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ON THE DEFENSIVE: SPD to pay a price for short-term savings

By: Anthony Cotton//February 19, 2013//

ON THE DEFENSIVE: SPD to pay a price for short-term savings

By: Anthony Cotton//February 19, 2013//

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Anthony Cotton is a partner at Kuchler & Cotton SC, Waukesha. He is the vice president of the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and on the board of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Attorneys who are appointed to cases by the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office are paid $40 per hour.

This wage is the lowest in the nation.

The rate has remained unchanged since 1978 and is now under attack. In recent months, the SPD has started cutting the bills of dozens of defense attorneys, transforming $40 per hour into something much less.

If this continues, there will be fewer experienced attorneys willing to take these difficult and challenging cases. As a result, the indigent will suffer immensely.

In making these arbitrary cuts, the SPD has announced that bill reductions are “not a commentary” on attorneys’ dedication, how they should practice law or their ability to handle SPD cases.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Any cut to a bill is a direct attack on that attorney’s ability to practice law. Either the SPD feels the attorney is falsifying the bill or took longer to do something than was necessary.

The problem with this unsettling and myopic approach is that it fails to account for the unique nature of each case. The client, not the lawyer, decides whether a case goes to trial. And cases that go to trial often require many hours spent preparing and litigating.

Of course, some defendants have different needs than others, meaning they might require more jail visits and more communication. Each case also has its own complexities, and each lawyer has different levels of creativity.

Those who spend time looking for unique angles for their cases will not only secure better results but also will have substantially higher invoices.

Criminal defense lawyers seem to be the only attorneys who are systematically targeted in such a way. Unfortunately, most lawyers have no idea this is taking place.

What would the reaction be if some bureaucrat started cutting a percentage from the paychecks of prosecutors, the staff for public defenders or judges? What if that bureaucrat audited the time spent by judges across the state and started cutting judicial salaries because the bureaucrat felt the judge took too long on certain cases? What if that bureaucrat cut the salary of a prosecutor because it took too many hours to prosecute a rape case?

These actions might save the SPD a few thousand dollars in the short term, but the long-term ramifications will be devastating. The only lawyers left who still will take these cases will be new graduates or solo practitioners who aren’t getting hired for other cases. Ultimately, indigent defendants will be the ones to suffer as the quality of representation decreases.


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