June 5, 2019 – The Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee recently approved an increase in the hourly rate paid to private bar attorneys who take appointments from the state public defender’s office, from $40 per hour to $70, as well as a 2% annual increase in pay for assistant district attorneys and assistant state public defenders.
The measures, part of the proposed biennial state budget for 2019-21, are not a done deal. But approval from the bipartisan Joint Finance Committee was a major win as lawmakers continue their work on the budget that will be presented to the governor.
The State Bar of Wisconsin has long supported pay increases for Wisconsin’s assistant public defenders (SPDs) and assistant district attorneys (ADAs). Under the proposed budget, funding supports a 2% pay increase in 2020, and another 2% increase in 2021.
The increases are less than previously granted in past budgets when ADA and SPD attorneys received a full salary step increase.
Additionally, the proposed budget approved by the Joint Finance Committee would increase the compensation paid to private bar attorneys who take overflow and conflict cases from the state public defender’s (SPD) office. Wisconsin’s current rate of $40 per hour ($25 per hour for travel) is the lowest in the country for public defender systems.
The $40 hourly rate has changed little since 1978, when the hourly compensation rate was set at $35 per hour. Over the decades, the State Bar has repeatedly supported an increase. The pay rate was actually reduced from $50 per hour to $40 in 1995.
Last year, a group petitioned the Wisconsin Supreme Court to increase the $40 pay rate to address a “constitutional crisis.” The petitioners said private bar attorneys cannot afford to take cases at that low rate, which can leave criminal defendants in the lurch despite the constitutional guarantee of legal representation for indigent defendants.
The supreme court recognized that a crisis was afoot, but declined to increase the rate under its inherent authority over the state court system. Instead, the supreme court urged the legislature “to ensure adequate funding for the [state public defender] that is urgently needed to forestall what is clearly, an emerging constitutional crisis.”
Although the supreme court deferred to the legislature to increase the SPD rate paid to private bar attorneys, the court did increase the hourly rate, from $70 to $100, for attorneys who take court-appointed cases, that is, cases appointed by a judge.
The proposed budget as approved to date by the Joint Finance Committee also includes $3.6 million over the 2019-21 biennium to defray the counties’ costs with respect to the increase as well as other court system costs borne by the counties.
Legislative leaders have indicated a desire to complete action by the end of the state’s fiscal year (July 1st), but disagreements with Governor Evers on a number policy items could delay or stretch the budget process into the late summer or fall.