A Miami-Dade judge says a law tying legal bills for defending death penalty defendants to annual budgets of state judges is unconstitutional.
Circuit Judge Victoria Sigler said the law violates Florida’s constitution, which guarantees a separation of power between the judiciary and lawmakers — who are supposed to be the ones who allocate money for indigent clients.
The ruling, certain to be reviewed by higher courts, could force changes to how the state appropriates money to defend people too poor to afford their own lawyers.
Sigler made the ruling last week in the case of Gregory Martin, charged in the August 2000 slaying of Cynteria Phillips, a chronic runaway whose bloodied body was found next to Miami Edison High.
Martin, who’s facing the death penalty, is represented by court-appointed private lawyers David S. Markus and Terry Lenamon. The attorneys asked the judge to declare the law unconstitutional.
The reason: Every year, the state sets up a pool of money to pay lawyers’ bills in death penalty and racketeering cases. Before this year, the Legislature always appropriated more money to cover overruns.
But lawmakers, looking to contain rising costs of legal fees in death penalty and racketeering fees to private attorneys, quietly passed Senate Bill 1960. The bill, passed in March, mandated that any overruns come from the courts budgets.
The law “makes judges think twice about paying a lawyer, knowing that he or she has to also think about paying his secretary or buying copier paper,” Markus said.
It’s almost certain that the state will have to find more money to pay for legal bills for death penalty cases. So far, Miami-Dade has spent $712,000 of its allotted $1.2 million — and the fiscal year doesn’t end until June 30.
The bill also created a “limited registry” pool of lawyers who will accept flat fees for most other court-appointed criminal cases. The catch: Lawyers cannot ask for additional money.
The Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has filed suit over the system, saying poor defendants will get only “token” representation by under-qualified and overwhelmed attorneys willing to work for peanuts.
“Judge Sigler’s order confirms what FACDL-Miami has been saying from the beginning. This proposed solution to the budget crises is sloppy law making,” said Jude Faccidomo, the group’s president.
The state’s Judicial Administration Commission, which handles payments for legal bills and will likely appeal Sigler’s ruling, declined to comment Monday.