State will hire corps of lawyers

Private defense attorneys will be retained less often.

Published May 29, 2007

TAMPA - For decades, private defense attorneys have represented all the people who couldn't afford a lawyer but had a conflict of interest with the public defender's office.

No more.

Against private attorneys' wishes, Gov. Charlie Crist approved funding last week for a revised model that will send most of those cases to a new cadre of government lawyers housed in five regional offices around Florida.

State Sen. Victor Crist, the concept's reluctant sponsor, said the plan will save the state millions of dollars. The private defense bar and local public defenders suggest it will fail because of cost.

"Creating a new bureaucracy never saves money, " Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger said.

Until 2004, counties paid for everything related to the private attorneys who handled an average of 4 percent of cases that public defenders withdrew from because of conflicts of interest.

Then the state took over, and the cost of doing business, particularly in South Florida, tripled to about $90-million. In the current fiscal year, the system is expected to overrun its budget by $21.3-million.

'Keeping the profits'

A Senate staff analysis estimated the state will save $9.7-million during the coming year with the regional conflict offices. That sounded good to a committee faced with having to make substantial cuts in criminal and civil justice dollars.

"We've got to bring this runaway train to a stop, " said Sen. Crist, the Tampa Republican who chairs the committee. "We're centralizing the services, we're managing the case loads and we're keeping the profits."

Starting Oct. 1, the regional offices will handle criminal conflicts, guardianship and child dependency cases.

At the helm of each office will be a regional counsel who is recommended by a Judicial Nominating Commission and selected by the governor for a four-year term. In the 2nd District Court of Appeal, that person will earn $80, 000 per year to direct attorneys in a 14-county district that includes Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas.

By comparison, the elected public defenders who oversee indigent cases in the Hillsborough and Pasco-Pinellas circuits earn $153, 000 annually.

After the first year, counties must pick up the costs for office space, computers, phones and security, overhead previously covered by the private law firms handling the cases.

Not everyone liked the current system. Some private attorneys griped about not being included on the conflict list, and lawyers in South Florida criticized judges for bypassing a rotation system to assign cases to their buddies.

Overflow not worth it

Critics seem to like the new model even less.

They have their biases. Public defenders will have to compete with the regional offices for the limited pool of new law school graduates willing to work for low pay.

Private attorneys will lose cash flow from conflict cases, some of which brought them $950 and took less than a day to resolve. Senate staff estimated that 80 percent of the criminal conflicts and child dependency now handled by private attorneys will be assigned to the regional offices.

They will still get overflow clients in cases with multiple defendants. But veterans of private conflict representation across the state said it won't be financially worthwhile to take only a handful of indigent cases at the state's asking price.

"Doubtful, " is how Gulfport lawyer James O'Neill described the likelihood of him remaining on the conflict list after 27 years. "I really don't see a lot of reason to."

'On the cheap'

Critics say the biggest losers will be defendants in the most serious cases - capital crimes that carry a death sentence or life in prison as punishment. They argue the staff at the regional conflict offices won't be large enough or experienced enough to handle those trials and appeals.

Assigning high-stakes cases to overworked attorneys who are spread out across large geographic areas is a recipe for disaster, private attorneys say. Poor representation on the front end of a case leads to costly appeals later.

"This is not something that can be done on the cheap, " said Jeffrey Harris, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who is president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "When you're sick and you have a heart attack, you don't go looking for the cheapest doctor. You look for the best doctor."