(For details on this issue, please read the longer article at our JDSupra repository.)

 JAC gets national recognition in the Casey Anthony case

Florida’s Justice Administrative Commission received a significant amount of media coverage recently when it became involved in the Casey Anthony case, providing the trial court judge with the official JAC position on whether or not Casey Anthony should be confirmed as “indigent” under the law.

The JAC was leery of Anthony’s claims that she was unable to pay for legal counsel, and hearings were held as well as in-camera considerations by the judge.  Casey Anthony was declared indigent by Judge Stan Strickland on March 19, 2010.

What is the JAC?

In 1965, the Judicial Administrative Commission was formed by the Florida Legislature with representatives from the state judicial branch acting as commissioners, i.e., offices of the state attorney and the public defender; the district, circuit, and appellate courts; and of course, the Florida Supreme Court, acting through its Chief Justice (or his designee). Over the years, the commission evolved. There has been a name change: it is now the Justice Administrative Commission. Today, it is comprised of four members, none of whom are judges: two state attorneys and two public defenders. 

And, it’s got lots and lots of power over when and how attorneys are paid for defending the indigent in this state. 

Lenamon and the Justice Adminstrative Commission – the Background of JAC v. Lenamon

In a double homicide, death penalty case involving nine (9) defendants, seven defendants were left with the circuit court judge needing appointed, private criminal defense lawyers as their attorneys due to conflicts with the available public defenders. 

 There were not enough death-penalty qualified defense attorneys within the 20th District, so the judge was forced to look elsewhere, finding the name “Terence Lenamon” on the death-penalty qualified list for the Eleventh Judicial District.   Lenamon was appointed. 

The JAC Contracts

The JAC enters into representation agreements on a district-by-district basis. Here, the JAC had no option but to enter into a new contract — specific to this single representation – with any and all out of district defense attorneys appointed by the trial judge to advocate for clients facing the death penalty in his Lee County courtroom.  So, the JAC and Lenamon entered into a brand new deal.

JAC v. Lenamon – JAC fights the Defense Lawyer

When Lenamon’s first invoice was submitted to the trial court judge, it was approved. When the JAC asked the judge to reconsider, he did. And he didn’t change his mind. When the JAC appealed his ruling to the appellate court, here was that court’s telling language (Opinion, p. 5, fn. 3) (emphasis added):

Mr. Lenamon also argues that the $125 per hour rate was fair and reasonable in light of the exceptional circumstances present in this case. We do not doubt that the $125 per hour rate approved in the circuit court’s order is fair and reasonable. However, the question before us is whether payment at a rate exceeding $100 per hour is authorized by law, not whether it is fair and reasonable.

What’s the Lesson of JAC v. Lenamon?

One lesson: Experienced criminal defense attorneys may not be very welcoming of appointments in other judicial districts after reading Justice Administrative Commission v. Lenamon. This is particularly true when these criminal defense attorneys already know they’ll be paid a much lower hourly rate than any Florida legal market rate as a court-appointed counsel.   Mercenary hearts don’t take court appointed death penalty cases. 

Another: While the JAC is trying to pinch every penny in its budget, the JAC is not recognizing the burdensomeness of forcing an out-of-district attorney to travel to outside his or her practice area to meet a county’s need for a lawyer at their level of expertise. 

In a time when defense attorneys are desperately needed to fill the need imposed by the constitutional right to counsel for the indigent, especially those who are death-penalty qualified, the JAC seems blind to the fact that it is alienating the very resource that is in scant supply. 

Third: The system needs work, when the reality is that a JAC fee fight like this one places the defense attorney in the position of fighting the State of Florida in one courtroom on behalf of his client, and then fighting the State of Florida down the hall, just to try and keep them from cutting his fees for doing his job in the first courtroom.  

There’s a lot wrong here that needs to be fixed.