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Defense lawyers fight public defender revamp
The attorneys say a new law creating conflict counsels is unconstitutional.
By COLLEEN JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
Published September 22, 2007
TAMPA - Criminal defense attorneys statewide are asking the Florida Supreme Court to void a new law that overhauled the system of providing legal representation to low-income people accused of crimes.
The Florida Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys says legislators created a second tier of public defenders to handle the cases current public defender offices can't take when there's an ethical conflict.
These conflicts frequently arise when two or more defendants are involved in the same case. Previously, some of that legal work went to court-appointed private attorneys.
Now it would be handled by the conflict counsels.
But unlike current public defenders, who are elected in each judicial circuit, the so-called regional conflict counsels were appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist. Five men were chosen to oversee state-paid attorneys in geographic areas that match Florida's five appellate districts.
That's unconstitutional, the organization said.
"You can't create an appointed position that the Florida Constitution says must be elected," said A. Russell Smith, the group's president. "And that is exactly what they're trying to do here."
Legislators touted the new system as a cost-saving measure. But defense attorneys and public defenders argued the state was simply shifting costs to counties, which have to pay for equipment and office space. More bureaucracy, they said, never saves money.
Crist signed the bill but expressed reservations about the "radical replacement" of the existing system.
The defense attorneys filed their challenge Thursday. They argue that the governor, Senate President Ken Pruitt, Secretary of State Kurt Browning and the five appointees are exceeding their constitutional authority.
On Monday, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum declined the organization's request for his office to take the case to the state's highest court.
Crist spokesman Erin Isaac said Friday the governor was reviewing the defense attorneys' petition.
Private attorneys still have a role in the revamped system, but many aren't interested in taking cases that will now pay lower flat fees and only after a case ends.