“You blow through that cap pretty quickly. If you spend 20 hours on a case, you are already at $1,000. If I put 20 hours into a case, I’m not doing my job.” - Toledo attorney Jeffrey Crowther
It is one of the judicial system’s dirtiest little secrets: Attorneys for poor clients are limited as far as how much time and money they can spend on a case.
In Lucas County courts, roughly one-third of indigent defendants are appointed counsel from the local public defenders office. Those attorneys work on salary and can pretty much spend as much time as needed on a case. However, two-thirds of poor defendants will be appointed counsel from a private practice. Those attorneys must operate under county-imposed caps on cases ranging from minor misdemeanors to aggravated murder.
“You blow through that cap pretty quickly. If you spend 20 hours on a case, you are already at $1,000. If I put 20 hours into a case, I’m not doing my job,” said Toledo attorney Jeffrey Crowther.
County commissioners in all Ohio counties are responsible for setting appointed counsel schedules, which include caps on various criminal charges and also hourly rates. In Lucas County, Crowther and other attorneys who take assigned cases are paid $50 an hour. But the caps they work under are among the lowest in the state.
11 Investigates pulled appointed counsel schedules for all 88 counties. In comparing the limits that attorneys can bill for aggravated murder, the difference between counties was dramatic. In Seneca County, the cap for an individual lawyer handling an aggravated murder case is $3,500. In 10 other counties, that limit is $15,000. Lucas County is second-lowest at $4,000.
Appointed counsel schedules for all 88 counties
“I think we need to remember that the vast majority of these cases are covered by the public defenders office, where we pay $3 million a year. It is important to remember the level of experience those attorneys have and that they are working on a salary. They can spend as much time as they want on a case,” Lucas County Commissioner Gary Byers said.
But Sean McNulty of the Toledo Legal Aid Society, Crowther, and a local judge who did not want to be named all agreed that two-thirds of appointed cases go to private attorneys who are subject to the caps and that most of the murder cases go to those attorneys because of experience levels.
Lucas County Assigned Counsel Fee Schedule
In Seneca County, Seneca County Commissioner Shayne Thomas also tried to make the same argument that there is no concern about the caps and that defendants get a robust defense.
“We have really good attorneys in town. We are blessed to have a strong bar association with good people who are willing to defend folks,” Thomas said. “Some of the best attorneys in town take indigent counsel jobs.”
However, James Fruth, the president of the Seneca County Bar Association, said he no longer takes appointed cases, mostly because of the caps, and that many appointed lawyers drive more than an hour to take those cases.
“This is an issue. We don’t have attorneys here,” Fruth said. “They are retiring and dying. Lawyers are not moving to Seneca County.”