The State Supreme Court this week gave court-appointed lawyers a raise to $100 per hour from $70 per hour, but left in place the lowest-in-the-nation $40-per-hour rate for lawyers appointed by the State Public Defender's Office (SPD).
It may be unlikely that those lawyers, who represent clients who can't afford their own attorneys, will get any relief from Gov. Walker, since he has done nothing to increase the $40 rate since he assumed office in 2011.
In outlining major budget policies for the upcoming 2019-21 budget, Walker's staff said agencies and departments should assume "zero growth in overall" general revenue. A list of potential exceptions did not include the State Public Defender's Office.
The move to increase pay for one set of lawyers but not others will likely encourage defense attorneys to refuse SPD appointments and wait until judges are forced to appoint lawyers to avoid denying defendants their Constitutional rights. The move may cost indigent defendants money they don't have, as counties are much more likely than the SPD's office to seek repayment.
A parade of defense lawyers this week asked the State Supreme Court to increase pay for SPD-appointed lawyers, saying the lack of attorneys willing to work for $40 per hour meant that defendants were being wrongly held in jail when they should be released. Lawyers willing to take the cases for $40 an hour too often are inexperienced or lacking in other areas, they said.
“We are happy that the court made the much-needed move in Supreme Court rate to $100 per hour," said attorney John Birdsall, one of the petitioners seeking a raise for SPD-appointed lawyers. "However, the public defender-appointed rate remains the nation’s lowest at $40 per hour and has been virtually unchanged for 40 years. "
Birdsall said he hoped the counties lobby the Legislature to raise the public defender rate to protect their own finances from new demands for funding for court-appointed lawyers.
"The court’s raising the rate for court-appointed counsel is obviously welcome and a step in the right direction," he said. "However, the lack of lawyers to handle the vast majority of the 58,000 cases that are farmed out from the SPD to private lawyers will soon overwhelm an already highly stressed system in the coming year or two.
"Waiting for the coming collapse of our public defense system before taking substantial and comprehensive action would be a serious mistake," he said. "Our state is doing very well economically and the cost of such a fix is literally a fraction of one percent of the state budget. The time to act is now.”
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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