There are no volunteers, so local lawyers may be asked to represent the poor

All local private attorneys can be assigned to represent incapacitated clients as early as next Friday, like it or not.

In a letter sent to the Scott County Bar Association this weekend, Seventh District Judge Henry Latham said the court will begin assigning private attorneys in Scott County to defend people who cannot afford a lawyer by March 17.

“Unless there is a significant increase in the number of contract lawyers by March 17, the Court will have no choice but to appoint all licensed attorneys to handle cases to meet the needs of poor attorneys in this district in the following week,” Latham said. in the letter.

The district uses full-time Public Defenders and other attorneys under contract with the district to represent the poor and to fulfill requests. Private practice lawyers will be asked to represent poor defendants on a case by case basis.

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Latham’s decision came after he summoned contract attorneys in October 2022. He sent the letter to all attorneys in the Seventh District Bar Association, detailing how the State Public Defender informed all judges in the district that the Davenport Public Defender’s office would represent defendants only in felony and misconduct cases. the most serious weight.

According to the judge, the public defenders in Davenport can hear Class A and B serious crimes, but are not sufficient in number to represent defendants in the lesser Class C and D serious crimes. Making matters worse is the lack of contract attorneys in Scott County, who are private attorneys paid for by the State Public Defender.

Reaction to Latham’s letter was mixed.

Eric Tindal, a contract attorney who has handled several cases in Scott County, said he understood the need for Latham’s letter. Local private attorney Eric Puryear said he would not accept contract work, as he found it “morally offensive”.

Both attorneys agreed that states face a number of interrelated problems when trying to find representation for bad clients and should pay close attention to what contract attorneys pay.

Eric Tindal is part of the firm Keegan, Tindal & Jaeger, which has offices in Iowa City and Davenport. He is a contract attorney who as of 2022 represents poor clients in four judicial districts and approximately 25 counties, including Scott.

“I wasn’t surprised to receive Judge Latham’s letter,” Tindal said. “The defense of the poor is a national crisis.”

He offers some figures for perspective.

“There are 370 attorneys on the contract list in Iowa,” Tindal said. “Now exclude the contract attorneys in Des Moines and in the Johnson County and Linn County corridors, and you have 311 attorneys statewide.

“Last year there were about 47,000 claims. That means, basically, the number of attorneys’ bills sent to the state for services — submitted to the Office of the State Public Defender by fewer than 400 attorneys.”

That’s 127 claims of service for clients per contract attorney in the state.

“There is tremendous pressure on the public defense system in Iowa,” Tindal said. “And the situation in Scott County is one of the worst in the state.”

Because of the tension, he understood the need for Latham’s decision and added “the reasons for the lack of contract attorneys in Scott County are complex.”

“It’s more than just not having enough lawyers,” says Tindal. “Historically, the Scott County District Attorney’s office has been difficult to handle in terms of the discovery process – being able to easily view video evidence is just an example.”

He said “progress has been made” on the matter.

“Another issue is that Scott County’s scheduling system and procedures are not conducive to attracting attorneys from outside the county to work on cases in the county,” he said. “It’s very difficult to meet clients and work with prosecutors.”

He again stressed “the situation has improved.”

“The District Attorney’s Office is definitely making progress,” Tindal said. “Everyone is pulling in the right direction.”

There are three things Scott County can do to increase the prospects for attractive contract attorneys, he says.

“First, simplify the discovery process for defense attorneys,” he said. “Two, submit a reasonable plea bargain and make it early in the process. And three, it would be nice if the District Attorney picked up the phone and spoke to the defense attorney.”

Back in late December, Tindal sent a letter to Susan Larson Christensen, Chief Justice of Iowa, outlining the complex issues threatening Iowa’s poor defense.

He touched on the issue of how much a contract lawyer is paid.

