Saturday, April 28, 2007

State opts to keep list of private attorneys

By Dara Kam

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Saturday, April 28, 2007

TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers decided to keep a registry of private attorneys who represent inmates sentenced to death in North Florida despite Florida Supreme Court justices' request to scrap the pilot program initiated by Gov. Jeb Bush four years ago.

The Senate originally agreed with Supreme Court Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis, who asked Senate Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee Chairman Victor Crist to restore the northern Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, the office of state-employed lawyers and investigators who represent inmates on Death Row.

The Court unanimously believes that the state offices are "far superior to the private attorney registry approach," Lewis wrote last month.

More than two years ago, Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero, a Bush appointee, told the Commission on Capital Cases the work of the private attorneys handling the final appeals for Death Row convicts was "some of the worst lawyering I've seen."

The Florida House refused to recreate the northern regional office, and on Friday, Senate Budget Chairwoman Lisa Carlton agreed to maintain the status quo.

"I don't know the details of the issue, to be honest with you," said Carlton, R-Osprey. "It was an important issue to the House that they maintain their policy on that, and I agreed with them."

Gov. Charlie Crist questioned the lawmakers' decision, saying he preferred the regional counsels.

"I think they do that job very well. I'd love to hear the arguments as to why we would want to hire private lawyers to perform that function," Crist said.

Bush created the privatization pilot program to save money and expedite the lengthy Death Row appeals process.

Instead, the project had the opposite effect, Cantero told the commission.

Registry attorneys' sloppiness and ineptitude bogged down the court and "creates a lot of inefficiencies and makes us spend a lot of time on these cases that we could spend on other cases," he testified.

Rep. Dan Gelber, a former prosecutor who supports the death penalty, objected to the registry when it was established in 2002.

The shoddy representation could cause longer stays on Death Row and worse, said Gelber, who sits on the commission.

"The reason you want (lawyers) to have a certain level of competence is so they can efficiently move through the system. This may have the exact opposite effect," said Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat.

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