Friday, August 11, 2000

Defenders' pay case rejected

State Supreme Court says issue belongs to counties

By By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Ohio Supreme Court will not order Hamilton County to give a pay raise to its court-appointed defense attorneys.

        In a 4-3 decision this week, the court rejected a claim that the county's hourly pay for public defenders is so low that it violates the U.S. Constitution.

        The pay scale became an issue this year when Cincinnati lawyer Robert Newman sued seeking to increase the hourly rate.

        When he filed the suit, the county was paying public defenders $30 an hour. The county later raised the rate to $40 an hour, but Mr. Newman contends the increase was not nearly enough.

        Without another raise, he said, low-income defendants will not receive fair trials because their court-appointed lawyers will not have the resources to put up a fight.

        “At the rates they're paying, they don't have enough good lawyers willing to do this,” Mr. Newman said.

        After reviewing the case this week, the Supreme Court concluded the lawsuit was not the best way to resolve the dispute.

        Other options include asking county commissioners to approve a pay raise.

        But Mr. Newman said that's not likely to happen. It took more than 10 years to persuade commissioners to raise the pay to $40 an hour.

        Public defender Louis Strigari said the $40 rate is sufficient.

        “I think that with the increase, now it is fair,” Mr. Strigari said. “It's a shame it wasn't done before, but I think it's fair now.”

        He said the $30 hourly rate began to cause problems last year when more than 100 veteran lawyers told Mr. Strigari they would no longer do public defender work.

        The lawyers said the cost of doing business often topped $50 an hour. They said they could not afford to handle big cases at an hourly rate of only $30.

        Before the increase to $40, Hamilton County was tied for second-lowest in pay for Ohio's 88 counties and was 36 percent below the state average.

        Now, Mr. Strigari said, the county is “in the middle.”

        Mr. Newman said he will file another lawsuit soon in hopes of boosting the pay rate. This time, he expects to file it in Common Pleas Court.

        “We ain't giving up,” Mr. Newman said.


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