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Courts exhaust indigent defense funding

Sep. 17, 2013 - 07:01PM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments

The federal court system has temporarily run out of money to pay court-appointed lawyers who represent indigent defendants, officials said Tuesday.

The $20 million shortfall for the last two weeks of this fiscal year had been expected, but it means that the courts will start fiscal 2014 on the hook for the same amount, David Sellers, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, said at a news conference.

It comes as judges and court managers are bracing for another round of tight money after this year’s sequester. “We are looking at the worst-case scenario” of a continuing resolution, said Chief Judge William Traxler, chairman of the executive committee of the Judicial Conference, the courts’ main policy-making body.

Accordingly, the courts are looking at continued hiring freezes, training cutbacks and other measures to save money, Traxler said. On Tuesday, the conference approved several other cost-cutting steps, including attempting to assure no net growth in the amount of courthouse space, currently at about 29 million square feet, and then trimming it by 3 percent by 2018 on a circuit-by-circuit basis.

This year’s sequester cost the court system almost $350 million, or about 5 percent of its budget, with indigent defense services particularly hard-hit.

That role is split between federal defender organizations and private “panel” attorneys. For the latter group, the funding lapse will add several weeks to the months it already takes to get paid, Norman Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said in a phone interview. Starting this month, they are also having their hourly pay cut from $125 to $110.

But the real issue is the effect on clients, Reimer said. “Lawyers will drop out; some will just say, ‘I simply can’t do this work anymore.’ That impacts the caliber of representation to the clients.”

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