City judges to name lawyers for poor defendants

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore judges will take over the job of appointing private attorneys to represent poor defendants when the public defender's office can't, the city's chief district judge announced yesterday at a meeting of criminal justice officials.

In more than 2,300 city cases last year, the public defender's office hired private counsel because it couldn't represent more than one defendant in a case. But budget cuts have forced State Public Defender Nancy Forster to stop hiring so-called "panel attorneys."

District Administrative Judge Keith Mathews said that the issue of who pays for those private attorneys in district court has yet to be ironed out. Mathews' counterpart in Circuit Court, Judge Marcella A. Holland, said that she will temporarily use the surplus in her city-funded budget to cover the expense.

Mayor Sheila Dixon, however, remarked that Holland wouldn't have a surplus for long, as state cuts force the city to tighten its budget. Michael Kaminkow, a defense lawyer who sits on the city's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, said private attorneys should not accept these clients until the State Legislature approves additional funding to cover the cost.

"There are a lot of panel attorneys who depend very heavily on these appointments for their income," Kaminkow said in an interview. "Playing hardball may be detrimental to their interests, but in the long run, it's probably the way to go."

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