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Lack of Iowa contract lawyers ‘a crisis,’ leading to ‘grueling’ caseloads
System ‘on the verge of snapping,’ chief justice says
Iowa is facing a severe shortage of contract lawyers willing to represent indigent defendants, meaning the 562 lawyers still taking those cases sometimes face “grueling” caseloads.
That number is a decrease of almost 50 percent from the 1,100 lawyers who were taking court-appointed cases in 2014, according to the Iowa State Bar Association.
Iowa Supreme Court Justice Susan Christensen, in her annual Condition of the Judiciary address in January, noted “our federal and state constitutional obligation to provide indigent counsel is on the verge of snapping.”
Nearly everyone says defending indigent clients is a tough job and that the pay hasn’t kept pace with inflation. Hourly rates for contract lawyers now range from $68 to $78, which one lawyer noted has increased only $13 per hour since the 1980s.
Also, contract lawyers are not reimbursed for their travel time between counties, which one lawyer said totaled 50,000 miles a year.
At the same time, the number of felonies charged in Iowa remains high — 20,227 in 2022, according to Iowa State Court Administration.
In general, Iowans facing criminal charges are eligible for a public defender or court-appointed lawyer if their income is below 125 percent of the federal poverty income guideline, according to state guidelines.
Judges note they sometimes have difficulty finding lawyers for indigent clients and must call or email lawyers to find one willing to take a case.
Seventh Judicial District Judge Henry Latham, in Scott County, is among those judges making those calls or sending those emails and acknowledged the past three years have been difficult.
Scott County has five contract lawyers for associate court cases, none for Class B felony cases and six lawyers for Class A felonies.
“Absolutely, it’s a crisis,” Latham said. “I’m meeting with the local bar association to encourage attorneys to sign up on the contract list. I think some will be open to it. They just want a large number of attorneys to go on the list at the same time, so they each don’t get a bunch of clients at once.”
Sixth Judicial District Chief Judge Lars Anderson pointed out that overall, there are now fewer lawyers practicing in Iowa. Many are leaving the state, and even law firms are having a tough time hiring, he said.
Another issue is that in some counties not all the available contract attorneys can handle all cases, some lawyers noted. If an indigent defendant faces serious felony charges, fewer lawyers may be available to help.
About 90 percent of those who face criminal charges in Iowa are indigent and qualify for a public defender or court-appointed lawyer, Iowa Public Defender Jeff Wright said.
Nationally, about four out of every five criminal defendants can’t afford to hire a lawyer, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
“The problem has been coming for a long time,” Wright said. “The rural areas were hit first and now it’s widespread across the state.”
In 2021, another 10 public defenders were hired to help handle cases in Iowa’s rural counties.
Wright said Iowa’s situation isn’t as dire as some other states like Missouri, Oregon, Wisconsin and Georgia. Iowa defendants aren’t sitting in jail waiting for a lawyer and judges aren’t dismissing cases because defendants don’t have a lawyer, he said
Some of those states have been sued because defendants were not given lawyers or were put on a wait list.
“Being a contract attorney is a tough job,” said Wright, who started his career as a contract attorney. “You are consistently ‘the enemy.’ Clients get frustrated with you, victims are frustrated at defense lawyers, and judges make it difficult — they want lawyers to work it out” — find a plea or resolution.
“The people who do (this work) are committed.”
Public defenders and contract attorneys handled about 162,412 cases in Iowa last year, he said.
Black Hawk County Chief Public Defender Aaron Hawbaker agreed, saying their clients are “often addicted to some substance, coupled with mental health challenges. We are exposed to many ugly things that study after study shows can result in secondary trauma. Finding a person willing to do this job and do it well is no small task.”
In Black Hawk County, he said, the court has done some “juggling” — reaching out to lawyers to take cases and starting some diversion programs and other measures to decrease the need for defense attorneys.
6th District faring better
The 6th Judicial District — Benton, Jones, Iowa, Linn, Johnson and Tama counties — seem to be faring better than others.
