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High Court says state must pay indigents' lawyers for overhead

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Supreme Court ruled unanimously Friday that criminal defense lawyers who represent the poor should be paid for their office overhead — a decision that will cost the state millions each year.

Court-appointed attorneys doing indigent-defense work have done without the payments since Feb. 1, 2005, when the state government cut them off.

Bill Blanchard, president-elect of the Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said some attorneys had quit taking court-appointed cases because they became money losers.

"Had this continued much longer you would have seen more instances,'' he said.

Blanchard said the payment for office overhead varied from court to court, but probably averaged $30 per hour before it ended.

State Comptroller Bob Childree, who ordered an end to the payments on Feb. 1, 2005, said Friday he had not seen the decision and could not comment.

His staff estimated the amount due criminal defense lawyers because of the decision will be $3.5 million for fiscal 2005 and $11.3 million for fiscal 2006.

The state paid the criminal defense lawyers for their office overhead expenses for years, but Childree stopped the payments after Attorney General Troy King issued an advisory opinion saying state law did not provide for them.

King's opinion said the state law providing for the overhead compensation got rewritten
by the Legislature in 1999 to raise the hourly payments lawyers received for $50 to $60 per hour for in-court work and $30 to $40 per hour for out-of-court work.

The new language in the law did not provide for reimbursement for office overhead, King said.

A lawyer sued on behalf of criminal defense lawyers, and in September 2005, Montgomery Circuit Judge Truman Hobbs Jr. ruled the payments should be made.

Childree appealed to the Supreme Court, which upheld Hobb's order 9-0 Friday.

Justice Mike Bolin, who authored the decision, used math to explain his reasoning: With the end of the office overhead payments in 2005, the criminal defense lawyers were making less per hour than they were before the Legisla-ture raised their hourly rates in 1999.

The Legislature's intent, Bo-lin said, was "that lawyers appointed to represent indigent clients were still entitled to payment of office-overhead expenses.''

Chief Justice Drayton Nabers joined in the decision. He previously served as state finance director and Childree's boss before Gov. Bob Riley appointed him to the Supreme Court.

in June 2004. The cutoff of the payments occurred after he moved to the Supreme Court.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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