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Judge dismisses contempt charges against 2 public defenders

Two Allegheny County public defenders were called before a judge today on contempt charges that he dropped after reminding them that their obligation is to their clients rather than the Office of Public Defenders.

Common Pleas Judge Anthony Mariani railed against the "culture in this building" that leads attorneys, police and defendants to believe that they don't have to honor court dates.

"Everybody just shows up when they want to," he said.

Assistant Public Defender Hart Hillman was before the judge for failing to show for a second time in a case. Hillman developed an upper respiratory infection the day before and called in sick. On the previous occasion, he had injured his knee during a fall down some stairs and was on painkillers, Hillman said.

William Difenderfer, a private attorney representing Hillman in the hearing, asked the judge what else his client should have done. Difenderfer said lawyers don't have many choices when they're too sick to appear in court.

Sumner Parker, a part-time public defender, was before the judge for failing to pay a $500 fine from an earlier contempt ruling. The judge assessed the fine after Parker failed to show for a hearing in his court because he was representing a paying client in city court.

Mariani suggested that there should be two public defenders assigned to each case so that one can step in if the other can't show up, but the judge also admitted that the office has enough trouble assigning one defender to each case.

"I know you guys have too many cases," the judge said. "I know your funding keeps getting cut."

The judge repeatedly said he had no complaints about the pair's work as lawyers. Hillman said after the hearing that it was the first time he'd been called up on a contempt charge and was certain the judge was using the situation to express his frustration about the system.

"It was pretty clear I was being singled out for some broader issues," he said.

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