Saturday, August 26, 2000

Pay for public defenders faulted

Lawyer files suit in Common Pleas Court seeking increase

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A Hamilton County judge was asked Friday to order a pay raise for the county's court-appointed defense attorneys.

        A lawsuit filed in Common Pleas Court claims a raise is the only way to make sure low-income defendants get good lawyers and fair trials.

        Without a pay increase, the lawsuit claims, the quality of the lawyers' work will suffer.

        The lawsuit, filed by Cincinnati lawyer Robert Newman, is the latest attempt to increase the county's $40-an-hour pay rate for public defenders.

        Two weeks ago, the Ohio Supreme Court threw out Mr. Newman's request to order a higher pay scale.

        The new lawsuit seeks a court order from Judge Melba Marsh that would boost the hourly pay for all public defenders. The judge will likely hear arguments on the issue next week.

        When Mr. Newman first raised the pay issue, the county was paying public defenders $30 an hour. That rate was tied for the second-lowest in Ohio.

        The county later raised the rate to $40 an hour — about $7 less than the state average — but Mr. Newman contends the increase was not nearly enough.

        He said many attorneys average more than $50 an hour in expenses every day for items such as rent, utilities and support staff.

        Mr. Newman said low-income defendants do not receive fair trials because their court-appointed lawyers do not have the re sources to put up a fight.

        In his latest lawsuit, Mr. Newman claims the low pay rate might be the reason Hamilton County leads all counties in Ohio with 49 people on death row.

        “A purpose and effect of the under-funding of the Hamilton County Public Defender's office ... is to assure the ease of conviction of indigent defendants,” the lawsuit states.

        Public Defender Louis Strigari said the new pay scale is fair. He said he has not heard any complaints about it from the 170 lawyers who sign up each year to do public defender work.


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