Increased funding for legal representation of poor deemed DOA

The chairman of a state task force created in the wake of a failed effort to convince legislators to shell out more money for attorneys protecting the legal rights of the poor has already labeled as “dead on arrival” any future bid for funding, reports the News Sentinel.

“I mention this only to help you understand that there is no chance — no chance — that the General Assembly will agree to appropriate more money to fund the current system,” retired Tennessee Supreme Court Justice William Koch wrote in a letter obtained by the News Sentinel. “Thus, any proposal to increase the current appropriation for the purpose of increasing the hourly rate paid to private attorneys appointed to represent indigent criminal defendants is and will continue to be dead on arrival.”

The letter prompted its recipient, attorney Christopher Seaton, on Friday to call a “listening tour” by the state Indigent Representation Task Force “a sham.”

Koch, now dean of the Nashville School of Law, readily admitted his assessment in an interview after a Friday stop of the task force at the University of Tennessee College of Law, but he countered the task force is no sham.

“The Legislature is not going to pay money for the same old thing,” Koch said. “We haven’t, in the last 30 years, looked at (the process of providing legal services for the poor) holistically.”

Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Sharon Lee agreed.

“I think we are looking at the overall system,” Lee said. “I personally think the rates should be increased but … that’s a Band-Aid. We need to look at the overall system. How can we more efficiently and effectively provide this service?”

Tennessee’s pay for private attorneys to represent poor people accused of crimes — $40 an hour for out-of-court work and $50 in-court with caps ranging from $500 to $5,000 — is the lowest in the nation except Wisconsin. That state doesn’t impose caps, though. Even expert witnesses garner more hourly pay than do court-appointed lawyers. The rates haven’t been raised in more than two decades.

The Tennessee Bar Association has pushed in recent years for a boost, but the Legislature has spurned it while, at the same time, creating new criminal laws and increasing penalties for current laws. As speaker after speaker at Friday’s packed meeting and Koch himself noted, most legislators view poverty-stricken defendants as criminals, so boosting pay rates for their attorneys is a tough, if not impossible, sale.