By Gretchen Schuldt
The Wisconsin State Bar is backing a proposal to raise from $40 to $100 per hour the amount the state pays to private lawyers hired by the State Public Defender's office to represent defendants in criminal cases who can't afford lawyers.
The SPD makes the appointments when it has too many cases or has conflicts.
"The reality of the situation is that attorneys who take these appointments at the current private bar rate are, to a large extent, providing a pro bono service," State Bar President Paul G. Swanson wrote to the State Supreme Court earlier this month. "The rate discourages experienced practitioners and the general effect of this is a diminishment of the rights of individuals underrepresented or facing delays in representation, which only serves to prejudice those rights."
The Court is considering a petition seeking the pay increase, and has set a May 16 public hearing on the matter. Some justices have expressed sympathy with the pay raise, request, but some also have questioned whether the court, absent litigation and a formal ruling, should direct the Legislature how to allocate resources.
The Court, at WJI's request, is extending the deadline to submit comments on the petition. The new deadline is May 1. The previous deadline of April 4 came before the Court even officially ordered the public hearing and directed that it be advertised.
Judges, lawyers, citizens! Let the State Supreme Court know how you feel about raising the pay for lawyers who represent poor people in criminal cases! Submit your comments by May 1 to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com or snail mail them to Clerk of Supreme Court, Attention: Deputy Clerk-Rules, P.O. Box 1688, Madison, WI 53701-1688.
Swanson, in his letter, said the 2017 edition of the "State Bar's Economics of Practice in Wisconsin" reported that lawyers who spend a substantial mount of their billable time working on criminal cases are paid a mean rate of $168 per hour.
Wisconsin lawyers generally spend about 35 percent of their revenues on overhead, meaning criminal law attorneys spend about $59 in that area, or far more than they are paid by the SPD.
While the pay issue is of great interest to lawyers, Swanson said, "it also continues to raise concerns over the issues of competent representation, delayed cases and extreme shortage of attorneys in certain areas of the state for these constitutionally mandated Sixth Amendment cases."
The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to effective legal representation.
Criminal cases can also have civil justice impacts, he said.
"A criminal battery case may likely have alternative child custody, housing or workplace issues. In a domestic violence case, if the criminal case is delayed, the civil case may also be delayed," he said.
"We would ask the Court (to) join in a common voice to decry a situation which remains unaddressed since before the majority of the members of the State Bar of Wisconsin were in law school," Swanson said. "Adequate representation will help solve problems and aid in the administration of justice, thus creating a more fair and equitable system of criminal justice in the State of Wisconsin."
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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