No pay raise in 20 years for appointed TN defense lawyers

Court-appointed defense attorneys in Tennessee haven’t gotten a pay raise in 20 years and some earn less than half as much per hour to try a murder case than an expert witnesses hired to testify, reports the Commercial Appeal.

While flat compensation rates have long been a point of contention for local defense attorneys, the Tennessee Bar Association recently reissued its call for a change to the state’s fee rates — which remain among the lowest in the nation.

“This affects the most vulnerable people in the community, the people without resources who have a hard time getting their cases investigated and adjudicated fairly,” said attorney Josh Spickler of the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office. “It’s not that a lawyer is going to starve to death. It’s a person who, the vast majority of the time, is incarcerated and dependent on the system to provide a lawyer who has the time, ability and experience to represent her.”

The public defender’s office represents most of the county’s indigent defendants — about 35,000 cases per year — but when there is a conflict, judges are forced to appoint a private defense attorney for indigent clients.

Such conflicts most often arise when more than one person is charged with the same crime. They can’t both be represented by the same attorney or office because of the likelihood that one person’s defense will be to blame the other, and vice-versa.

But new research from the Tennessee Bar Association shows that many experienced attorneys won’t take court-appointed cases anymore because the fees are too low and the paperwork required to obtain payment is so burdensome that some never end up getting paid at all.

“We’re pushing good people away from wanting to represent (indigent defendants),” Spickler said.

…In a noncapital case, Tennessee pays $40 per hour for work outside of court and $50 per hour in court. The national average, according the state bar association hovers at about $65 per hour, with several states paying over $100.

By comparison, a doctor hired to testify by the defense attorney can be paid up to $250 per hour.

The hourly attorney rates are capped at $2,500 for first-degree murder and $1,500 for all other felonies.