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April 19, 2014

 

Bar readies assigned counsel plan

Proposal calls for new county department, which county administrator opposes

By CATHERINE WILDE
Staff Reporter
cwilde@cortlandstandard.net

County Administrator Martin Murphy and County Attorney Karen Howe are once again at odds over the county’s handling of indigent defense cases, butting heads at the Personnel Committee meeting Wednesday.
Howe said she expects the committee of the County Bar Association that is working on coming up with an assigned counsel plan to be ready to present its plan for consideration and approval by the county within weeks. The plan calls for creating an Assigned Counsel Administrator Department that would be responsible for giving cases to local attorneys in the event the Public Defender’s Office has a conflict.
Murphy objects to the need for creating an Assigned Counsel Administrator Department and says he has not been included in any discussions with the bar association. He points to the costs of creating a department and said the county already complies with law requiring a system of indigent defense by having a Public Defender’s Office.
The assigned counsel plan would govern how the county deals with handing cases to lawyers when the Public Defender’s Office has a conflict of interest.
The county Legislature would have to approve the plan and it would have to be accepted by the state Office of Court Administration. Howe says the county is currently operating unlawfully by having the county attorney act as assigned counsel administrator.
The state Attorney General, the Office of Court Administration and the local Bar Association have all issued opinions stating the situation poses a conflict. Howe says the county attorney represents all departments within the county, like the Department of Social Service.
In the case of a conflict with the Public Defender’s Office, a Family Court case that she handles as county attorney would also come to her office in her capacity acting as assigned counsel administrator.
This puts her in the position of choosing an attorney to oppose a client she is representing.
In addition, Howe said, she also has access to confidential information of her opponent’s clients.
But Murphy rejects the need for such a plan, saying the county is in compliance with law by providing for indigent defense through its Public Defender’s Office. How the county handles cases that are conflicted from that office is up to the county’s discretion, he said.
The discussion came up as Howe reported on the fact her office has already spent about 45 percent of its budgeted line item for assigned counsel in 2014.
The county has $254,082 remaining in the account and has spent $205,917 to date, Howe said.
Bar Association President Keith Dayton, who is also the county public defender, said it is essential the county have an assigned counsel plan because it would be a legal and more efficient way of dealing with handling cases his office is conflicted from representing.
The plan, as it is proposed, calls for the county to create an Assigned Counsel Department, though the cost of that is not specified, Dayton said.
The county would have leeway over how it fills the department, whether with a full-time attorney or not, he said.
Dayton said the administrator will make things more efficient since there will be one central location handling all the assignment of cases. For example, if a client already has a lawyer for another case, an administrator would have the resources to track this down so they would not be assigned another lawyer, reducing duplication.
The administrator would also work from a list of lawyers and hand out cases accordingly, felonies would go to those with experience handling felonies, for example.
Dayton said the county should adopt the plan.
“We’re hoping to be compliant with the law and have an efficient system for handling these things. And it helps ensure quality representation,” Dayton said.
Dayton said the plan would be tweaked once the county and the Bar Association look at it and give feedback.

 

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