WASHINGTON -- With more than three months to go in this fiscal year, the federal court system has run out of money to pay defense lawyers, investigators and expert witnesses who have been appointed to aid criminal defendants.
Thousands of lawyers appointed to represent clients too poor to pay for their own defenses have been told in recent weeks that the government does not have the money to cover their bills.
Similarly, court-approved investigators, psychologists, pathologists and other experts hired by defense teams will go unpaid, probably until October.
"We had to tell them that they would not be paid for anything submitted after June 17," said David Sellers, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Up to 40,000 lawyers and defense experts could be affected by the shortfall, he said.
Lawyers in several cities are threatening to quit amid major trials or to appeal to higher courts seeking a ruling that the lack of timely payments make such trials fundamentally unfair.
In Baltimore, the federal panel of criminal defense lawyers were told in a June 24 letter from U.S. District Court Clerk Joseph A. Haas that their payments had been suspended until Oct. 1.
Mr. Haas enclosed a letter from the Administrative office of the United States Courts, which said the Defender Services fund was seeking an emergency $24.5 million appropriation.
That didn't sit well with Patricia E. McDonald, a defense lawyer who said the government already owes her about $2,000 for cases she has completed, and will owe her more when she finishes a bank burglary case she is defending in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
Ms. McDonald said defense attorneys have to wait until cases are completed before they receive any pay.
"You're carrying the government for a while at any rate," she said. "Now, on top of that, they're telling you that you're not going to see any pay until October."
Another lawyer suggested that the reason for the lack of funds is that an increasing number of cases are being tried in federal court that normally would be completed in the state court system.
Court officials said they badly underestimated the amount of money needed to pay for court-appointed defense lawyers this year, and Congress last month failed to act on a request for an emergency $25 million appropriation.
"We have found that the expenses for these cases were running about 20 percent higher than we expected," said Mr. Sellers. He said that while the agency cannot pay all of its bills now, the attorneys, investigators and others will be paid eventually.
When the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1, the Administrative Office will get a fresh infusion of money.
Last month, Rep. Neal Smith, D-Iowa, sought to attach an emergency funding measure to the special appropriation aimed at helping Los Angeles recover from the riots. But the extra money for the lawyers ran into wide opposition in the House and Senate and was dropped from the bill.
Gaining a mid-year appropriation is always difficult, congressional aides noted, and aid for lawyers was not seen as an especially high priority.
In a letter posted at federal courthouses nationwide, L. Ralph Mecham, director of the U.S. Courts administrative office, said: "We apologize for any hardship the suspension of payments has on court-appointed attorneys and those who provide investigative, expert and other services under the Criminal Justice Act."
But a leading defense lawyer said the funding interruption goes beyond hardship for individual attorneys.
"This tilts the whole system even more toward the prosecution," said David Lewis, a New York attorney and an official of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "The prosecutors are being paid. The FBI people are being paid. And so are DEA investigators. But the defense lawyer isn't being paid, and he can't retain an investigator or a pathologist or accountant to help out in a complex case."
"The word is out that there ain't no money, and that will undercut the fairness of the whole system," Mr. Lewis said.
Major trials already have been delayed in Missouri, Colorado and New Mexico because of the sudden loss of defense funds.
In St. Louis, six defense lawyers appointed to represent 11 defendants in a major drug and racketeering case refused to proceed with a trial set to begin July 7. The government said that it could not pay them for five months of work leading up to the trial, nor could it pay them for work over the next three months.
Instead, the defense lawyers asked for a delay in the trial from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Lawrence Fleming, a St. Louis lawyer, told the appeals court that the six attorneys worked for small firms and could not afford to work for months without pay for themselves or their staffs.