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Lawyers line up to testify at public hearing on appointed counsel proposal

The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s final public hearing of the term will look at something that has long been a matter of concern: the low rate of compensation private attorneys receive when they are appointed to defend indigent criminal defendants.

The court voted last year at the end of its term to hold a public hearing on a proposal meant to make the situation a bit better. The proposal—which is being brought by the Wisconsin Association for Criminal Defense lawyers, as well as law professors and other practitioners—would make two changes.

First, it would increase the rate at which private lawyers are paid when a court appoints them to take a case. The rate would be raised from $70 an hour to $100 and would be tied thereafter to the consumer-price index.

Second, the proposal would push the state Legislature to increase the rates paid public defenders. It would do this by calling on the justices to declare unreasonable any State Public Defender’s Office rate that falls below the rate for court-appointed attorneys. Lawmakers would under pressure to raise the rate paid public defenders from $40 an hour to $100 an hour.

The last time the Legislature changed the SPD appointment rate was in 1995, when it decreased it from $50 an hour.

Private attorneys appointed to take federal criminal cases are paid far more, making $140 an hour in non-capital cases and a maximum rate of $188 per hour in capital cases. Those rates take into account overhead expenses.

Supporters of the latest proposal argue that the status quo in Wisconsin prevents indigent criminal defendants from getting the legal representation guaranteed them by the Sixth Amendment. The $40 an hour rate, they note, is not even enough to cover a practitioner’s overhead expenses.

Opponents argue the proposed change to the court-appointed rate would further burden already cash-strapped counties by forcing them to pay a higher rate as well as prohibiting them from contracting out work for a flat fee. Counties foot the bill for court-appointed attorneys.

Wednesday’s hearing on the proposal will start at 9:30 a.m. in the Supreme Court Hearing Room in the state Capitol.

About 20 people will be testifying, according to court officials. In addition, the court has received dozens of letters on the petition from more than 100 lawyers, judges and other individuals.

The high court has also invited state lawmakers to weigh in. So far, only State Rep. Fred Kessler, a former state circuit court judge, has submitted written comments in support of the proposal.


About Erika Strebel, erika.strebel@wislawjournal.com

Erika Strebel is the law beat reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal and a law school student at UW-Madison. She can be reached at 414-225-1825.

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