Metro

State again owes lawyers for poor

Deborah Sirotkin Butler worked in her home office in Arlington. Butler is a court-appointed lawyer who represents children and families in crisis.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Deborah Sirotkin Butler worked in her home office in Arlington. Butler is a court-appointed lawyer who represents children and families in crisis.

Joe Maggiacomo III has a daughter with severe dyslexia, 7-year-old twins, and a wife with ovarian cancer.

As his family’s sole income provider, the 54-year-old Quincy lawyer carefully saved $6,000 this summer in case the state once again failed to fully compensate court-appointed attorneys like him who represent poor clients in civil and criminal cases.

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His fears were realized — the state’s funding fell short once more.

And Maggiacomo’s savings were not enough. His daughter got into an expensive school that met her special needs but demanded a large deposit. So his wife postponed her chemotherapy appointments until September, and Maggiacomo has found himself skipping meals when he goes through the McDonald’s drive-through with his children.

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“You look at the menu and you think ‘I don’t need to eat,’ ” Maggiacomo said.

Lawyers said they are maxing out credit cards, borrowing money from relatives to cover child care expenses, and postponing vacations they can no longer afford because the checks from the state stopped coming in late spring.

Legislators reached a budget deal for 2018, which will allow court-appointed lawyers to be paid for work they took on after July 1, the beginning of the fiscal year. But the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which pays private attorneys to defend indigent clients, is still short $25.5 million to compensate the lawyers for part of the work they did in fiscal 2017.

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As the Legislature and Governor Charlie Baker grapple with a $400 million shortfall, it could be months before lawyers are paid what they are owed even as they take on new cases.

“CPCS has been working throughout this fiscal year with the administration and the legislature to secure sufficient funding for these constitutionally necessary services,” said Lisa Hewitt, general counsel for the agency, which has been deluged with angry e-mails from distraught lawyers demanding the agency lobby more publicly on their behalf.

“The Legislature has regularly addressed funding deficiencies when needed, and we fully expect that sufficient funding will be received to allow us to meet our outstanding obligations,” Hewitt said in a statement.

But lawyers are fed up with the constant delays, especially in a year when legislators voted to give themselves a hefty pay increase, said Daniel Solomon, a bar advocate in Suffolk County.

“These are dedicated people doing very difficult work and not paying them is like not paying teachers, cops, social workers, or firefighters,” Solomon said. “The public should be outraged.”

The governor’s office said it filed two supplemental budget bills, last July and in February, that would have allowed the lawyers to be paid, but the Legislature only authorized half of what was needed.

“The Baker-Polito administration has repeatedly filed to appropriately fund CPCS in its budget proposals,” said Dominick Ianno, chief of staff for the Executive Office for Administration and Finance. “We look forward to working with the Legislature to ensure lawyers are paid for their important work in a timely manner.”

State Senator William Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat and chairman of the Joint Judiciary Committee, said the problem is legislators chronically fund less than what CPCS requested for court-appointed lawyers in the hopes the final bill tally will be low.

“It’s extremely harmful and we shouldn’t do it,” Brownsberger said. “CPCS is up here doing all they can to advocate for the bar advocates, but ultimately we, the Legislature, are responsible for getting this done.”

A reserve fund has been set aside in the new budget to avoid the same delays next year, said Senator Karen E. Spilka, chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee.

“The CPCS bar advocates have every right to be frustrated with the lack of consistent funding for their very important work,” she said in a statement. “The [fiscal year 2018] budget conference committee created a dedicated reserve for funding so that these attorneys will be paid regularly for their crucial work moving forward.”

As the state public defender agency, CPCS has a cluster of full-time staff attorneys, but it relies heavily on roughly 3,000 private lawyers who agree to represent poor clients for fees that are generally less than what they would charge for private clients. They are paid $53 an hour for work in the district court, $60 an hour for felonies in superior court, and $100 for homicide cases. They may not bill any more than 1,650 hours a year.

Bar advocates handle about 75 to 80 percent of the state’s cases, but, as independent contractors, they are not entitled to health care benefits or paid vacation.

Court-appointed lawyers on the civil side, who are paid $55 an hour, handle a wide range of clients, such as children removed from their homes following accusations of neglect or abuse or parents separated from their children.

Deborah Sirotkin Butler said her clients have included a 5-month-old boy taken from his mother after she suffered an epileptic seizure in a courthouse hallway and a 13-year-old girl who needed a legal guardian after she witnessed her mother’s murder.

“The cases that we do can be life and death,” said Butler, who runs her practice out of a home office in Arlington. “This area of the law is almost like a vocation and you don’t get respected for that. I put up with it because I can see the pain in the face of a kid who wants to be back with their parent.”

Butler said the state owes her between $4,000 and $4,500.

“It’s not a small amount of money for a 69-year-old widow who has to pay for a mortgage in Arlington . . . and still has kids’ college loans to pay down,” she said.

Any work stoppage to protest the delays would be unthinkable for most lawyers, Solomon said.

“We stop and the people who are sitting in jail will sit in jail longer,” he said. “That would be the ultimate disservice.”

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @globemcramer.
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