Members of the New York State Bar Association met with state lawmakers this week to lobby against a proposed increase to the two-year attorney registration fee, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo pitched last month as an additional funding source for indigent legal services.
Attorneys with the State Bar were also at the capitol to push other reforms, said president Michael Miller, from changes to the state’s laws on criminal discovery to simpler forms designating power of attorney. Miller is a trust and estates attorney from Manhattan.
The two latter issues were already among the priorities of the State Bar, but the proposed registration fee hike came out of left field when Cuomo unveiled his executive budget proposal last month. The plan would increase the biennial fee from $375 to $425, with the extra $50 going directly to fund indigent legal services, or constitutionally mandated legal counsel for low-income defendants.
“There is no group on the planet this is more committed to indigent defense,” Miller said. “But to tax lawyers, to have a discriminatory tax that’s just lawyers, it’s outrageous because this is a state constitutional obligation.”
A spokesman for Cuomo defended the proposal in a statement Wednesday afternoon.
“Indigent people faced with criminal charges and the potential deprivation of liberty have a right to legal services, and the State is proud to take steps to ensure that legal support and services can be provided,” said Jason Conwall, a Cuomo spokesman.
The Office of Court Administration already requested $25 million from Cuomo and the Legislature for the Indigent Legal Services Fund in their budget this year. The proposed fee increase would generate as much as $7 million in additional revenue annually for that fund, according to the State Bar, but Miller said that would still not be enough to fully fund indigent legal services statewide.
More revenue could have been proposed by increasing fees across the board on licensing and registration for several trades, Miller argued, which he said would have given them less grounds to protest the hike.
“To single out lawyers simply because this is a justice issue—it’s unjust, it’s not right,” Miller said.
It’s been widely acknowledged that more funding could be used to pay for indigent legal services in New York, namely through hiring more attorneys to alleviate the heavy caseloads of current public defenders. If more resources are not gleaned from higher fees on attorneys, that money would have to come from somewhere else if Cuomo and the Legislature want to boost those services.
“Where are they going to find it? That’s not my job,” Miller said. “My job is to advocate for them to do what they’re supposed to do. Under the constitution, indigent defendants are entitled to counsel provided by the state.”
Miller said about 3,800 attorneys with the State Bar have already sent letters to state lawmakers over the proposed increase, and some have already received responses acknowledging their concerns.
“Our members have been forwarding responses they’ve gotten from various legislators and so far, consistently, they’ve said they hear what we’re saying,” Miller said. “A lot of the legislators are attorneys, so they understand the argument. It’s about fundamental fairness.”
Lawmakers have about seven weeks to negotiate the fee increase out of the state budget if they choose to do so. The spending plan is due at the end of March.
Two other top issues they spoke to lawmakers about this week could be done outside the budget, and it’s likely that at least one of them will pass sooner rather than later.
Criminal discovery reform could be taken up by the Legislature as early as next week. A bill on the table would require prosecutors to exchange evidence they intend to use at trial as soon as 15 days after an arraignment. The bill has support from Democrats, who hold the majority in both houses of the Legislature.
Miller said the State Bar has long supported discovery reform, and that they are “very supportive” of the bill, which is sponsored by State Sen. Jamaal Bailey, D-Bronx, and Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, D-Brooklyn.
“New York is close to the bottom of the list in the entire country,” Miller said of the state’s laws on discovery. “I work on the civil side, so I really don’t have a horse in the race, it’s just about justice. In my universe you have full discovery. I know what the other side has and they know what I have.”
Not all attorneys in New York feel the same. The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York has, in recent days, said the deadlines set in the bill wouldn’t give them enough time to prepare discovery for the defense. They have also warned that exposing the identities of witnesses and victims that early in a case could lead to witness intimidation and harm future cases where people would be unwilling to testify out of fear of retaliation.
The State Bar also renewed its long-sought push to reform the state’s power of attorney form, which it has previously said should be simplified to better help individuals address their needs without jumping through hoops.
“It is unquestionably the most complex power of attorney form in the nation,” Miller said. “It requires initials in a whole bunch of places, sometimes multiple signatures, and if it’s not done exactly right, the financial institutions will not accept it.”
Legislation to do so has not yet been introduced this year. The legislative session is scheduled to end June 19.