The district has 24 contract attorneys, according to court administration.
The district also has Linn County Advocate, a nonprofit law office that takes the first overflow of cases from the public defender’s offices in Linn and Johnson counties. Additional overflow is assigned to contract attorneys.
Julie Trachta, managing attorney of Linn County Advocate, said the office is the only nonprofit law firm in Iowa that has lawyers who take court-appointed adult criminal cases.
The office employs seven attorneys — four in Linn County and three in Johnson County. Three of those handle only juvenile cases.
The attorneys each take on 10 to 12 new cases per week, and each carry average caseloads of 140 to 200 cases, Trachta said.
Life as a contract attorney
Contract and court-appointed lawyers often must drive to courthouses in other counties, and they work with the courts to coordinate a manageable schedule.
Eric Tindal, a contract lawyer in Washington County, handles 50 to 65 cases a month.
One day this month, he said, he had a plea hearing, a few pretrials, two sentencings and a probation revocation in Washington, Buchanan, Cedar and Johnson counties.
On a day like that, he said, he has to figure out what cases can be continued, what he can be late for and what cases have to be done that day.
Tindal said he handled most of the cases that day with phone calls and paperwork. But he ended up with hearings in Washington and Buchanan counties at the same time. He went to one and worked out the other one by phone.
“I was pretty confident it would work without me being thrown in jail (for contempt) … but I wasn’t absolutely certain,” Tindal said, half-jokingly. “I was a little bit anxious but had faith it would work out.”
Heidi Van Winkle, a Burlington lawyer who also takes cases in various counties, said she usually works 12- to 14-hour days, including some weekends. Travel can get complicated to figure out when it’s 48 miles to south Lee County, 28 miles to north Lee and 30 miles to Henry.
It helps that judges have “service days” when they travel to rural counties once of twice a week for hearings. But then it gets complicated when he has hearings on the same service days in different counties.
Judge Anderson said he and other judges work with the attorneys to accommodate their schedules on those service days.
Tindal and Van Winkle also noted they aren’t paid for their drive time and mileage is only 39 cents a mile. Tindal said he drives about 50,000 miles per year between courthouses and jails.
Van Winkle, a former Des Moines County prosecutor, said she continues to take indigent cases because there are “very few” contract attorneys in her counties.
“I believe part of the issue is burnout,” she said. “The busier we get, the less we take care of ourselves, and we spend less time with our families. It is really hard to do everything.”
Tindal said he continues contract work because helping people is rewarding.
“Despite all of the negative here, there is nothing like successfully helping another person in need,” he said.
Chief Justice Christensen, in her January address, urged lawmakers to increase funding for indigent defense.
Judges also are being encouraged to have more remote court proceedings — via the internet — when possible, which would reduce drive time for contract attorneys.
The court also is setting up a Remote Proceedings Task Force this month to recommend court rules or policies for remote proceedings in criminal, civil, and family/juvenile law cases. The recommendations must allow “equal access, due process, transparency, fairness, and safety for all court users.”
There are also proposed bills regarding remote proceedings, one sponsored by the Iowa Public Defender’s Office, HSB17, and the other by the Judiciary, HF468, to allow video conferencing of court proceedings. The public defender version has passed a House subcommittee. The judiciary bill was just introduced last month.
State Rep. Brian Lohse, R-Bondurant, told The Gazette last week that raising the rate paid court-appointed attorneys and providing pay for “windshield time” continues to be priorities for him.
“My ultimate goal is to get that rate to $100 per hour, but that is going to take a little bit of time,” said Lohse, chairman of the House Justice System Appropriations Subcommittee.
“At this time, we are waiting for the (reconciliation) report that should be to us in the next couple of weeks so that we can start putting together our respective budgets with more specificity,” he said.
“I've heard that the Senate has some interest in raising the rate as well. I hope to have fruitful discussions with them on this topic.”
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