“There is no dispute: the hourly rate must be increased. There is no need to sweat this point. But briefly, we will note how important it is to put the issue of rates into context … in 1979 the rate was $40 per hour, which was an increase from the pre-paid rate. -1978 for $25.00 per hour,” Tindal wrote. “Hourly rates have increased over time, but nowhere near the rates necessary to sustain business. By most calculations, $40.00 is worth about $145.00 today.

“To state the obvious, the Iowa court-appointed rates for contract attorneys require us to operate at or close to an operating loss.”

Contract lawyers who represent clients charged with Class C and D crimes are paid $68 per hour. Those representing Class B crimes earn $73 per hour, and attorneys handling Class A crimes are paid $78 per hour.

Several former contract attorneys who worked for the Iowa State Public Defender’s Office indicated that contract attorneys in Illinois made more — at least $126 per hour — while attorneys contracted through the Federal Defenders program made $150 per hour.

According to private attorneys in Davenport, hourly rates for most legal work start at $225 per hour. Most divorce cases run in the $350 to $400 per hour range, and criminal defenses can run much higher.

Puryear’s private attorneys argue that pay levels for contract attorneys in Iowa are so low because of basic “structural deficiencies” in the state’s public defense system.

“It’s a choice,” Puryear said. “The State Attorney’s Office is budgeted far more than the Public Defender’s office. The police budget in most cities is enormous.

“We have a system in Iowa where someone who makes, say, $15 an hour is charged with a felony and has to get out of jail. That alone wipes out most bank accounts. And then you have to try and pay for a lawyer. This system is set up to make people stay in the system and it puts them at a huge disadvantage.”

Tindal said he doesn’t have exact figures, but estimates that more than 90% of people arrested in Iowa qualify to become public defenders.

“If Iowa cares about getting people to be good criminal defenders, they will pay for it,” Puryear said. “Pay rates send a clear message to public defender clients about how important their rights are.”

‘It’s akin to slavery’

Latham’s letter expressed his frustration with private attorneys in Scott County and the Seventh Judicial District.

“I am truly disappointed by the lack of response the Court has received from lawyers. To date only one attorney has contacted the Public Defender to become a contract attorney,” he wrote.

Puryear said he had no intention of volunteering for what he called a “deliberately broken system”.

“Here in my office, two attorneys have devoted approximately 100 hours throughout 2023 representing people who cannot afford legal aid,” he said. “But I will not be forced to support a system that is deliberately broken.

“The state gives large sums of taxpayers’ money to those who investigate, arrest, prosecute and imprison citizens, and at the same time deliberately deprives citizens of the means to have a fair defense.”

Puryear added: “The state doesn’t pay enough public defenders or contract lawyers, creating a shortage of defense attorneys for poor clients. Then Judge Latham asked us all to support this system by working for the state at rates way below what they should normally be paid. This is ridiculous. “

It is “ironic”, he said, that the state wants lawyers to voluntarily become contract lawyers.

“Judges certainly don’t give up their time to help cases,” he said. “Are prosecutors volunteering their time to help clients? Police officers are not asked to voluntarily do their job.

“Why are defense lawyers asked to do this? This is a big deal. I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s like slavery. Slavery forces people to work against their will. That’s what happened.”

Puryear said he was much more interested in hearing how the country would improve what he called “the system”.

The system is headed by Jeff Wright. He is the director of the Iowa State Public Defender’s Office and reports directly to Governor Kim Reynolds.

Under Wright’s office, 200 employees in 10 local Public Defender’s Offices and the Office of the Defense of Appeal provide representation for the poor and low-income people in all 99 counties in Iowa.

According to Wright, the Public Defender’s office in Davenport has eight staff, but three of them are not lawyers. The office was missing three attorneys, and the state employment board showed listings for at least one — a fellow public defender — were open.

It pays between $55,000 and $85,000 annually.

“Maybe we could see bail being set so high that people can’t afford lawyers,” Puryear said. “And look at the number of Public Defenders that are in the state and what their salaries are.

“I am tired of seeing the responsibility for a broken public defender system being placed on private lawyers. That is unacceptable.”

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