LEE SATTERFIELD: “Our goal is not about supporting every attorney who's interested in doing this work,” D.C.'s chief trial judge said.
LEE SATTERFIELD: “Our goal is not about supporting every attorney who’s interested in doing this work,” D.C.’s chief trial judge said. (Diego M. Radzinschi)

Observing at least a five-year drop in criminal cases in the District of Columbia, D.C. Superior Court officials in May sliced the number of private lawyers approved to serve as court-appointed counsel for low-income defendants by nearly a third.

Some lawyers who previously served on the panel but didn’t make this year’s list expressed concern about a lack of transparency regarding how panel attorneys were picked. They questioned the selection of less experienced lawyers over veterans, especially after being told at the start of the application process that the court valued trial expertise.

The thinking, Chief Judge Lee Satterfield said, was “less is more.” With fewer cases, the court worried that good lawyers wouldn’t want to participate without enough work to make it worth their time. The court cut the panel to 217 lawyers from 309 lawyers, including a subset who serve on a “provisional” basis.

Satterfield defended the integrity of the process, saying no one judge on the committee that reviewed applications could make a unilateral decision. Judges used established practice guidelines in deciding who to pick — and years of experience did not always make a particular lawyer the best choice, he said. “Our goal is not about supporting every attorney who’s interested in doing this work,” Satterfield said. “It’s supporting the most highly qualified attorneys we found who are interested in doing this work.”

The new panel includes lawyers who joined the D.C. Bar four decades ago, as well as about two dozen sworn in within the past five years, not including provisional members. Most, but not all, had been previously selected to handle court-appointed criminal cases.

Lawyers are still adjusting nearly three months after the changes took effect. Workloads vary among panel members, who are paid by the court under the D.C. Criminal Justice Act, but for many it comprises a major part of their practice.

“It was a privilege to be on the panel, and I appreciated each and every day I went to court,” said George Lane, a solo practitioner who wasn’t chosen. “However, being cut from the panel has made my life a little difficult.”

Lane served on the panel for eight years and said the work made up about 60 percent of his practice. He said he was finishing his remaining D.C. cases and then would focus on building his practice in other states where he’s also licensed.

Another attorney not chosen this year bemoaned the loss of Spanish-speaking lawyers and more generally the court’s handling of the cuts. The lawyer did not wish to be identified for fear of jeopardizing future opportunities to be selected. “I do have a problem with these closed-door evaluations of attorneys,” the lawyer said. “I don’t think it exudes fairness, which is what you want to believe judges stand for.”

Under the Criminal Justice Act, judges appoint private lawyers to represent defendants who can’t afford a lawyer. They earn $90 per hour. They tend to handle less serious crimes — lower-level felonies and misdemeanors, for instance — than the public defender office.

The number of criminal cases filed in Superior Court has dropped since 2006 (the court changed how it counted cases that year, making it difficult to compare pre-2006 statistics.) In 2013, there were 20,936 new criminal cases — a 28 percent decline from the 29,203 criminal cases filed in 2006.

Fewer cases meant less work, a committee of Superior Court judges noted in a May report to Satterfield recommending reducing the size of the panel. The committee said it wanted to ensure there were enough cases for each attorney “to make efficient use of an attorney’s time.”

According to the court, 345 attorneys applied this year. An advisory group of lawyers reviewed applications and made recommendations to the committee of judges. The judges did their own vetting and sent recommendations to Satterfield, who signed off on May 23.

ADVANCE NOTICE

Mark Rollins of Rollins and Chan, who was chosen, said lawyers received advance notice cuts were coming, but their extent wasn’t clear. “There were people that were really good attorneys that were on that panel for years that weren’t selected,” Rollins said. “Nobody really knows why.”

Lawyers were invited to meet one-on-one with the presiding judge of the criminal division after the list came out if they had questions, Satterfield said.

Attorneys who were selected are still adjusting as well. Solo practitioner John Machado, who speaks Spanish, said that because several Spanish-speaking attorneys were cut, “we’ve had to do a lot of scrambling that we didn’t have to” in the past to meet the demand.

“I thank God that I made the panel. I think it’s a travesty that we lost some really good quality people,” he said. “You scratch your head and say, What is it that they were looking for? Why me? And why not them?” Satterfield said the judges did consider language ability, and he is confident the panel has sufficient lawyers to meet the demand.

Other complaints from lawyers who were cut included not getting a chance to defend their spot, and that the selection of lawyers with ties to judges — former clerks and the son of one of the judges on the selection committee, for example — added to the perception of unfairness. Most declined to be quoted because they still practice in the court.

Conducting in-person interviews with each lawyer would be “unreasonable,” Satterfield said. “We are about getting things done.” When the son of a judge on the committee came up for review — David Richter, son of Judge Robert Richter — the judge recused, Satterfield said. He denied that judges play favorites.

Not all attorneys are upset about the changes. One lawyer who was chosen for the panel said it was “short-sighted” to think the court could support the same panel size given the decline in cases. The lawyer asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. The court “let the panel get too big,” the lawyer said.