Besides perhaps the occasional exposed breast, the most notable feature of Lady Justice is the scales she holds, representing the eternal need for balance and fairness in the pursuit of the concept for which the figure is named. The scales, for that reason, are usually depicted as hanging evenly: They can be tipped only by the weight of evidence, of truth itself.
But here in Philly, those scales have been tipping askew for years. The Defender Association of Philadelphia, which represents defendants who cannot afford an attorney, hasn’t gotten a raise in city contracts since 2007, the entirety of the Nutter administration. Courtrooms, Chief Defender Ellen T. Greenlee says, are more than 20 lawyers short. Experienced defenders earn, according to a June report by the Inquirer, up to 20 percent less than their counterparts at the District Attorney’s Office. The result, several defenders tell us, is low morale and a steady exodus for better-paying gigs.
So the defenders are fighting back. They’ve boycotted a handful of courtrooms in the Criminal Justice Center, forcing the city to hire (more expensive) private lawyers to represent indigent clients.
The city’s offered the usual excuse: that it’s broke. The Defender Association estimates that $4 million would bring them more or less into “parity” with the DA’s office. One option the city might take is to lowball the defenders — to offer enough money to restore staff positions, but not enough to match salaries in the DA’s office. But that’s still kicking the can down the road: Without incentives for sticking around, the defenders’ ranks will quietly wither.
Meanwhile, it’s not clear yet how much the private attorneys have cost the city so far, but the Inquirer estimated that costs might be as much as 20 times the normal bill. But the standoff is costing more than just dollars. Several lawyers — both public defenders and private attorneys — have contacted CP with stories of sloppy and borderline-improper representation by (some of) the private hires, who get a (low) fixed fee for cases and have very different institutional motives than public defenders. The stories range from lawyers failing to convey plea offers to clients to lawyers advising clients to take pleas on the fly, in front of the entire courtroom, to attorneys just not giving a crap what happens. “They have a paying client on [another] floor,” as one defender put it. “And that person is taking precedence.”
The scales, in other words, may be tipping even further. And, like it or not, it’s the mayor’s job to right them.