills.

Since July 1, the start of the fiscal year, the Philadelphia courts have submitted more than $2 million in legal fees that cannot be reimbursed because the legislature has not funded the city, which funds the courts.

The courts' bank account should be flush with millions of dollars at this time of year. Instead, it has a balance of only $10,000, says Pamela Pryor Dembe, president judge of the Court of Common Pleas. She calls the situation catastrophic.

"We are a city being held hostage," she says, "by politicians who are remarkably unconcerned about the damage they do."

Dembe has had to declare all court-appointed attorneys to be nonessential, meaning they cannot be paid until the governor and the legislature finish their "mud wrestling," as Dembe puts it, over the budget.

She insists that the services these lawyers provide - at a fraction of the market rate - are anything but nonessential.

These are lawyers who represent children in Family Court, who represent poor adults accused of crimes when the public defender represents their co-defendants. Between 450 and 500 lawyers are on the list. Most are not eating Kobe beef at night.

Weaver was an assistant district attorney for 13 years, a single mother who raised a daughter who now works as a police officer. "Many of us do [the job] because we believe in it or we love the courtroom, which is my situation. I love trial work. I love arguing before the appeals court."

When Weaver was working her way through school, she never imagined that as a lawyer, she'd struggle to pay her bills. The criminal work she performs under court appointment pays about one-tenth of what private attorneys charge, says Samuel Stretton, who has sued Dembe in federal court to raise the pay for court-appointed attorneys.

"It's disgraceful," Stretton says. "These rates are 1992 rates."

Dembe says it's bad business for lawyers to rely too much on court appointments. But if they can't afford to represent their clients, "I'm certainly not going to tell them they have to hang in there," she said.

Her fear is that "we'll have situations where adoptions don't go forward, children who need to be removed from unsafe families won't be dealt with."

"And all of our vendors that we cavalierly aren't paying, they've all got their own bills that they have to pay. This goes right down the food chain in the city. It just seems to me," she said, "it is a dreadful way for a state to do business."

Stretton says restoring the court's budget is only a patch on a system that is breaking down. Judges don't realize that representing poor defendants and children at risk is a specialty today, in which skill builds on experience.

"If we don't pay these lawyers, people aren't going to get good representation," he said. "The best lawyers will stop doing it. We'll wind up with people not getting represented fairly unless they have money. And that's not the way it is supposed to work."


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.

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