Lawyers across Massachusetts are refusing to take court-appointed cases in protest against their low pay, peaving poor defendants languishing in jail and parties in custody cases without representation, the Boston Globe says. On Friday, advocates for the 2,500 private lawyers who represent most of the Commonwealth’s poor confronted Governor Mitt Romney’s chief legal counsel, Daniel B. Winslow, to demand higher wages.
The Legislature has until Thursday to overturn an 18 percent budget cut for the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), the agency that oversees the representation of the indigent in state courts. At current funding levels — the annual budget is $80.6 million — court-appointed lawyers predict there won’t be any money to pay them after Jan. 1.
The lawyers are lobbying the Legislatureng and have sued Masssachusetts, contending that pay, from $30 an hour for District Court appearances to $54 for murder cases in Superior Court, unconstitutionally compromise the right of poor defendants to good representation.
With many lawyers refusing to accept court-appointed cases, many poor people are left without counsel, particularly in Western Massachusetts. Judges have scrambled to find lawyers for emergency hearings, sending their clerks to scour halls and beg lawyers to take cases.
“This is a toothache of a problem that’s become an abscess,” said Robert F. Kumor Jr., the presiding judge at Springfield District Court. “It’s obviously very troublesome to judges.” The biggest dilemma comes at bail hearings. If there aren’t any attorneys to represent defendants, the judge can either postpone the case, possibly keeping someone in jail who otherwise might be released, or set the person free. “That’s a public safety issue,” he said.
Only two states pay lower rates for court-appointed lawyers: New Jersey and Maryland. The Massachusetts lawyers say a fair wage would be $60 an hour for district court cases, $90 an hour for superior court and child protection cases, and $120 an hour for murder cases.