ACLU In Court To Protect Right To Adequate Legal Representation

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
January 31, 2008 12:00 am

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Group Opposes Arbitrary System For Awarding Fees To Court-Appointed Attorneys

RICHMOND, VA – The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments tomorrow in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union to seek a fair compensation process for lawyers representing indigent defendants in that court. The case involves two court-appointed attorneys whose fees in a death penalty case were cut drastically and without any explanation from the court.

“If the Fourth Circuit does not properly compensate court-appointed attorneys, then indigent clients may not have adequate legal representation, which means they may not get a complete and fair hearing of their case,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “If there is one thing just about everyone in this county can agree on, it is the right of every single person, regardless of income, to a fair and just legal proceeding.”

In Rosenfield v. Wilkins, attorneys Steven Rosenfield and Ed Wayland of Charlottesville claim that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals lacks proper rules for the awarding of fees to court-appointed attorneys and has no process for challenging a decision to cut fees. Rosenfield and Wayland had their fees cut by 70 percent after representing Bobby Swisher in his challenge to his capital murder conviction.

Under the Federal Criminal Justice Act, federal courts of appeals appoint lawyers for indigent capital defendants who are appealing a denial of habeas corpus. Each circuit must have a plan that outlines how attorneys are appointed and compensated. Under the Fourth Circuit’s plan, attorneys submit a payment voucher to the clerk of the court at the end of the case. The Chief Judge reviews the voucher and has final say as to the amount of reimbursement. However, the plan contains no guidelines for the Chief Judge to follow, no requirement that a reason be given when fees are cut, and no avenue for appeal of the Chief Judge’s final decision.

Attorneys in the lawsuit are Rebecca K. Glenberg, Legal Director of the ACLU of Virginia, and Victor M. Glasberg, ACLU cooperating attorney with the law firm of Glasberg & Associates in Alexandria, Virginia.

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