As the dust from the first round of Orange County budget cuts began to settle Friday, local lawyers and judges questioned the fairness of letting Sheriff-Coroner Brad Gates and Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi recommend enormous cuts in criminal defense services for the poor while sparing their own departments.
Capizzi, Gates and Thomas E. Uram, head of the county Health Care Agency, serve on the Management Operations Council, which advised the County Board of Supervisors on what cuts to make in county government.
On Thursday, supervisors announced $30 million in reductions to help bail the county out of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. About 35 programs and departments were affected.
The deepest cut--29%--occurred in the $12.7-million budget of the Alternate Defense Fund, which provides lawyers for impoverished defendants when the public defender's office cannot take their cases, often because of conflicts that routinely occur in multiple-defendant cases where members of the same "law firm" cannot represent joint defendants.
"Why don't we have a representative from the courts, or from the public defender's office, or other departments on the council?" asked Harbor Municipal Court Judge Margaret R. Anderson.
"Isn't it a coincidence that the people on the team have some of the lowest cuts in their services? I think there is a conflict of interest."
Capizzi defended his actions and those of his colleagues who discussed potential cuts with department heads and then recommended them to the Board of Supervisors for final approval.
"I have not ever been shy about offering my advice and recommendations, even unsolicited," Capizzi said. "When someone asks me to serve on the council to make recommendations, I can't ignore it.
"The unanimous recommendation was presented to the board," Capizzi said. "I did not make the decision. The board had the authority. It was simply making a recommendation. I am certainly entitled to do that."
In addition to paying for defense attorneys when the public defender has a conflict of interest, the Alternate Defense Fund also pays for court-appointed attorneys, defense investigators, expert witnesses and lawyers who successfully bid for major felony cases, including homicides.
Under the adversary system of U.S. jurisprudence, many of those law firms and private attorneys are the regular court opponents of the district attorney, who has publicly stated that defense attorneys are responsible for some of the troublesome roadblocks in the court system today.
"It's kind of like the Rams and the Raiders going down the roster of the teams they're going to play and knocking out key players," said defense attorney Julian W. Bailey, who handles a small percentage of indigent defense cases. "It's a horrible conflict of interest."
In contrast to the large cut in the Alternative Defense Fund--which is virtually double the 29% figure because the entire cutback must be accomplished in the six months left in the fiscal year--the sheriff's budget was cut less than 1%; funding for the district attorney was reduced 1.1%. Both agencies had healthy, double-digit budget increases this year that more than offset the reductions.
The cuts will force the public defender's office to shoulder about 3,000 more cases on top of its huge workload, and split the office into two separate defense agencies to avoid conflicts of interests. All of this must be done without an increase in staff or resources.
"There is an inherent problem of having prosecutors involved in cuts related to the funding of defense attorneys," said attorney Gary Proctor, who has a county contract to defend juveniles.
Public Defender Ronald Y. Butler declined to comment on the recommendations of the management council, but said he was able to fend off a reduction in his current staff and budget.
Supervisor William G. Steiner defended the decision to make small cuts in the Sheriff's Department and the district attorney's office because the Board of Supervisors has always given public safety a high priority.
"The main concern I've heard from everybody is don't take those policemen away from me, don't take those firemen away from me," Gates said Friday. "The direction from the Board of Supervisors was to make sure that the proper level of health, safety and welfare is maintained in this community and I think the first two categories are probably the top priorities."
Presiding Superior Court Judge James L. Smith said he thinks the public defender's office may already be the "leanest and meanest" agency in Orange County as a result of budget cuts over the years.
"This will be one of the most problematic areas of the proposed cuts," Smith said. "How can the (public defenders) handle the additional cases? By working harder? I'm not sure they can. By providing less services? Is that what we want?
"Their budget is not full of fat, especially because it's under a finer magnifying glass than any other agency in the county," Smith said.
But Smith sympathized with those on the management council, saying it was a "lose-lose situation" for Gates, Capizzi and Uram because of the intense public scrutiny.
Santa Ana defense attorney George A. Peters Jr., who handles some contract cases for the county, put it this way: "They are advocates of the system, they arrest and prosecute people, and now they are in a situation where they are slaying their opponents' budgets."
Peters questioned whether the cuts were equitable. "It seems like the defense is taking the biggest hit, but I guess it's because we're not politically popular. It's the constitutional flip side of prosecutions, but no one thinks of that until their son or daughter or someone they know gets charged with a crime."
Times staff writer Tracy Weber contributed to this story.