January 12, 2011


County considers assigned counsel position

Legislature chairman studying cost, benefits of adding administrator to handle conflict cases

Staff Reporter

Legislators are exploring the option of hiring an administrator who would assign cases to attorneys when the Public Defender's Office has a conflict of interest, shifting the task from staff in that office and local judges.
Legislature Chairman Jack Williams (D-8th Ward) received approval Wednesday from the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee to investigate how much the administrative position would cost the county, who could be hired to fill the role and how the office will be set up.
Williams expects answers within a month.
The administrator would assign attorneys in cases where there are conflicts of interest with the public defender and check payment vouchers submitted by assigned attorneys.
The county is supposed to have the position, in accordance with the assigned counsel plan established by the Cortland County Bar Association in 1965.
Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chairman Michael Park (R-Homer) said the county is not really out of compliance with the plan because it provides for assigning cases through the Public Defender's Office and local judges.
"This is just another avenue of assigning cases," Park said, calling it the preferred method and saying it makes sense.
"This would lighten everybody's load and make it more efficient," Park said.
Park also pointed out it would eliminate any conflict that might arise from the Public Defender's Office reviewing invoices submitted by private practice attorneys. This practice of the public defender reviewing invoices from fellow attorneys could be perceived as a conflict, he said.
In December 2009 the Legislature transferred $138,000 to the Public Defender Office to cover assigned counsel fees for 2010,which borught the amount spent for the year to $500,000.
Public Defender Keith Dayton said the administrator position would reduce the workload in his office but create an extra expense for the county.
"These functions are being performed now," Dayton said, adding the cost of hiring an administrator will vary depending on whether it is a full-time position, an independent contractor or a county employee.
The administrator would ideally be a retired attorney who would be independent and not conflicted by any of the assignments, Williams said.
Park foresees an administrator being hired within a few months if the committee and Legislature determines it is in the county's best interests to create the position.
"If it makes sense I hope within three to four months we should be able to (hire)," Park said.
The county established a conflict attorney office in 2006 to handle cases in which the Public Defender had a conflict of interest. The office was criticized by judges and attorneys, and it was eliminated in 2010 because the state Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that the position was not established in conformance with state law. A group a three local attorneys filed a lawsuit challenging the office.


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