For years, Allegheny County Common Pleas judges in Pittsburgh have assigned defense lawyers for the poor as they see fit, handing out cases to attorneys whom they consider capable of representing low-income clients that the public defender’s office can’t represent due to conflicts of interest, reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Judges maintain their own lists, and, in some cases, court staffers have been told to summon a lawyer at random from the hallway to stand in as counsel for simple proceedings. The tradition has come under the scrutiny of a grand jury, which is looking into whether judges have unfairly assigned high numbers of cases to too few attorneys and whether favors have been exchanged in return.
A Post-Gazette analysis of court appointments in 2005 and 2006 shows that some attorneys willing to take on work get many more cases than others just as eager for it. One lawyer shouldered as much as 45 percent of a judge’s indigent defendant cases. “You get tied to a routine. Some lawyer does a good job for a client and you use them over and over again,” said Judge Lawrence J. O’Toole. “We’re talking about a loss of liberty. You can’t put someone on a case who can’t represent the client.” Under a new system that will start this spring, cases will be assigned according to guidelines tested in a pilot program for the past two years. For most attorneys, the fees pale in comparison to their typical hourly rates. Lawyers take them for extra money or for experience, or as a favor to a judge or the system itself. Lawyers appointed to criminal cases get a flat rate of $50 an hour, plus expenses. They also can bill for a half day, valued at $250, or a full day, $500. Under the current system, some lawyers get hundreds of cases in a year while others get just a handful.