Some lawyers in Wisconsin are about to get a pay raise, specifically, those that help the poorest.
A State Supreme Court decision ruled to up rates for court-appointed defense attorneys. At $40 an hour, Wisconsin’s attorneys were making the least in the country.
Supporters of the decision say the low rate for court appointed lawyers has actually led to a constitutional crisis.
Attorneys who testified at the public hearing for this move will help the people sitting in jail because the state can’t find an attorney for them.
Attorney Henry Schultz is one of the lawyers who brought the petition to raise pay. He says the low rates have created a collapse of the criminal justice system.
“We have incarcerated defendants who are appearing without a lawyer. We have counties where it takes weeks, and it takes months, to find a lawyer. We have judges telling us and telling you that there are adjournments too numerous to count and that there are intolerable delays. We have substantial inefficiencies on a daily basis.”
The decision wouldn’t change what the state defender is allowed to pay public attorneys, but it would raise the rate for private attorneys the office hires when it doesn’t have a public attorney to do the work. That accounts for about 40 percent of indigent criminal cases in Wisconsin.
Full time staff attorneys at the public defender’s office make even less than $40, the rate for private attorneys hired to pick up the cases they can’t get to.
Now, they’ll have to pay those judge-appointed lawyers $100 an hour, rather than $40 an hour. That’s still quite a bit under what many lawyers make from clients who can afford to pay an attorney themselves.
Those advocating for the measure say although counties will have to take on the extra cost, they hope it will pressure the legislature into creating a more long-term solution. Lawmakers haven’t been able to pass bills that would increase the $40 an hour rate overall. A bipartisan Assembly bill that would raise rates for public defenders failed to pass last year.
Schultz says this ruling might spur change at that level. “They have a County’s Association; they have an organization that lobbies the legislature. They are in the position to do that.”
Some State Supreme Court Justices questioned whether they had the authority to raise rates, since the legislative branch is tasked with power of the purse. But the attorneys who brought the petition say it’s on all branches of government to uphold the US Supreme Court’s 1960’s ruling mandating states provide attorneys to defendants who can’t afford them, a decision known as the Gideon mandate.
John Birdsall is the other attorney who filed the petition to raise wages. “It’s the entire states’ duty to fulfill the Gideon Mandate. It is not assigned to one branch of government. It is Wisconsin’s government’s duty. And for forty years we have failed.”
The $40 an hour rate for public defenders was set in 1995. It’s remained the same since.