Federal court cuts affect attorney pay

Court NewsBy Patsy R. Brumfield
Daily Journal

OXFORD – North Mississippi’s court-appointed federal defense attorneys will see a pay cut because of sharp budget reductions.

The budget cuts are among nationwide judicial operating difficulties caused by flat funding and, now, extra cuts mandated by the “sequestration,” which went into effect March 1 when Congress couldn’t agree on a budget.

“I don’t think justice will suffer” in the immediate future, said Chief Judge Michael P. Mills, presiding judge over the Northern District of Mississippi, “but it’s not fair to cut these attorneys’ hourly rate” in the face of increased demands upon them from federal lawmakers.

“People have to have legal representation,” he said.

Last week, the chief judges of 87 federal district courts wrote Vice President Joseph Biden Jr., president of the U.S. Senate, to express their “grave concern” about continued budget constraints and the impact on the nation’s court system.

“Our workload does not diminish because of budget shortfalls,” the judges said.

The system took a $350 million hit in Fiscal Year 2013. Other federal agencies also sustained sharp budget reductions.

In Mills’ district, 12 private attorneys are appointed to back up two federal public defenders, who represent indigent criminal defendants facing federal charges across roughly the northern third of the state.

These private practice attorneys were paid a maximum $3,500 per case but now will see their hourly rate reduced by $15, in what the executive committee of the federal judges’ organization terms “an emergency move to preserve Federal Defender staffing” in Fiscal Year 2014, which begins Oct. 1.

North Mississippi’s federal defenders already work one day per week without pay, although these are not “off” days, said Greg Park in the Oxford office.

Oxford attorney Christi R. McCoy, one of the private attorneys affected by the pay cut, said she and many of her colleagues often work for free.

“It makes no difference to us,” she said, admitting, “We don’t do this for the money.”

Mills agreed he’s never seen a legal bill from some of the attorneys on the court-appointed panel, saying he “appreciates the service they do” and is sorry for what’s happening because of national budget decisions.

patsy.brumfield@journalinc.com