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Reimbursement rates cut for court-appointed private attorneys

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Monday, Sept. 9, 2013, 10:21 p.m.
 

The senior circuit court judges who oversee the federal court system have cut reimbursement rates for court-appointed private attorneys who fill in for public defenders, angering some local attorneys called to serve federal defendants.

The Judicial Conference of the United States reduced the rate for the private attorneys by $15 an hour and plans to delay paying them by up to four weeks to shift some costs from the 2014 fiscal year to the 2015 fiscal year.

“I think it's obnoxious,” said Gary Zimmerman, a Downtown private criminal defense attorney. “The rate the government pays to start with, without the reduction, is well below the standard rate for lawyers.”

For cases that don't involve the death penalty, the rate of $125 an hour would drop to $110 an hour. Zimmerman said the going rate for criminal defense in Pittsburgh is about $350 an hour.

That raises the question of whether it's worth attorneys giving up their time to help the government meet its obligation under the Sixth Amendment to provide people with representation, he said.

“It makes no sense. It is awful,” he said. “They're asking lawyers to sacrifice their incomes so they can work for the better good of the justice system and then ask them to work for scab wages.”

The directive doesn't affect county public defenders in state courts because they are funded by their counties.

The federal public defender's office, which is separate from the private-attorney defenders, will enter the new federal fiscal year with a budget that's down 10 percent.

The reduction started in the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30 and led the Pittsburgh federal public defender office to furlough its staff one day every two weeks.

Federal Public Defender Lisa Freeland said she hasn't decided how to maintain the cuts into the next year but noted that a 10 percent cut is better than the 23 percent cut that the Judicial Conference was considering.

“It's not at a decimation level,” she said.

A 23 percent cut would compel her to lay off at least one-third of her staff and probably close her satellite office in Erie, she said. The 10 percent cut is based on the hope that Congress will adopt a resolution before Oct. 1 to keep funding at its current level, she said.

Senior judges are lobbying Congress to restore funding to its previous level, but the funding bill's prospects are uncertain, Freeland said.

“All of us believe that the entire defense function needs to be funded. That's our goal for fiscal (year) '14,” she said.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts estimates that the rate cut will save about $50 million over 13 months, until the end of September 2014. The 2013 budget for defender services, which includes public defender offices and the fund for court-appointed attorneys, is $986 million.

Charles Porter, a Downtown private criminal defense lawyer, said it seems lawyers for poor defendants — whether court-appointed or public defenders — are being singled out for cuts.

“It seems, in fairness, that if there's a financial crisis, cuts should be applied uniformly,” he said.

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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