Friday, December 26, 2003  
 Clubs TonightHot TixBand GuideMP3sBest Music PollSki GuideThe Best '03 
Food & Drink
Editors' Picks
New This Week
News and Features

Food & Drink


Stuff at Night
The Providence Phoenix
The Portland Phoenix
FNX Radio Network

  E-Mail This Article to a Friend

A short strike yields a short-term fix

The "strike" held by Suffolk Lawyers for Justice (SLJ), which represents Boston’s 335 private lawyers who take court-appointed cases for the indigent, accomplished its goal in about seven hours: when lawyers refused on Monday to accept any new court-appointed criminal cases until the legislature paid them for the past year’s work, lawmakers quickly hammered out a "discrepancy bill" that Governor Mitt Romney later pledged to sign.

The $12.4 million provided by the bill is what was still owed to attorneys after the state ran through the amount budgeted for the last fiscal year, which ended on June 30. The gap is nothing new — the state routinely underfunds court-appointed defenders and makes up the difference later. But stopgap funding the overdue millions only postpones a gathering storm. The 2500 private lawyers who accept public-defense work for the indigent represent the vast majority of criminal defendants in the state, and they are fed up.

The seeds of the strike were planted when Romney vetoed $13 million budgeted for public defense in the new fiscal year that started July 1, guaranteeing that the same shortfall will occur next summer. (The legislature did not override the veto prior to recessing until September.) Romney also wanted to lower the state’s hourly fee for court-appointed work, which is already among the nation’s lowest at $30 an hour for most cases, $39 for serious felonies, and $54 for murders. He further offended the lawyers by telling the press that this type of work should really be done pro bono — as though the constitutional right to counsel should be dispensed by generous private citizens like turkey dinners on Thanksgiving.

"I don’t think he understands the amount of work out there, or the complexity of the work," says Chrystal Murray, a Jamaica Plain attorney and SLJ board member who handles court-appointed clients exclusively.

Indeed. The pay is poor, the work is time-consuming, payment is slow, and things are only getting worse. Attorneys in Bristol County, who have been striking for five weeks over the unpaid FY ’03 bills, have sued the Commonwealth, claiming that the meager remuneration is a shirking of the state’s responsibility to provide adequate counsel to the indigent. The action was modeled after a recent successful lawsuit in New York where attorneys saw the state raise their rates to a highest-in-the-nation $90 per hour.

Meanwhile, the number of cases requiring court-appointed private-sector defenders has risen in recent years, from 216,125 in 1995 to 277,995 in 2002, in part because the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), which assigns the cases, has been forced by budget cuts to lay off 12 percent of its in-house attorneys, says Anthony Benedetei, CPCS general counsel. Meanwhile, the number of attorneys willing to accept the work has declined, and for a variety of reasons (a recent law that expanded the scope of prior offenses, for example) the number of hours spent on each case has risen. These factors have combined to place an ever-greater burden on each of the 2500 attorneys who take these cases. In 1995, the average attorney on the CPCS list spent 500 hours on public-defense cases; today the figure is over 1000. Before long the per-attorney onus will become untenable, especially at such low reimbursement rates, says Thomas Workman Jr., one of the lawyers bringing the lawsuit against the state. "If left to its own causes, the system will self-destruct," he says.

The CPCS strongly supported the attorneys’ cause this week — although not necessarily the strike itself — but the lawyers aren’t thrilled with that office either. The CPCS allows attorneys to bill only at the completion of a case or at the end of the fiscal year in June. The striking lawyers are awaiting payment for work dating back, in some cases, to last summer.

Almost unnoticed in the fray are the private investigators and forensics experts hired by the defenders, all of whom bill CPCS, and none of whom has received any payment since April. (The discrepancy bill funds their aging invoices as well as those of the lawyers.) Their hourly rate was cut last year, and this budget problem is the last straw driving many of them to stop taking public cases, lawyers say.

Expect another showdown this time next year, with tempers likely getting even hotter — unless the state gets serious about a long-term solution.

Issue Date: August 22 - 28, 2003
Back to the News & Features table of contents
  E-Mail This Article to a Friend

about the phoenix |  find the phoenix |  advertising info |  privacy policy |  the masthead |  feedback |  work for us

 © 2000 - 2003 Phoenix Media Communications Group