The governing body of the largest Municipal Court in Los Angeles County is considering guidelines that would restrict the way judges appoint private attorneys for criminal defendants who cannot afford their own lawyer, a spokesman said Wednesday.
One proposed guideline would require judges in each branch of the Los Angeles Municipal Court to appoint private attorneys in strict rotation from a list drafted by a committee of jurists. Another would limit the fees paid to any one attorney within a given time period. No such restrictions currently apply in most of the branch courts.
The guidelines will be considered by members of the Judges' Executive Committee of the Los Angeles Municipal Court at a meeting later this month, said Christopher Crawford, assistant chief of the Court Services Division.
Appointed by Judges
The appointment of private attorneys at public expense to represent needy criminal defendants has become a controversial issue in recent months. In several reports issued since the beginning of the year, county auditors have said that some attorneys had abused the system, mainly by overbilling. The district attorney's office is investigating the alleged abuses.
The county spends more than $25 million a year for private attorneys appointed for indigents by judges of the Los Angeles Superior Court and the county's 24 Municipal Court districts. The Los Angeles Municipal Court accounts for about 40% of the business conducted by all the Municipal Courts.
Private attorneys are usually appointed by judges when the public defender's office declares that it cannot accept an indigent's case because it does not have enough manpower or because of a conflict of interest.
At a meeting Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Municipal Court judges' committee also asked the Board of Supervisors to hire a group of lawyers, known collectively as the Alternate Defense Counsel, to handle certain cases that cannot be taken on by the county's public defender.
Alternate Defense Counsel, based in Van Nuys, is already supplanting the use of private, court-appointed attorneys in courtrooms in Van Nuys, Culver City, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and other jurisdictions. It is a privately operated legal organization that has contracted with the county to provide, for a set fee, legal services that would otherwise be offered by the public defender.
Attorney Carl Jones, who administers Alternate Defense Counsel, said his lawyers can provide services for about 60% of the cost of private attorneys.
The judges' committee said, however, that Alternate Defense Counsel should be hired only in those misdemeanor cases in the downtown courts in which the public defender's office has declared a conflict of interest.
All felony cases and those misdemeanor cases declined by the public defender because of a lack of manpower should continue to be assigned to private, court-appointed lawyers, the judges said.
At the same time, the committee called on the Board of Supervisors to give the public defender's office enough money to fully staff all of the county's courtrooms.
In the current fiscal year, the public defender's office projects that it will handle 327,000 cases in Municipal and Superior courts throughout the county. The office says it will decline 35,000 cases because of lack of manpower and turn down 24,500 because of conflicts.
To fully staff the office, the public defender has asked the Board of Supervisors to hire 47 new attorneys, in addition to the 400 already on staff.