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Tenn. Proposal Would Give Some Indigent Defense Work to Low-Bidding Lawyers

Posted Aug 31, 2011 9:25 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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A proposal in Tennessee seeks to cut down on indigent defense costs by giving some of the work to lawyers who bid for the right to do the work on a fixed-fee basis.

Critics claim the proposal would put justice up for sale to the lowest bidder, the Knoxville News Sentinel reports. Private lawyers would participate in “a highway contract-style bidding process” under the proposal by the Tennessee Supreme Court, the Tennessean says in its story on the controversy.

Private defense lawyers in the state supplement the work of the public defender’s office when it has a conflict or too much work. Currently the lawyers are appointed by judges, and they bill for their services under a system that caps hourly rates and total claims.

The proposal would give the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts the authority to award contracts to private lawyers who submit bids to handle a fixed number of cases in a specific legal area for a flat fee.

State courts spokeswoman Laura Click told the Tennessean that the bidding system would be used in only two types of cases: contempt proceedings for the nonpayment of child support and involuntary commitment proceedings. But AOC general counsel David Haines told the Knoxville News he isn’t ruling out expanding the bidding to other types of cases, including criminal defense.

One of the critics is Knoxville lawyer Mike Whalen, who is secretary of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The contract system is “great if you're running a railroad but not so good if you're talking about protecting people's constitutional rights,” he told the Knoxville News.

Sept. 1 is the deadline for comments on the proposal.

Hat tip to the Wall Street Journal Law Blog.

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