County May Add 2nd Public Defender Office : Courts: Backers say costs would drop from an average $2,914 per case paid to court-appointed lawyers to $800. But private attorneys contend the figures are misleading.
In a ninth-floor courtroom in Los Angeles Superior Court, six attorneys have been defending the once well-to-do businessman Neil Woodman and two others in the murder of Woodman’s parents--at a cost to Los Angeles County of $1.2 million so far.
Across the hall, two lawyers have been paid $131,000 to represent a podiatrist on trial for insurance fraud. For a case tried nearby, two attorneys filed claims of $75,000 for defending two men convicted of assault during the riots.
To slash such legal defense costs incurred by those who cannot pay, Los Angeles County officials are considering creation of a second public defender’s office, a step many say would profoundly affect lawyers who make their living defending the poor.
Fees paid by the county to private attorneys climbed from $26 million in 1987 to more than $36 million last year.
Private lawyers are appointed when the public defender’s office lacks resources or has a conflict of interest. Legal conflicts most often occur in multiple-defendant cases where the accused might attack each other and the public defender can only represent one.
“It’s about time,” Supervisor Ed Edelman said of the alternate public defender proposal, which will be considered at the Board of Supervisor’s meeting Tuesday. He has championed the idea for a decade.
The fiscally strapped county’s plan comes on the heels of a new program that will reduce fees paid to private attorneys for death penalty defenses, such as the Woodman case. Those lawyers will work for fixed amounts that will range from $60,000 to $200,000.
Los Angeles County would be the fourth county in California--after Solano, San Diego and Contra Costa--to set up an alternate public defender, and would join about two dozen around the country.
The changes could have a major impact on hundreds of private criminal defense lawyers who take on indigent felony defendants. These attorneys could get “wiped out,” said Robert Spangenberg, associate dean of Boston University’s School of Law and a public defense expert. “That means the private bar virtually disappears except for a handful of lawyers representing big drug dealers and white-collar criminals.”
The U.S. Supreme Court decided 30 years ago that accused felons must be provided with free attorneys when they cannot pay. In Los Angeles, defendants are given free counsel when the public defender and the judge agree that a person is indigent. An estimated 90% of the cases are handled by public defenders.
Trial judges currently approve private attorney fees on a per-hour basis. The county has accused some lawyers of overbilling. Attorney Ray Newman is awaiting trial on 1991 charges that he billed for legal work on days when he was fishing in Mexico, attending a Broadway musical or pursuing other interests.
Officials in the county chief administrative office say it will cost an average of $800 for the second public defender’s office to defend a felony case, compared to the average of $2,914 paid to court-appointed lawyers.
“That’s over three times the cost,” Edelman said of private attorney fees. “How do we justify that, when we’re in a very tight fiscal situation? It’s a matter of dollars and cents.”
Several local attorneys consider the county’s figures misleading. “These numbers could have been written by Sidney Sheldon,” defense attorney Charles L. Lindner scoffed. The $2,914 average payment for private lawyers includes drawn-out death penalty trials--such as the seven-year Woodman case--which make up a small percentage of the total but drive the average higher, he noted.
The more typical case is a drug possession or auto theft charge, said Arthur Warren, who is on a panel of Los Angeles County Bar Assn. lawyers that, for a set fee, takes cases in which the public defender has a conflict. “The average case we represent (pays) between $200 and $800,” he said.
“I don’t concede that they’ll be cheaper,” Robert Schwartz, president of the 400-member Criminal Courts Bar Assn., said of the proposed public defender’s office.
But the new office is bound to cost less because of its high case volume and fixed expenses, said Assistant Public Defender Michael Judge.
The current public defender has 570 attorneys, paid between $42,000 and $97,000 a year, and an $81-million annual budget.
The alternate public defender would have a $8.9-million budget, paid with money transferred from existing court budgets for indigent defense fees. Initially, 62 attorneys, paid from $70,000 to $94,000 annually, would handle 22,000 cases. That would include juvenile cases countywide, as well as adult felonies and misdemeanors in downtown Los Angeles and Compton courts. Funds to expand the new office would come “from the savings we’re going to achieve,” Edelman said.
Edelman, who is a lawyer, is convinced there will be savings.
Ten years ago, he persuaded fellow supervisors to contract with a nonprofit law firm, Alternate Defense Counsel, to take cases where the public defender could not defend multiple defendants. Alternate Defense Counsel is in effect a second public defender, but little more than half the municipal and superior courts in the county use its 75 lawyers.
“There’s been resistance for everything from concern about quality to the displacement of (private) lawyers,” said Fritzie Galliani, the firm’s executive director.
To make sure the new plan would work, county supervisors are seeking state legislation to require judges to assign cases to a second public defender’s office.
Already, the Los Angeles County Superior Court’s executive committee and the Municipal Court Judges Assn. have voted to support such a requirement.
“Those of us who preside in criminal courts would not like to see the private bar excluded,” said Superior Court Judge Cecil Mills, supervising judge of the criminal division of Los Angeles Superior Court. “But the reality is it is so much more expensive to go outside.”
Judge Alban I. Niles, chairman of the Municipal Court Judges Assn., said his group voted to cooperate, but wondered about the need. Judges and county auditors are scrutinizing lawyer billings more carefully, he said. “I haven’t seen any great number of abuses.”
Barton C. Sheela III sees both sides of the argument. As a private attorney in San Diego he handled many court appointed cases. But now he works for the second public defender’s office there.
Even so, he believes private defense attorneys should have a role in representing poor people. “It’s a way to keep the public offices honest,” he said. “How do you know you’re cheaper if there’s nothing to compare it to?”
The Cost of Court-Appointed Lawyers These are the 10 highest payments made in 1992 by the Los Angeles Superior Court to court-appointed private attorneys.
TOTAL AVERAGE ATTORNEY PAYMENT HOURLY RATE 1.Mark Kaiserman $268,602 $98 2.Andrew Stein 261,017 87 3.Javier Ramirez 243,809 95 4.Carl Jones 240,869 100 5.Stanley Granville 239,675 92 6.Richard Leonard 222,676 106 7.Hattie Harris 209,843 100 8.Franklin Peters 203,625 96 9.James Barnes 193,990 99 10.Dale Rubin 190,955 79
Note: Rates rounded to nearest dollar. Source: L.A County Auditor-Controller