They's had all they can take in the City of Brotherly Love, and they's not gonna take no more:
Four veteran criminal defense lawyers sued the city and its court system yesterday, contending that fees paid to court-appointed lawyers for indigent defendants were "grossly inadequate" and that, as a result, defendants were being denied their constitutional rights to adequate legal representation, a speedy trial, and due process under the law.
The fees do appear pretty miserly. You get $650 for a felony, plus $350 for each day of trial. For handling a case that results in you spending a week in trial, that works out to $2,400, hardly a princely sum for an experienced criminal defense attorney.
Well, boo hoo. Let me introduce you to Ed La Rue and Joan Hall. Up here by the Cuyahoga River, Ed is a highly-skilled and well-respected criminal lawyer. Joan Hall not so much: she was indicted back in 2006 for running a retail rip-off scheme involving stealing merchandise, and then returning it to the store for a refund. And this wasn't a minor-league scheme by any stretch; the county indicted Hall and her daughter on some 79 counts of corrupt activities, forgery, money laundering, and theft, claiming that the fraud had gone on for years and allowed Hall to amass over a million dollars, which she stuck in offshore accounts.
Hall's path and La Rue's didn't intersect directly; both Hall and her daughter had the coin to retain counsel. But Joan Hall, who was 67, had a 76-year-old boyfriend, and the prosecutor tossed in five counts against him as well. He'd become homeless by this time, and so, as an indigent, was entitled to appointed counsel. That's where Ed La Rue comes in. He got assigned to the case in January of 2006.
Nearly a dozen pretrials and hearings later, the case finally went to trial in March of 2007. It took five weeks. All of the defendants were convicted, and the case having finally been concluded, Ed submitted his fee bill for his sixteen months of work on the case, including spending the five weeks in trial.
Ordinarily, Ed would have been entitled to $900. That's the maximum fee for appointed counsel in a first-degree felony case in Cuyahoga County. Read those sentences again. That's not a typo. $900.
But wait! There's good news! Under the Cuyahoga County local rules, appointed counsel is entitled to ask for "extraordinary fees." Hell, Ed probably should have asked for hazard pay; the court's docket contains this tantalizing entry, from March 28, two weeks into the trial:
DEFENDANT IN COURT. COUNSEL EDWARD R LA RUE PRESENT. DEFT REMANDED. DEFT'S PRESENCE IN COURTROOM HAS BEEN WAIVED AS NECESSARY TO RESOLVE HEALTH CONCERNS. DEFT HAS ACTIVE SCABIES.
Ed submitted his application for extraordinary fees. Sure, the 180-plus hours he spent on the case would only be reimbursed at the rate of $40 or $50 an hour, depending upon whether it was in court or not, but that's a damned sight better than $900.
Ed's application was turned down. For all the time he spent in the case, he wound up getting less than $5 an hour. If Ed had been an employee of the County, the County could have been Federally prosecuted for paying him what it did.
Someday, the attorneys in this town are going to have the balls to do what the attorneys in Philadelphia did.