A D.C. Superior Court judge has instituted a new policy that may encourage court-appointed lawyers to get more of their poor clients to plead guilty.
The new policy also may encourage the lawyers to have such cases tried before the judge rather than a jury -- where, statistics show, a defendant is more likely to get a verdict of innocent.
Judge Timothy Murphy, chief of the court's misdemeanor criminal trial section, said the new policy for his courtroom will repay lawyers more fairly for their work and make the misdemeanor section operate more efficiently.
In an apparent effort to clear his calendar quickly of cases dating back before the start of the year, Murphy also promised "significant sentencing concessions" to lawyers whose clients pleaded guilty before Feb. 1.
Under the present system, court-appointed lawyers for indigents are paid by the Criminal Justice Act program, a court agency established in 1971. Attorneys who agree to take such work are assigned cases by judges and are paid $20 an hour for out-of-court work and $30 an hour for courtroom work. Attorneys can earn up to $400 for criminal misdemeanor cases and up to $1,000 for a felony trial. No attorney can be paid more than $27,000 a year by the agency.
In a recent letter to the head of the court's attorneys association, Murphy said that if a client pleads guilty, he will approve a payment voucher for the attorney of up to $150 -- virtually without question. Further, he said, he will not question payments of up to $200 in cases where lawyers choose to have a judge hear the case rather than a jury. Like other Superior Court judges, Murphy approves the vouchers submitted by attorneys for cases heard in his courtroom and can cut payments he thinks are excessive.
Murphy said the average voucher submitted for a misdemeanor case has been roughtly $200, but that many have been cut back by judges. Murphy said he consulted with Criminal Justice Act program officials and decided that "it takes about $150 worth of effort to prepare for a guilty plea."
Murphy's new policy has outraged some lawyers who contend it will create a "system of bounty hunters."
A group of 30 members of the Superior Court Trial Lawyers Assocation discussed Murphy's policy in a meeting this week and generally reached that conclusion.
"My concern is that one of my clients is going to see the judge's letter after my client has pleaded guilty and has been sentenced to a lot of time and think I sold him down the drain for $150," said attorney William Blair.
Attorney Irving D. Foster said he felt Murphy's policy would be an added incentive for him "not to go forward with a case" once he had invested the minimum amount of work to qualify for the $150 payment.
But Murphy said, "I'm concerned that there has been no increase in the amount of compensation for attorneys since the Criminal Justice Act program was established in 1971."The lawyers have asked me to see if I could find ways to increase the dollar amount they are paid for working on a case and the maximum amount they can be paid each year." The limits, however, can only be changed through legislation, not by Murphy.
"Lawyers have chronically complained to me that when they have submitted vouchers, judges have severely cut their vouchers to a point where the attorney was not paid for the work he had invested," Murphy said.
"I have always believed the present system discourages the good lawyers and encourages lawyers to let their cases drag on and on so they can submit bigger vouchers," he added.
Murphy's new policy comes just as the court has launched a new plan to reduce a backlog of 3,000 cases in its misdemeanor section.
Under the court's new plan six judges -- including Murphy -- will hear only misdemeanor cases. New cases will be scheduled for trial within 42 days. Previously, a misdemeanor case could take up to eight months to be heard.
Murphy promised that in, most instances, he would be able to sign vouchers, he would be able to sign vouchers for guilty pleas on the same day they are presented to him. Many lawyers have complained that currently there is a lag of between three and six months between the time a voucher is presented to a judge and when they are paid for their work.
"The lawyers won't just be handed $150," Murphy said. "They must show that they've done the work. The important thing here is that if they satisfy me that they've put in a good five to seven hours preparing a case, they can be assured that I won't cut their vouchers."
Murphy called criticisms that his policy will increase the number of unnecessary guilty pleas "utter hogwash." "Contrary to what people think, most cases don't go to trial in the first place," he said. The judge noted that out of 12,724 cases that passed through the court last year, only [WORD ILLEGIBLE] were resolved through a trial.
"I think the judge's policy is an outrage," said Sol Rosen, an attorney who has represented indigent clients in the court for 15 years. "The judge is putting a lawyer's pocketbook between him [the lawyer] and his client. Rather than sit down and devise the best defense possible for their clients, I expect some lawyers are going to decide how many people they have to plead guilty to put some money in their pockets."
Rosen submitted a motion to the court Tuesday requesting permission to withdraw from a misdemeanor case on the ground that Murphy's new policy "seeks to make a mockery of the attorney-client relationship by coercing pleas."
Attorney W. Edward Thompson, who last year unsuccessfully challenged the authority of judges to cut vouchers without consulting the attorneys, said Murphy's policy "shows the judge is more interested in the welfare of the attorney than the welfare of the indigent client."
But Jerry Dier, head of the court attorneys association, praised Murphy's new policy as a "sincere effort" by the judge to "strike a balance between the time a lawyer puts into a case and what the lawyers is paid."
"I feel better knowing that I'm going to paid for a case I've worked on," Dier said. "I don't see the policy as being coercive at all. If an attorney has done his work on a case, the plea will take almost as much time as a trial. Lawyers who are going to fudge on their vouchers can do that now."
Gene Shipp, a Criminal Justice Act program lawyer for seven years, said that Murphy's effort to speed up voucher payments and to make fewer voucher cuts "sounds like music in the ears of most CJA lawyers."
"We're losing a lot of lawyers who have from three to five years' trial experience because they can't make a decent living practicing law in the courts," Shipp said. "Although there are new lawyers coming in all the time, when the more experienced people leave, the quality of legal representation suffers."
"A lawyer can only earn $27,000 taking CJA cases," he added. "For most of us, it costs that much just to maintain as office and to pay a secretary. Add to that the cost of caring for a family and you can see that lawyers don't earn enough."