Cortland County Attorney to Handle Public Defense Case Assignments Despite Threat of Lawsuit
Despite threats of lawsuits from the Cortland County Bar Association, County Administrator Martin Murphy is moving forward with plans to have the County Attorney serve as the Assigned Council Administrator.
Facing a March 1st Deadline for County Judges to stop handling the County’s assigned Council program, Murphy is moving ahead with the controversial plan to have the County Attorney Ed Pursor oversee the assignment of public defense attorneys in cases where the Public Defender’s office is conflicted and cannot represent an individual.
Murphy had proposed the idea last year, but abandoned the concept in December after the County Bar Association threatened to sue the county over the plan.
The assignment of conflict attorneys for public defense cases has been a contentious issue for nearly 8 years now.
As the cost of providing legal defense for the poor has skyrocketed and lawmakers have worked to contain expense to the tax payer they have been met with lawsuits or the threat of lawsuits.
In 2007, the County legislature created a conflict defender’s position to handle some of the cases that the Public Defender was unable to take. That effort was met with resistance from the County Judges, local defense attorneys, and the State Office of Court Administration. The issue at that time was the conflict defenders office was being assigned cases out of the Public defender’s office, which apparently also presented a conflict of interest.
Three local attorney’s including current Public Defender Edward Goehler filed a lawsuit against the county looking to overturn the Conflict Defender position, the office was ultimately eliminated by the legislature.
Last year lawmakers approved a plan to continue allowing the public defender’s office to assign outside counsel, but the money for those attorneys and final approval of defense vouchers was given to the County Attorney.
On November 20th, County Administrator Martin Murphy met with the Bar Association to negotiate a plan that everyone could work with, including the creation of an assigned counsel administrator that would be outside the public defender’s office to eliminate conflicts.
The Bar Association responded with its own plan where the association would appoint an assigned counsel administrator who would decide which attorneys get the public defense work and the county would pay for the position including support staff and pension costs. Under the bar plan the County would not have any oversight of the independent office.
Murphy and several lawmakers said they cannot support that plan, because county taxpayers would foot the bill for the office but would have no control or oversight.
Murphy said those clients who receive a public attorney will not notice any changes and those attorneys who take on assigned council cases will not see any changes, in fact he expects that the move will improve the program for those attorneys. Murphy says there are 16 attorneys on the County payroll and he could justify adding another for this limited work.
Murphy recognizes the bar association may file a lawsuit in connection with the change, but he feels the county is on solid legal footing with this change because the County is not violating any 18b plans as the legislature never adopted such a plan.
In a memo to local Judges and the Bar Association Pursor said he has received a list of attorneys currently accepting defense assignments, he plans to utilize that existing list and update it in the future.