Contract lawyer system changed

Clark County judges have approved sweeping changes to a decades-old system of assigning private attorneys to criminal defendants.

The reforms will impact how thousands of accused criminals are represented.

A Review-Journal investigation in March revealed that the existing system's lack of rules and oversight led to uneven justice and questionable county spending.

District Judge Stewart Bell, who headed a committee of court officers that recommended fixes to the so-called contract attorney method, called the newspaper's series "a fulcrum for re-looking at how we do business."

The system in its current form violates most American Bar Association guidelines for indigent defense delivery, most significantly by letting judges hand-pick defense lawyers who regularly appear before them.

Contract attorneys, also known as conflict or track attorneys, represent indigent defendants who cannot be represented by a full-time public defender because of a conflict of interest. This occurs most often in cases with co-defendants who might implicate each other. Some kind of conflict arises in roughly one out of every seven indigent cases.

Since the 1980s, it has been left to individual judges to inform court administrators if contract defenders were mistreating clients or overbilling the county. The Review-Journal series revealed that some judges ignored such problems. As a result, attorneys with a pattern of questionable behavior contracted with the county year after year.

In a rare move, local judges at a closed-door meeting on Tuesday agreed to take authority away from themselves to eliminate the appearance of cronyism.

The judges approved the creation of a panel of court officers to screen, evaluate and hire the most qualified applicants for 36 available contract attorney jobs. That panel will assign the attorneys at random to a set of District and Justice court judges. After two years, the assignments will be shuffled.

Until now, contract jobs have been unadvertised, and many lawyers have gotten contracts without even submitting applications and résumés to court administrators.

Equally troubling to county officials was the frequency with which relatively inexperienced contract attorneys were assigned to defend people accused of crimes that carry possible life sentences, including murder and sexual assault.

The panel of court officers will also compile a list of attorneys qualified for these types of cases, which pay an hourly fee of $100, or $125 per hour for capital cases.

Assistant County Manager Liz Quillin said this step will help reduce the county's risk associated with inadequate representation, including post-conviction relief work and civil lawsuits.

"Somebody who just passed the bar shouldn't be given a murder case," Quillin said.

The reforms are expected to be in place by later this summer. The system will remain as is until the changes are implemented, said Chief District Judge Kathy Hardcastle.

Contract defender Robert Langford, who helped craft the reforms, said members of the private bar mostly support the changes.

"Some love it, some don't," Langford said at a meeting of judges last week. "Most at the end say, 'OK, when do we apply?'"

The payment system for contract defenders also was overhauled by the judges.

Currently, each attorney's contract with the county pays $3,000 per month for an unlimited number of felony and misdemeanor cases. Because of the number of cases, this amounts to token payment, and it has encouraged lawyers to make hasty plea bargains.

The judges agreed to double the monthly stipend to $6,000, a change likely to be approved by the Clark County Commission next month, Quillin said.

This increase in county spending is expected to be offset by new measures to prevent contract defenders from stockpiling hourly-fee cases. Each judge will now be allowed to appoint any given attorney from the hourly appointment list to only two cases.

The Review-Journal found that some lawyers spent vast amounts of time on such cases, leaving little time for the many other cases they were assigned.

One contract lawyer billed the county for more than $400,000 last year, much of it for work done in 2005 and 2006. A local lawyer in Family Court claimed in invoices that he worked more than 24 hours in a single day on at least 22 days in the first half of 2006.

Partly as a result, court appointments will cost the county about $7 million this year, $2 million more than projected.

To guard against future abuses, the judges approved targeted and random audits of attorneys' invoices. The county also is looking into possible sanctions against several lawyers whose excessive billing was highlighted in the newspaper series.

The judges also recognized that the payment system for contract defenders creates potential inequities for defendants.

The trial rate of contract defenders in District Court during a recent one-year period was only a little more than 1 percent on cases that were not paid hourly, according to a Review-Journal analysis. It was 10 percent on hourly cases.

This finding prompted the judges to approve a $100 hourly fee for hours that contract defenders spend in jury trial.

The judges also tried to address the rapidly increasing caseload of the public defender's office by making contract defenders responsible for all misdemeanor cases in Clark County Justice Court, not just ones in which the public defender's office has a conflict.

Quillin suggested this reform in response to complaints about high caseloads from Public Defender Phil Kohn.

Kohn said each attorney in his office handles about 140 misdemeanor cases and 360 felony cases per year.

"We certainly need to reduce our caseload, but this doesn't do anything to relieve our felony caseload," Kohn said.

Gary Peck, executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Nevada, has said his group would consider suing the county if caseloads aren't brought under control.

Bell's panel plans to meet through the year to consider further recommendations, including ways to give contract defenders better access to investigators and to defendants in jail.

Kohn said all changes will need to be carefully implemented.

He said he is concerned among other things that the boost in pay for contract defenders will encourage some to pass off a defendant to a less-experienced attorney, a longtime practice the judges didn't address.

Bell has characterized the changes as a short-term fix to a pressing problem.

He, Kohn, and others have endorsed opening a full-fledged secondary public defender's office that would greatly minimize the need for contract defenders. Quillin said the county will study this option.

More changes to indigent defense are expected later this year when a Nevada Supreme Court committee, formed after the Review-Journal series, weighs in on qualification, performance and caseload standards for full- and part-time public defenders.

Justice Michael Cherry, who is heading the Supreme Court panel, said the newspaper's series about contract defenders was "a black eye" for the entire criminal justice system.


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