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Court-Appointed Counsel and the Public Defender are the City’s Best Bargain

Op-Ed from President Russell S. Roeca

July 6, 2009 -- San Francisco--
As reported in the Chronicle, Recorder and elsewhere, San Francisco’s Public Defender’s budget has been saved from the heavy budget cuts threatened earlier this year.  No question, Jeff Adachi has brought real leadership to his office, bringing it into the 21st century of advocacy.  However, he hasn’t done so alone. 

On May 6, 2009 The Bar Association of San Francisco, California Attorneys for Criminal Justice and the California Public Defenders Association turned out en masse to support San Francisco’s Public Defender, then facing substantial cuts.  Like the Public Defender, BASF has a long-standing commitment to quality representation for the poor, underrepresented and disenfranchised population of this City.  BASF provides approximately 150 of the most highly skilled criminal defense attorneys in the City, who partner with the Public Defender to provide quality representation to indigent clients.  Our Constitution requires no less, our notions as a society cannot be asked to settle for less, and yet the proposed budget cuts threatened to do exactly that.

Lost in the fray over the Public Defender budget was any mention of the dedicated private attorneys who likewise provide the constitutionally mandated representation of the poor whenever the Public Defender has a conflict of interest.  For more than forty years, San Francisco has been extraordinarily fortunate to continually attract a large panel of exceptionally experienced and gifted attorneys willing to take court-appointed work.  The program is a model for the rest of the state, since in some counties, attorneys need little more than a bar card to receive these appointments.  Not so in San Francisco.  Our attorneys face some of the strictest qualification requirements in the country.  Working for a fraction of what they are paid privately, they do not disappoint. They share internal and external expectations for excellence, and the community they enjoy as a group, continues to motivate them to provide the best advocacy money can buy – yet without paying the price.  BASF’s panel of private attorneys is a real bargain, like their counterpart Public Defenders.  The Controller’s report issued June 23, 2009, confirms that public and private attorneys cost San Francisco the same.  

The City benefits from a strong, diverse and healthy defense bar: a well run, fully funded Public Defender and a robust private bar.  Neither BASF nor the Superior Court advocates privatization of public defense.  We must, however, recognize the stellar work performed by individual attorneys for the City’s poor.  They are essential partners in public defense, representing almost one third of indigent defendants and minors accused of crimes.  The cost of this program is a bargain for the City, and it too needs full funding.  The attorneys who have agreed to undertake this important work have gone without a cost of living increase for two years and provide countless hours of pro bono representation; they more than share in the effort to assist the City in its financial crisis. 

Unfortunately, the Board of Supervisors received some bad advice: take from the Court’s budget which pays for the private appointments, and give to the Public Defender.  At the May 6th Justice Summit, BASF argued successfully that cuts to the Public Defender would not save the City money.  Cutting the budget for the appointment program to fund the Public Defender makes even less sense, for the program’s work consists of representing those clients who the Public Defender is ethically prohibited from assisting, and like the work of the Public Defender, is constitutionally mandated.  The Board, to be congratulated for acknowledging the important work of the Public Defender, must likewise provide the funding needed to appoint counsel when the Public Defender has a conflict of interest.

Russell S. Roeca, President
The Bar Association of San Francisco

The Bar Association of San Francisco (BASF) is a nonprofit voluntary membership organization of over 8,000 attorneys, law students and legal professionals in the Bay Area. Founded in 1872, BASF is one of the largest and most dynamic metropolitan bar associations in the U.S., with a long and distinguished record of community action, public service and service to the legal profession.

Questions about media relations, BASF issues currently in the news, San Francisco Attorney magazine, marketing and communications:

Ann Murphy, Director of Communications & Public Relations
(415) 782-9000 x8792

For general communications inquiries:

Sayre Happich, Assistant Director of Communications & Public Relations
(415) 782-9000 x8104