Legal Ethics

Sanction is upheld for unpaid lawyer's refusal to represent indigent defendant

Gavel and money

The Mississippi Supreme Court has upheld a sanction for an appointed lawyer who refused to represent an indigent defendant because of fears he would not be paid.

In a Jan. 5 decision (PDF), the court upheld the sanction imposed by Hinds County Circuit Judge Jeff Weill, report the Associated Press and the Clarion-Ledger. Weill had ordered lawyer Randy Harris to pay a $100 contempt fine and $1,200 to cover the costs of the jury.

Weill had ordered Harris to take the case of an accused child pornographer as a result of a dispute with the Public Defender’s office. In early 2015, Weill had claimed an assistant public defender acted unprofessionally, and he banned her from his courtroom. When the Public Defender’s office refused to provide substitute counsel, Weill ordered appointed counsel in 55 cases.

In May 2015, the state supreme court lifted Weill’s blanket ban against the assistant PD, but allowed the defendants to choose to remain with their appointed counsel or to have the Public Defender’s office resume representation.

The accused child pornographer chose to stay with Harris. But on the Monday before the scheduled July 2015 trial, Harris filed a motion to withdraw that asserted the Hinds County Board of Supervisors would not pay for private counsel in the appointed cases. Harris said his client had opted to return to the Public Defender’s office.

Weill denied Harris’ motion to withdraw, and Harris said he refused to participate in the trial. At that point, Weill found Harris in direct criminal contempt and imposed the sanction at a later status conference.

The Mississippi Supreme Court said Harris’ refusal to represent the client after Weill denied his motion “clearly fell” within the category of direct criminal contempt. “Thus, we affirm the judgment,” the court said.

Harris is now an assistant district attorney in Hinds County.

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