TAMPA — A judiciary committee approved a measure Friday that will soften the blow of sequestration to federal public defender’s offices, which faced a 33 percent budget cut in the upcoming fiscal year.
Under the new ruling, court-appointed private attorneys who perform work for the public defender’s office will get deferred payments, easing the budget crunch for federal defense lawyers.
“Now we’re not facing total devastation of a 33 percent cut over six months,” said Public Defender Donna Elm, who oversees the defender’s office in the U.S. Middle District of Florida, where Tampa is located. “We are still hurting, but we’re not ruined.”
Elm said her office faces a 10 percent cut instead of a 33 percent cut with the deferred payments. But the committee’s ruling comes with what Elm and other officials are calling a sacrifice.
The private attorneys who work with public defenders, known as CJA lawyers for the Criminal Justice Act, the law that governs their appointments, will not only be taking deferred payments but also pay cuts. The hourly rate for CJA lawyers will be cut from $125 to $110 for the 2014 fiscal year.
CJA lawyers are appointed when the public defender’s office has a conflict of interest, such as representing a co-defendant or a victim in a case.
“I think we can all live with a $15-an-hour pay cut,” said lawyer Fritz Scheller, the CJA representative for the Middle District of Florida. “Most members will tell you it’s a small sacrifice to be made. The only tolerant aspect of it is it allows the federal public defender’s office to operate.”
Chief Judge Anne C. Conway said it isn’t fair for CJA lawyers to take less money.
“They’re paid well below market value to begin with, so I’m not happy about that,” Conway said.
Private attorneys can make between $200 to $300 an hour.
“It’s not good they’re taking money from CJAs, especially when so many of them rely on the work from public defender’s offices to begin with,” Conway said. “They have to pay overhead and staff.”
Scheller said slashing the budget of the judiciary branch “reflects how sequestration is revealing the priorities of our country.”
“Congress just needs to fund the judiciary, which is a full branch,” she said. “These indigent defendants have a constitutional right to have competent counsel.”
Elm said she hopes that when Congress approves its budget this fall, money will be set aside “to correct the decision to reduce the CJA rate.”
Public defenders represent 76 percent of all federal criminal defendants, but the effects of sequestration have hampered the district, which encompasses five courthouses and stretches from the northern border of Florida south to Fort Myers.
“I lost 12 employees out of 90 in March and May,” Elm said.
She had to lay off an attorney, two clerical workers and an investigator. Others took early retirement or resigned in the face of those cuts. The remaining staff had to take 13 furlough days.
If CJA lawyers were not taking deferred payments, Elm said she would have lost 29 more employees in October. If Congress doesn’t budget more money for the judiciary branch, the public defender’s office could still face more layoffs in December, Elm said.