Court Watch

Low Lawyer Fees a “Constitutional Crisis”?

Judge says defendants wait in jail because attorneys won’t work for state pay of $40 hour.

By , Wisconsin Justice Initiative - Apr 16th, 2018 02:46 pm
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Gavel. Image by StockMonkeys.com (Flickr: 3D Judges Gavel) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Gavel. Image by StockMonkeys.com (Flickr: 3D Judges Gavel) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Defendants in criminal cases are sitting in jail for a month or more without legal representation because private lawyers are unwilling to take the cases at the low $40-per-hour rate offered by the State Public Defender’s Office, according to a Bayfield County circuit judge.

“I find it hard to conclude that allowing someone to be held in custody without legal representation for that long is something other than a constitutional crisis,” Circuit Judge John P. Anderson wrote in a letter to the Supreme Court.

Anderson wrote to support a proposal to increase to $100 per hour the amount the state pays to private attorneys appointed by the State Public Defender’s Office to represent clients who can’t afford a lawyer. The Public Defender’s Office makes the appointment when it has too many cases or has a conflict.

Private attorneys performing the same type of indigent defense work in the federal system are paid $140 per hour.

If a defendant sits too long, Anderson wrote, he feels compelled to appoint a lawyer, at county expense, for more than $40 an hour.

“It is … becoming an unfunded mandate imposed upon the counties, requiring that they shoulder the costs which are supposed to be covered by the state through the public defender’s office,” he wrote.

Anderson compared the amount paid to the lawyers to other professionals frequently paid by the courts. Psychiatrists and psychologists are paid $983 per hour and $542 per hour, respectively, he said.

“I have had lawyers appointed by the public defender’s office, often with years of experience, sitting in court getting paid $40.00/hour cross-examining a psychiatrist getting paid $983.36/hour and both are being paid by tax dollars,” he said. “I find it difficult to justify such disparity. “

The Supreme Court has scheduled a May 16 public hearing on the pay hike proposal. By the time the Court formally set the hearing and directed that it be advertised, however, the deadline for submitting comments had passed.

The Court’s order came on April 5; the comments deadline was April 4.

The Wisconsin Justice Initiative has asked the Court to extend the comment deadline.

Gretchen Schuldt writes a blog for Wisconsin Justice Initiative, whose mission is “To improve the quality of justice in Wisconsin by educating the public about legal issues and encouraging civic engagement in and debate about the judicial system and its operation.

2 thoughts on “Court Watch: Low Lawyer Fees a “Constitutional Crisis”?”

  1. Kate in Milwaukee says:

    Has anyone contacted Michael Cohen. I hear he works cheap.

  2. Sam says:

    Solid commentary Kate…

    Yes, lawyers should be paid much more for this important service. The entire judicial system is woefully underfunded and overworked.

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