In-Depth: Assigned counsel attorneys rally for pay increase

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — Normally, they’re inside the courtroom representing men, women and children but on Thursday, dozens of attorneys who do assigned counsel work across New York State stood outside of courthouses in NYC, Syracuse and Canandaigua to protest a proposed pay increase being dropped from the New York State budget during last-minute negotiations.

News10NBC first reported on the issue last week.

New York State currently pays $75 per hour to attorneys who are assigned a case when the public defender has a conflict.

“We’re vying with these attorneys in custody cases (for example) who may be paid $300, $350 or even higher [per hour] and that’s an incredible discrepancy,” explained Attorney Gary Muldoon who takes cases as a child law guardian. “It’s driving the good attorneys I believe, out of doing AFC work which is very very unfortunate because children, as well as adults, deserve to have quality representation.”

Ed Leichtner has to limit how many assigned cases he can take because the pay is about one-third of what he makes in private practice and he’s got bills to pay and an office to sustain.

“Everybody needs representation, everybody has a right to representation it’s the foundation of our freedom," he told News10NBC, “There’s plenty of money for so many issues out there and every little special interest group and yet those of us who are providing this valuable and necessary service aren’t getting an increase in 18 years.”

A pay increase that would have matched the federal rate for assigned counsel at $150 per hour was in the New York State budget this year but it was dropped at the last minute.

Austin Hunsinger saw the protest happening outside of the Ontario County Courthouse and stopped because as someone who has been assigned an attorney in the past, he knows how crucial they are to a fair and equitable criminal justice system.

“As a misguided teen, I was provided with assigned counsel and as a teenager going through that, obviously I grew up and grew out of that but I was represented by people who you can kinda feel that they have a caseload that’s just massive and when they’re fighting against a team of, say district attorneys or private attorneys, it’s almost like an uphill and losing battle for them,” he recalled.

Muldoon says the pay issue doesn’t just impact the attorneys.

“With attorneys unwilling to accept these kinds of cases, courts are slowing down in their ability to deliver justice so it’s an ongoing problem that is becoming progressively more serious,” Muldoon said.

In a statement to News10NBC, a spokesman Gov. Kathy Hochul said, “The Governor supports a fair rate and we are working to reach a solution to ensure indigent parties have effective assistance of counsel.”