State should increase pay for indigent defense
Regardless of how the Alabama Supreme Court rules on a dispute over pay for court-appointed lawyers, the Legislature needs to address the issue again.
The dispute is about whether legislators changed the law in 1999 to stop appointed lawyers from including their overhead expenses in their legal bills to the state.
Attorney General Troy King said last year that the change meant legislators intended to do away with the payments, and the payments stopped; but a circuit judge reinstated them. So, the state comptroller wants the Supreme Court to decide on what amounts to $14 million in annual payments that go to about 2,000 attorneys.
Any ruling the court hands down won't adequately resolve the problem of ensuring that indigent clients get quality counsel. The state presently pays appointed attorneys $40 per hour for out-of-court work and $60 per hour when they are in court.
That's not enough pay for young lawyers in a one- or two-lawyer firm to meet ongoing expenses. Take away the payment for overhead costs and they have even less revenue.
Thus, if the court rules against the state paying overhead expenses, the Legislature must increase the hourly rate of pay.
A young attorney struggling to keep an office open can't fully concentrate on giving clients the best defense.