CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire lawyers who take on federal criminal cases say that imminent pay cuts and a plan to delay paying them could result in fewer lawyers agreeing to take on the often complex cases of indigent defendants.
Attorney David Ruoff said his two-lawyer firm would have faced the very real prospect of going bankrupt had the cuts and deferred payment plan been in place during their representation through two lengthy fraud trials of a refugee-turned-citizen who was later linked to the 1994 Rwanda genocide.
“We’re a small business,” Ruoff said. “We wouldn’t have been able to last that long.”
Effective Sept. 1, the hourly rates paid to court-appointed lawyers in federal cases drops from $125 to $110 in non-capital cases. They will also have forfeit payment of four weeks’ worth of work into the next fiscal year.
The Judicial Conference of the United States announced the pay cuts last month for the more than 10,000 “panel attorneys” nationwide. In a memo Aug. 22, the director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts said the impending budget shortfall in the defender services program due to forced federal budget cuts is an emergency requiring immediate action.
New Hampshire public defender Jeff Levin said Friday that his office will go from eight staff members to five this month — losing one lawyer, one investigator and one administrator to a 10 percent budget cut. But he said that’s better than the 23 percent he feared and the 14 percent cut he expected.
“We’ve definitely felt the impact here,” said Levin, noting that each staff member took 15 unpaid furlough days in the past year.
Attorney William Christie — who is among the pool of about 75 New Hampshire lawyers who have agreed to accept court-appointed cases — is liaison to the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, which sets the rates.
“The rates we work for are severely discounted rates to begin with,” Christie said. “Now we’re being asked to discount further and defer payment. It’s a very difficult set of circumstances.”
Attorney James Moir, who recently rejoined the pool of lawyers willing to take appointments by the court, says he’ll see a pay cut in a federal case he’s taken on that will stretch well beyond Sept. 1.
“The way I can resolve this is by simply not accepting appointments,” Moir said. “One of the concerns I have is that each criminal defendant has constitutional rights to a competent counsel, and the message being sent to counsel is that you are an expendable part of the system.”
New Hampshire’s chief federal judge, Joseph Laplante, during a sentencing last week, lauded Attorney Michael Shklar for his persistence in keeping a client from being labeled a career drug offender. Shklar managed to have one of Comilus Pope’s Massachusetts convictions thrown out because the case was tainted by that state’s crime lab scandal.
“This case is a great example of how important these programs are,” Laplante said.
Ruoff says he thought about the cuts when he took his wife’s car in for service and noticed the sign saying the garage charges $97 an hour for labor.
“And you want lawyers to represent major cases for about $25 more than that,” Ruoff said. “For a lot of people, that’s a tough pill to swallow.”