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Iowa lawyers rack up the miles, leaving rural cities to pay at the pump

3/26/2013

DES MOINES — Iowa spent more than half-million taxpayer dollars last fiscal year to pay mileage for out-of-town attorneys who represent the poor, even though local attorneys were available and willing to do the work, state figures show.

The state spent some $30.5 million last fiscal year to hire contract attorneys for more than 61,000 cases in which they represented defendants who couldn’t afford their own lawyer. Of that, nearly $750,000 went to mileage, most of which went to attorneys who lived outside the county that hired them, according to officials within the Iowa Public Defender’s office.

Top spenders in the state include Black Hawk County, where officials spent $69,000 in mileage. Clinton and Marion counties paid $55,000 and $33,000, respectively.

RACKING UP THE MILES: Iowa lawmakers want counties to use their own attorneys to cut down on mileage costs, which reached nearly $750,000.

RACKING UP THE MILES: Iowa lawmakers want counties to use their own attorneys to cut down on mileage costs, which reached nearly $750,000.

The Iowa House recently passed House File 210, which encourages counties to look locally to find attorneys before seeking those living further away. The law, however, lacks teeth when it comes to enforcement, with at least one member of the Iowa Public Defender’s office, Kurt Swaim, saying it was written to “be agreeable to as many people as possible.”

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The legislation will also make it easier for defendants to connect with their attorneys and reduce court costs, said Rep. Mary Wolfe, a Clinton Democrat.

“Judges don’t like to be told that you have to appoint certain attorneys,” Wolfe said. “Judges like to feel they have discretion.”

Called the Indigent Defense Fund, judges can request an outside attorney to represent low-income defendants if there is, for example, a conflict of interest. Counties with high case volumes will also farm out the work, said Sam Langholz, Iowa public defender. They choose from a pool of “contract” attorneys. Those attorneys typically are better poised to be named as judges when vacancies pop up, according to state documents.

There are no restrictions that require judges to consider proximity when contracting with a lawyer.

Judges brought the issue to light recently, saying they wanted the authority to take location into account when contracting with attorneys, say Wolfe and Swaim. While the legislation addresses that issue, it also will help Iowa’s rural areas attract and retain lawyers, she said. If the measure passes, Wolfe believes some attorneys will migrate to rural areas because of the preference given to local attorneys.

Mike Wolf, Clinton county attorney, said his county relies heavily on attorneys who live outside the county, because of a shortage in Clinton. Many work in the Quad-Cities, the second largest metro area in Iowa, and they are ready and willing to take cases in Clinton County, he said.

Local attorneys, however, tend to be more accessible to defendants and are more readily available to help defendants. They have faster access to bond or bail review, which helps with controlling jail populations, officials said.

Although the legislation doesn’t outline enforcement measures and consequences, some state officials believe judges will abide by the law.

“Our experience is that the judges follow the code,” Swaim said.

Criticism of the measure has focused mainly on a provision that requires people who are represented to reimburse the court for lawyer expenses, should their cases be dismissed. Defendants found guilty or innocent already have to pay those costs, according to Iowa law. Their final bill is based on their income or ability to repay the money, Langholz said.

On average, the state recoups about 10 percent of the money it spends, according to Langholz’s office.

“It’s unfair,” said State Rep. Bruce Hunter, a Des Moines Democrat who voted against the measure.

Tushar Rae graduated from Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., in 2012, with a bachelor’s degree in teaching history. He has previously written for The Chronicle of Higher Education, interned at the Quad-City Times and served as editor-in-chief of the Augustana Observer. He can be reached at tusharrae@gmail.com.

Contact Sheena Dooley at dooley@iowawatchdog.org. Sheena Dooley is the Iowa bureau chief for Watchdog.org, where this story first appeared.

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