A Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court justice has ordered judges in Hampden County to appoint private attorneys to represent indigent criminal defendants with or without the lawyers’ consent. Lawyers who refuse without a valid excuse would be reported to the state Board of Bar Overseers, reports the Boston Globe. Justice Francis Spina’s order creates a parallel system of appointing private lawyers to represent indigent clients, bypassing a committee. While the shortage of court-appointed lawyers has been most acute in Hampden County, large numbers of lawyers across the state have recently boycotted court-appointed cases in protest of the low pay they receive relative to counterparts in other states.
“I rather thought the 13th amendment banned involuntary servitude,” said Deborah Sirotkin Butler, a family law attorney. “This is just unbelievable to me. You don’t get a law degree in order to be treated like chattel.” Legal specialists debated whether it would set a statewide precedent that could be applied to any other county where lawyers’ refusals result in indigent defendants going without legal representation. Gov. Mitt Romney and legislative leaders pledged to accelerate the work of a commission studying ways to end a pay dispute between the state and private lawyers who represent poor criminal defendants, but said they will not attempt a resolution until next year.