Poor Tennesseans who find themselves in the justice system could be about to get some more legal help, as the state Supreme Court has approved a plan meant to improve Tennessee's system of indigent representation.
But, justices say, the proposal is going to require some help from the governor and state lawmakers.
Both the U.S. and the Tennessee constitutions provide a right to legal counsel. To paraphrase the famed Miranda warning given to criminal suspects, those who can't afford a lawyer will be given one.
But there are so many cases involving indigent clients, the public defenders offices can't handle them all, and for years, the state's courts have relied on a back-up system of private attorneys, willing to take cases at low rates. That's raised questions about the quality of indigent defense and whether it's more expensive than it should be.
So, the Tennessee Supreme Court appointed a task force that included retired Justice William Koch, legal scholars, judges, state lawmakers and other lawyers to study ways to improve indigent representation. It reported back in April.
Now, the Tennessee Supreme Court is largely endorsing the task force's recommendations. Those include expanding the ranks of public defenders, adding a division dedicating to handling appeals and putting greater scrutiny on decisions to go outside the public defender system.
Justices believe that'll reduce the number of indigent cases that get handed off to private lawyers. And when cases are given to outside attorneys, they'll be paid more. The Supreme Court suggests to raise their rate to $65 an hour. That's less than the $75 to $125 per hour the task force had asked for, but it would still be the first such boost in two decades.
All of these changes are contingent on Governor Bill Haslam and the state legislature budgeting more money for indigent defense next year. The Tennessee Supreme Court says it will support such legislation.