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The federal court is handing New Jersey criminal lawyers their annual opportunity to apply for $90-an-hour assignments representing poor defendants. But getting those jobs is going to be as hard as ever for newcomers. Lawyers and court administrators familiar with the process of selecting attorneys under the Criminal Justice Act say they expect applications from most of the 33 panelists whose terms expire March 11. Because the purpose of the program is to provide clients with the best and most experienced lawyers � not to dole out goodies to lawyers � the veterans are likely to have the inside track. “There are always attorneys who call and ask how they can get on the panels,” says Jerome Ballarotto, a CJA lawyer who is the liaison between the practitioners on the list and the court system. And there are always openings, he says. At the same time, “the court is not begging people to serve,” says Ballarotto, of counsel to Lawrenceville’s Szaferman, Lakind, Blumstein, Blader, Lehmann & Goldshore. William Holland, the judiciary executive who administers the program, says the court typically receives two applications for each position. The federal court in New Jersey began keeping lists of CJA lawyers in 1971, but each judge had personal favorites, and complaints of cronyism led to a 1997 overhaul aimed at making merit and experience the criteria for selection. Judges still have the power to pick lawyers out of turn for cases in which particular expertise is necessary, but that’s rare and the vast majority of selections are made by lock-step rotation. Each panelist gets about three cases a year, mostly for clients in multidefendant matters � people the federal public defender can’t represent for conflict-of-interest reasons. Each year, when the three-year terms of one-third of the 100 panelists expire, applications are sought and the committee of judges and practitioners swings into action. Over time, the pay has gone up. From $40 per hour for work out of court and $60 for courtroom time, it rose to $75 per hour across the board in 1990 and to $90 last year, after lobbying in Washington by New Jersey judges. Even that is thin gravy for some experienced New Jersey practitioners whose meat and potatoes are white-collar criminal defense cases. Nevertheless, a list of the panelists on file with the court shows that some CJA lawyers have a long record of cases, the kind that make the front pages of daily newspapers. Among these lawyers are Michael Gilberti, Cathy Fleming, Robert Fettweis, John Whipple, Peter Willis, Cathy Waldor, Michael Pedicini and Marianne Espinosa-Murphy, a former state Superior Court Judge. Ballarotto and Lawrence Lustberg, a selection committee member who is a partner at Newark’s Gibbons, Del Deo, Dolan, Griffinger & Vecchione, say many CJA lawyers stay on the list because they feel committed to the court and enjoy the combat. Lustberg says that although there is an effort to bring new people into the program it’s not always possible, given the strict guidelines requiring expertise and the serious effort to make merit the sole criteria. “There is some turnover every year, mostly through attrition,” says Federal Public Defender Richard Coughlin, an important member of the selection committee because he and his assistants work with CJA attorneys as co-counsel in multidefendant cases. Among those opting out this year is Blair Zwillman, who practiced in a small firm in Maplewood for years and is now counsel in Woodbridge’s Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer. CJA work is “an excellent way to hone skills,” but his workload is too large right now, he says. The deadline for applications is Jan. 15 and further details are on the judiciary’s Web site pacer.njd.uscourts.gov.

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