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In 1963′s Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a criminal defendant has a right to counsel, but left out the details about how local government had to respond. Most counties reacted by creating public defender’s offices, buying furniture and hiring some lawyers. But in the Bay Area, both San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties went their own way. San Mateo’s legal aid program is run by the county bar association and assigns cases to select defense attorneys who have applied to join the program. Santa Cruz County has a fixed-fee contract with a private firm for almost all cases. The program in San Mateo started in 1965, soon after Gideon, said John Digiacinto, director of the Private Defender Program. One of the advantages is that there is no need for a conflicts panel. If multiple defendants are involved in the same crime, the bar assigns each defendant a different attorney. The fees for the Private Defender Program are not lavish: a $150 flat fee for defending a misdemeanor, $165 for a domestic violence misdemeanor and $160 for writing and filing a memorandum of points and authorities. But Digiacinto says the fees are designed to reward work. “If a case goes to trial — the hardest work — then it is very important that a lawyer be properly compensated. It is a fundamental right of our clients,” said Digiacinto. “So you get paid $90 an hour while in trial and $225 a day more for research.” The fees last went up in 2001, when the San Mateo County Bar Association signed a new contract with the county. Digiacinto says it has been as long as 15 years between fee increases. Despite the low pay, Digiacinto says he turns down more applications to join the program than he accepts. He attributes the high interest in the work to its non-monetary benefits. “If you are a criminal attorney, court-appointed work is where the most interesting cases are,” said Digiacinto, “and rich people don’t get caught robbing a 7-Eleven.” Famously contrarian Santa Cruz County did not create a public defender’s office either. It hired local law firm Biggam, Christensen & Minsloff to represent the poor. “Santa Cruz was a cow county,” said Larry Biggam, whose title is public defender. “The smaller counties had no incentive or motive to create a new bureaucracy.” Biggam, Christiansen has had the contract for 28 years and is in the first year of a new four-year, $3.9 million contract. That sum covers “all that the county can throw at us,” said Biggam, with two exceptions. In death penalty cases, the firm is paid by the hour, and alternate counsel is hired for cases where the firm has a conflict of interest. Biggam said that during Silicon Valley’s salad days, retention was a big problem for his office, and he lost three lawyers to Santa Clara County. “What we have over the hill in Santa Clara is the General Motors of public defenders. We can’t go head to head on salary, so we have to compensate the kids in other ways.” Entry-level attorneys in his office make $55,000 a year, but receive “generous” CLE allowances and four weeks of paid vacation. Biggam said that recently two of the attorneys he lost to Santa Clara made their way back over Route 17. “They’re still one up on me. But now they got problems of their own over there.”

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