Since joining the Commission on Professionalism, I have had more conversations than I can count as to why attorneys chose the profession, and the reasons, not surprisingly, are varied and inspiring. Inspiring and noble doesn’t make good entertainment or news, so it’s easy for negative views of attorneys to take the spotlight. Sometimes it feels like all we can say is, “We’re not all like that… .” Yesterday’s front page article in the Chicago Tribune on proposed budget cuts to the Federal Defenders’ Office offers proof. We’re NOT all like that.
The article recounts the significant sequestration-related belt-tightening the Federal Defenders’ Office has already done in the past year and that the Chicago office is now girding for another cut of approximately 25% before the fiscal year ends on September 30. Carol Brook, the Program’s Executive Director, described how the cuts would “decimate” the office of talented people, significantly impacting the quality of legal services that her office can provide. The staff, whose salaries start at $55,000, have already seen their pension contributions eliminated and their compensation frozen. Now they anticipate that the threatened cuts will see their ranks reduced, even while funding for U.S. attorney’s offices across the country has actually increased, permitting more prosecutions.
Prosecutors bring about 1,000 criminal cases each year in Chicago’s federal court, and at least 80 percent of those involve a defendant who can’t afford a lawyer, Brook said. The Federal Defender’s Office staff at current levels can’t handle that load, and relies on “panel attorneys”, a group of private lawyers accredited by the court to represent indigent defendants. The panel attorneys earn $125 an hour, less than the rate most of them could command for private work. In light of the potential budget cuts, nearly all of the 190 Chicago-area panel attorneys in the Northern District of Illinois signed a letter to Chief Judge Ruben Castillo deferring any payments to them for up to nine weeks so that the money can instead support the operations of the Defender’s Office. One veteran panel attorney explained, “If the right to counsel is involved, most panel attorneys are willing to make that sacrifice.”
The right to counsel is a bedrock principle of criminal law. The right, afforded by the Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright , led to the creation of the Federal Defender’s Program 50 years ago, entitling all indigent clients accused of federal crimes to be represented by an attorney.
There is a concern about the mismatch in resources between the offices of the prosecutors and defenders. Late last month, 40 federal judges (including Supreme Court Justice Roberts) and prosecutors urged Congress to fully fund the Federal Defender system, in advance of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the effects of sequestration. Let’s hope they are listening.
The dedication of the Federal Defenders and panel attorneys is awe-inspiring. They give a voice to the voiceless. “They see their work as a calling”, explained Brook. Hats off to them.