U.S. halts defense lawyers' pay Budgeted money exhausted until fall

July 17, 1992|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

The 285 court-appointed criminal defense lawyers who represent clients in U.S. District Court in Baltimore will have to wait until fall before their next pay from the federal government.

The government suspended their pay last month when budgeted money ran out. The lawyers now must wait until the 1993 fiscal year arrives on Oct. 1.

"It's really an untenable position for lawyers to be in," complained Judith R. Catterton, president of the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys Association. "We're fundamentally being asked for a lengthy delay, and that's very burdensome for practitioners."

Court-appointed lawyers throughout the country are affected by the funding shortage, which many attorneys blame on the increasing number of criminal cases being tried in the nation's federal courts. Some defense lawyers say many of those cases belong in state courts, but are moved to federal courts where sentencing guidelines impose stiff, no-parole penalties.

The nation's federal judges and court officials were notified about the payment delay in a June 23 memo from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, which administers the budget. The memo said officials had underestimated the amount of money available and that the number of requests for payments in early June was more than triple the normal amount.

The Judicial Conference Committee on Defender Services is seeking a $24.5 million emergency supplemental appropriation from Congress, the memo said. But, it said, payments will not be made before October.

Ms. Catterton said lawyers who agree to court appointments believe they are doing a public service, and usually are paid less than their normal fees.

Court-appointed lawyers receive $40 an hour for out-of-court work and $70 an hour for their time in the courtroom. Fred Warren Bennett, the federal public defender for Maryland, is not affected by the shortage, but he says it is unfair for the federal government to delay payments to defense lawyers while continuing to pay federal agencies and prosecutors. "It's not a popular position to take when you talk about spending money on criminal defense attorneys," he said.

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