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Md. Office of Public Defender will no longer pay for private attorneys

October 01, 2008|By ERIN JULIUS

HAGERSTOWN -- Of the 200,000 cases handled by the Office of the Public Defender in the last fiscal year, 10,000 were handled by private attorneys due to conflict of interest with the public defender's office. Due to recent budget reductions, the public defender no longer will pay for private attorneys -- known as panel attorneys when they work in this capacity -- to represent clients, said Kimberlee Schultz, director of communications for the Office of the Public Defender.

The new policy is effective Wednesday, Schultz said.

Panel attorneys are called upon whenever more than one defendant in the same case would qualify for the services of the Office of the Public Defender, or when another type of conflict presents itself.

In District 11, which is made up of the public defender's offices in Frederick and Washington counties, panel attorneys are called in for about 70 cases a month, District Public Defender Mary Riley said last week.

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According to state law, when the public defender declines to provide representation, the courts have a responsibility to appoint counsel, she said.

Prince George's Circuit Judge William D. Missouri, who also chairs the Conference of Circuit Judges, said Tuesday that Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell was sending a letter that afternoon to administrative judges throughout the state.

Once conflict cases are referred to a court, the court will have the authority to appoint special counsel, Missouri said. The special counsel will be paid as part of the case by the local jurisdiction, just as the prosecution is paid for, he said. The District Public Defender for each district will provide each court with a list of attorneys to whom they refer cases, Missouri said.

"We're not reinventing the wheel," he said.

Local attorney Bernard Semler II has taken panel cases for the public defender's office for about three years, he said Tuesday. He handles about half of the panel cases in Washington County and said he is in court on behalf of an indigent client five to 10 times a week.

In a Sept. 26 letter to Gov. Martin O'Malley that was copied to a number of Office of the Public Defender officials, Semler urged the governor to restructure the method by which the state handles conflict cases. In the letter, he suggested a system in which attorneys bid on contracts for the work rather than taking on panel clients on a case-by-case basis. He said Tuesday that the contract system would allow the Office of the Public Defender to better predict the costs of panel attorneys each year.

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