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Debate Continues Over Court-Appointed Attorneys

I write to respectfully but vehemently disagree with my colleague, Tom McKenna, in his recent letter to the editor regarding fees for court-appointed lawyers (Letters, Jan. 24). Mr. McKenna alleges that the vast majority of people are facing overwhelming evidence of their guilt, and that a court-appointed lawyer meets with him or her for only a couple of minutes to decide to plead guilty.

This is absolutely not what good lawyers do. Perhaps, Mr. McKenna's experience underscores what the commonwealth is receiving in its grossly underfunded system.

Let me more accurately describe what a court-appointed lawyer would and should do in the undeniably guilty case that Mr. McKenna describes. First, the lawyer must pick up the paperwork at the courthouse. If the client is incarcerated, the attorney must visit that person wherever that person is being held. In this area, people are often held in jails up to 35 or 40 minutes away with limited visitation.

It is likely that, once arriving at the jail, one must wait for the inmate to be brought to the visiting area. If there is a problem with head count or interview rooms, this can take up to an hour or more. One must meet with the client and interview him to determine not only whether the commonwealth can prove its case, but if there are mitigating circumstances that ought to be brought to the attention of the court. It is the defense attorneys who often find placements for drug or alcohol treatment or mental health services. When the attorney makes it back to the office, there is often a phone call from a worried parent or spouse. ...

This is the bare minimum in a noncomplicated, absolutely guilty misdemeanor case. For the above effort, a court-appointed lawyer is paid $120. One can imagine the time and energy a good lawyer must put into a contested case, a case with many witnesses, experts, children or complicated legal issues.

This court-appointed lawyer must also pay for his or her own gas, malpractice insurance, health insurance, disability insurance, slip and fall in the office insurance, books, computers, secretaries, office supplies, retirement and continuing legal education, just to start.

Court-appointed lawyers are often the folks at the jails at nights and on weekends. I am proud of the court-appointed work that I do, even though it is not lucrative, because it is the very reason that I became a lawyer.

Style has every reason to shed light on this situation, because the system needs to eliminate the kind of lawyering that Mr. McKenna describes.

Esther J. Windmueller

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