Iowa faces shortage of court-appointed attorneys

Iowa faces shortage of court-appointed attorneys

Several Mondays each year, Michael Jacobsma heads to the Sioux County Courthouse for court hearings involving criminal defendants he represents.

There’s a good chance the Orange City attorney will have hearings scheduled in O’Brien County at the same time. Perhaps Lyon and Osceola counties, too. Or maybe Plymouth, Clay or Woodbury counties — or all of them.

Known as court service days, when judges across Northwest Iowa hear motions, conduct pretrial conferences and take up other matters in criminal cases, Mondays routinely present Jacobsma and other private attorneys, who, like him, have agreed to accept judges’ appointments to represent defendants who can’t afford a lawyer, with a dilemma. How to make it from one county to another for all those hearings?

In many cases, they don’t.

“I often have to end up getting a number of them continued,” Jacobsma said.

Jacobsma, who said he always had an interest in criminal defense law, has taken court appointments since beginning his legal practice in 1997. Because of a dwindling number of lawyers willing to do so, Jacobsma has seen his caseload climb to more than 100 at a time, and that doesn’t include his private clients, which make up about half of his practice.

Drags out cases 

It’s a trend seen across Iowa. For a number of reasons, chief among them low pay, fewer lawyers are agreeing to take court appointments to represent indigent defendants.

That shortage drags out cases as judges must grant continuances to accommodate the schedules of overburdened lawyers juggling dozens of cases. As hearings are spaced out in the court schedule so lawyers can travel from one county to another, it leaves less time for judges to hear other matters such as divorces or child welfare cases, delaying those as well.

As of January, of the 4,608 Iowa lawyers in full-time private practice, 590 — just under 13% — were on the State Public Defender’s contract list to accept court appointments. The low number of contract attorneys has created a situation that’s “threatening to bring criminal proceedings to a screeching halt,” Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen said in January during her annual Condition of the Judiciary address to the Legislature.

Legislators listened, passing a $5 per hour increase in contract attorney rates and adding $35 per hour to pay for out-of-county travel time.

You can read the full article at the Sioux City Journal.