Indigent legal-cost savings plan is rejected

Dec 26, 2007


A circuit court in Tallahassee tossed out the Legislature’s plan to save money by appointing special public defenders to represent indigent defendants who can’t be represented by the elected public defenders in each judicial circuit.

The court ruled that the Legislature exceeded its authority by requiring the new offices and that Gov. Charlie Crist exceeded his by appointing the five special public defenders.

The court also quashed the appointments of the five attorneys who were tasked with setting up law offices to handle all the cases that the elected public defenders couldn’t take because of conflicts of interest.

Circuit Judge Kevin Davey wrote that the Legislature had attempted to amend the constitution ”by legislative fiat” since the constitution requires public defenders to be elected and live in the judicial circuit they represent.

Attorney General Bill McCollum on Friday morning filed a notice of appeal with the First District Court of Appeal and won an immediate stay of Davey’s order, meaning the issue is on hold until the district court of appeals can hear the case.

The Legislature established the conflict counsel offices because legislators complained that private attorneys appointed to represent indigent defendants were too expensive and had nearly tripled in cost in three years.

The Legislature expected the conflict offices to begin taking cases in October, or at the latest by Jan. 15.

Joseph George, who was appointed to run the conflict counsel office in South Florida, said he was still planning to be up and running on schedule.

”We are absolutely in business and continuing business as the rule provides,” he said.

Brian Tannebaum, the treasurer of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which filed the suit, said he felt Davey’s ruling will hold up on appeal, effectively stopping the offices before most begin.

If the appeal fails and Davey’s rule is upheld, Tannebaum said he’s hoping the Legislature will sit down with experts in the field before writing a new law.

”I’m hoping they use this as an opportunity to sit down and work out a system that’s both legal and fair,” he said. “They tried to do indigent defense on the cheap and they did it the wrong way.”

That assessment was rejected by Sen. Victor Crist, who helped create the new system. He said that private attorneys were fighting the change because they won’t make as much money. He noted that the state Supreme Court had been highly critical of the private attorneys who took over Death Row representations in North Florida and that the justices wanted the job given back to state-hired attorneys.

”The argument of poor quality service doesn’t hold water,” said Crist.

Crist said that if the defense attorneys are ultimately successful it will force the state — which could have a $2.5 billion budget shortfall in the coming year — to cut from other parts of the court’s budget to pay for private attorneys.

”If the state has to pay for it, it’s going to have come out of the courts budget,” said Crist. “There is no new money.”



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