My piece for Philadelphia City Paper on a proposal to change how poor family-court litigants and criminal defendants get their lawyers:
Since last year, Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration has quietly sought to revolutionize how court-appointed lawyers are provided to poor Philadelphians, through a new office of conflict counsel. But on Monday, Oct. 7, City Council will hold a hearing to air concerns about the plan.
And there are lots of them.
Since the city put out — and then extended — its request for proposals (RFP) for the contract, it received only one substantive bid. Two of Philly’s major nonprofit legal organizations declined to bid. The one comprehensive bid that the city did receive, and which it appears prepared to accept, came from two ex-prosecutors now in private practice. And even before their bid was accepted, one of the co-bidders withdrew in the wake of a scandal.
“This has been tainted by collusion, lack of transparency and the conflicts we see by creating a private law firm,” says Councilman Dennis O’Brien. O’Brien, who sponsored legislation calling for the hearing, argues that the very RFP was designed to bypass City Council input, and therefore public scrutiny.
Contracts for a year or less, like the one proposed for the conflict office, don’t require Council approval.
In an interview with City Paper earlier this year, Nutter’s chief of staff, Everett Gillison, himself a former public defender, described the new office as his brainchild. “I know that the public-service attorneys that do this work need additional resources, and that’s why I want to bring this different model to the conflict counsel,” he said, citing the lack of funding for support staff such as paralegals and investigators.
“My focus is on the person that needs the lawyer,” he said. “I want them to have the investment that’s necessary.”
The conflict office would come into play in cases the nonprofit Defender Association of Philadelphia doesn’t handle. That includes cases where the Defender has a conflict of interest, such as representing one of several co-defendants, and cases of parents whose kids are being removed by the Department of Human Services.
Up until now, finding qualified lawyers to take on these cases has been a challenge. That is “largely a function of the miserable rates we’ve been paying for years,” says Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Senior Judge Benjamin Lerner. Last year, the Philadelphia courts refused to continue appointing defense lawyers and paying them out of the court budget. That left the city paying the tab for the more than 20,000 attorney appointments made in Philadelphia every year.
That, in turn, set the stage for the city’s request for “creative and innovative” conflict-counsel proposals. And that led to the one substantive bid submitted: a $9.5 million plan for a new law firm run by Daniel-Paul Alva, founder of the four-member Alva & Associates law firm, and Scott DiClaudio, who also has his own firm. It is not entirely clear why the Alva-DiClaudio bid was the only substantive one submitted (one bid was just to handle the administrative process and another involved fewer than half a dozen attorneys). Nor is it clear how it was vetted. The administration declined to comment.
DiClaudio -— who sources say is known for his business acumen and passion, if not perfect propriety — resigned from the project after the Legal Intelligencer reported on two Facebook postings he had made. In one post, DiClaudio shared a page titled “American White History Month 2” with an avatar, “Never Apologize for Being White.” In another, he commented that he had spent almost 20 years “representing scum.” (He told the newspaper that the first post had been an accident, and the second was a joke.) DiClaudio also had a past disciplinary history for failing to file appellate court papers on time or at all, failing to provide a written fee agreement to a client and “for making false and misleading statements” to the state bar’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
In an interview, Alva said, “Scott has voluntarily resigned from the project.” DiClaudio confirmed that he had stepped back, but declined to comment further.
Lerner, who before becoming a judge was the chief public defender, says he is not certain, given the costs involved, that the math works on Alva’s proposal.
Catherine Carr, executive director of Community Legal Services, says her organization considered bidding to expand its representation of parents in family-court cases, but decided against it because “the money per case is very low.” Carr did not think CLS could do high-quality legal work within the budget constraints. Lerner and others said the Defender Association was asked by the city to run a separate conflict-counsel office, but decided against it. The Association did not respond to requests for comment.
But Lerner is also hopeful. He says he’s impressed because Alva’s proposal involves a “significant number of really excellent lawyers.” Alva says that no lawyers with less than 10 years of experience will be hired: “We really wanted to go blue chip.”
He argues that the new office will benefit clients, because its salaried attorneys would have no incentive except the client’s best interest. Currently, court-appointed lawyers get paid more if they take their cases to trial — even if it would be better to settle, Alva says. Further, he argues that salaried lawyers can handle more cases by being assigned to one courtroom throughout the day.
Court leaders and Alva’s team have already started to meet to discuss centralizing cases, according to both Lerner and Alva. But, critics say, before things move further many questions ought to be answered. For starters: Is the plan even an appropriate way to handle conflict cases? “I don’t understand the words ‘for profit’ in the same sentence as ‘indigent defense’,” says Marc Bookman, a former defender who’s now a leading advocate for sufficient pay for lawyers appointed in capital cases. Poor clients’ interests are served well by nonprofits, he says. But a for-profit firm has conflicting motivations: “Do you maintain your profit? Or do you properly represent your client, which often costs resources and money?”
O’Brien hopes the hearing, though late in the game, could highlight alternative conflict-counsel systems. He would prefer a system like the federal one, in which an independent panel certifies that defense lawyers have sufficient expertise. He’d also like to see court-appointed counsel get a checkup every three years.
Councilman Bill Greenlee, who joined O’Brien in calling for a hearing, says, “We don’t want to have fights with the administration all the time.” But, he adds, despite Nutter’s stance that “transparency is the best policy,” Council still does not have the answers it needs.