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Washington County might have to foot massive attorney bills

November 05, 2008

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Washington County could be forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars this year on private attorneys, also known as panel attorneys, no longer being funded by the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.

The state spent about $200,000 on panel attorneys in Washington County in fiscal 2008, Washington County Assistant Attorney Andrew F. Wilkinson said Tuesday during a discussion about the issue with the County Commissioners.

Panel attorneys are hired by the public defender's office to prevent conflicts of interest when the public defender is representing two or more defendants in the same case.

Citing budgetary constraints, Maryland Public Defender Nancy S. Forster said in September that the state would quit paying panel attorneys effective Oct. 1.

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In response, Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell has directed Circuit and District courts to appoint panel attorneys as "special counsel" and forward the bills to counties.

Without panel attorneys, criminal cases could be delayed. If they are delayed 180 days, charges against defendants could be dropped, Wilkinson said.

Washington County Attorney John M. Martirano said Tuesday that the county likely will have to pay for panel attorneys if directed to do so by the courts.

"If the County Commissioners receive a court order to pay for panel attorneys, I think we're obligated to pay it," Martirano said.

Washington County Circuit Court Judge John H. McDowell, who discussed the matter Tuesday with the County Commissioners, said he does not think the county should have to pay for panel attorneys but said he would have to submit bills to the county if the issue is not resolved soon.

"I don't think it's right, I don't agree with it, but it's my obligation to do what (Judge Bell) tells me to do," McDowell said.

McDowell and Wilkinson said Bell also thinks the state should pay for panel attorneys and is working to get Gov. Martin O'Malley or the Maryland General Assembly to solve the problem.

Wilkinson said it might take one or two months for bills from panel attorneys to reach the county commissioners.

Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire said the county should pay panel attorney fees only if the state agrees to reimburse the expense.

"If we approve anything, that has to be a condition of our approval," Aleshire said.

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