“Alabama’s right-to-counsel system has the ‘perfect storm’ of characteristics that virtually guarantee ineffective assistance of counsel to the poor,” observed David Carroll, research director for the National Legal Aid & Defender Association.
Carroll was referring to a system that gives state court judges unbridled discretion to appoint attorneys to cases, and therefore lets them assign work to lawyers who, for example, make contributions to the judges’ election campaigns.
“Most states with state funding have independent right-to-counsel commissions with authority to promulgate and enforce standards. There is no such accountability in the Alabama system,” said Carroll. “This means attorneys who move dockets quickly and who kick back some of the money to the judge’s reelection campaigns can be financially rewarded. The ‘perfect storm.’ Judges are happy, defense attorneys are happy. The only problem is that clients’ rights are being trampled on.”
In Mobile County, six attorneys received six-digit payments from the indigent defense system, which is funded by state general revenue funds and revenue collected from a $50 civil case filing fee. The top earner, attorney Habib Yazdi, made $267,193 in fiscal year 2009; he had a total caseload of 516 appointments.
The second-highest earner, Lee L. Hale, Jr., made $217,239 for 241 cases in FY 2009. Almost a third of those appointments came from Judge Charles A. Graddick. At one time, Graddick worked with Hale’s father, Lee L. Hale, Sr.
Hale Jr. denied claims of favoritism. What he did not deny was making $1,850 in contributions to Graddick’s 2004 reelection campaign. In fact, he was unapologetic about it. “I make lots of contributions to lots of people,” he said. “If someone is doing a great job, I want them kept in office. It is what it is.”
Yazdi and attorney Gregory Hughes, another of the top six indigent defense fund earners in Mobile County, also made campaign donations to Judge Graddick.
Carroll singled out Yazdi as an example of an attorney taking on too many cases. “My guess is that the majority of them are felonies. If so, the attorney in question could very well be handling three times as many cases as he should,” Carroll said.
The indigent defense situation in Alabama is particularly bad because it leaves no one to file a complaint or issue a warning when the system breaks down.
“[T]he reason I call Alabama the ‘perfect storm’ is because in other systems there’s usually someone that cries out. If you have a public defender system that is underfunded, attorneys are carrying way too many cases and not able to handle it. So, they will refuse to handle more cases,” Carroll noted. “In Alabama, because the defense attorneys are making so much money, and the judges are happy with it and county managers don’t have any control, so they’re happy with it – there’s no one to speak on behalf of the client.”
Circuit Court Judge Joseph “Rusty” Johnston said he found nothing wrong with Alabama’s – and especially Mobile County’s – indigent defense system.
“You couldn’t have a public defender’s office large enough to handle all the cases in Mobile County. If you want to handle the situation here expeditiously, you’d need to have enough lawyers to handle all the cases on your worst day,” Johnson stated. “That would amount to a lot of wasted time. So, you try to get private [attorneys] to do this stuff as much as they can. A public defender system would be slower and more expensive, I know that much.”
Such a system, however, would eliminate cozy relationships between judges and lawyers who donate to their election campaigns, while providing better representation for poor defendants.
Legislative efforts to establish an indigent defense office and oversight commission failed in 2008. At that time, Alabama Supreme Court Justice Sue Bell Cobb said, “I want to make sure poor defendants are getting a good solid criminal defense and that Alabama’s tax dollars are being spent wisely.” Apparently neither has occurred.
Another bill to reform Alabama’s indigent defense system is presently pending in the state legislature (SB 497). However, even if it passes, that bill provides for a paltry $85 per hour payment rate for attorneys who take noncapital cases and $100 per hour for death penalty cases – hardly enough to attract highly qualified defense counsel.
Sources: www.lagniappemobile.com, www.timesdaily.com
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