A month after Congress passed a spending bill that spared federal public defenders from devastating budget cuts, the Executive Committee of the U.S. Judicial Conference, which oversees the program, announced that it was restoring the hourly rates for court-appointed indigent defense counsel, also known as panel attorneys. Last August, in a move designed to prevent steeper cuts to federal public defenders, the Executive Committee had reduced the panel attorneys’ hourly rates by $15.
While necessary to prevent further layoffs and furloughs in federal public defender offices at the end of 2013, many, including The Constitution Project, were concerned that the unprecedented, “emergency” rate cuts would become permanent. After years working to obtain competitive rates for panel attorneys, a permanent reduction would have made it far more difficult to attract and retain qualified and competent counsel in those situations when a federal public defender was unable to represent an indigent defendant. For many panel attorneys, who are sole practitioners or work in firms with only a handful of other attorneys, a permanent rate cut would have made it difficult or impossible to continue providing representation for indigent clients.
On February 10, the Executive Committee adopted the final financial plans for fiscal year 2014, based on the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014, which provides full-year funding for the Defender Services Account—which funds both the federal public defenders and panel attorneys—at $1.044 billion. The plan restores panel attorney rates beginning on March 1, 2014, and provides sufficient funding to avoid deferral of panel payments (at the end of fiscal year 2013, panel payments were deferred for over two weeks). The Executive Committee’s plan also provides budgets for federal public defenders across the country.