The Birmingham News
Better representation for poor sought
News staff writer
Alabama's largest federal court district is strengthening the legal representation for indigent defendants by court-appointed attorneys.
In doing so, the Northern District of Alabama recently named Birmingham lawyer John A. Lentine as its
resource counsel to serve as a liaison between the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts and the local panel of lawyers available to represent indigent defendants.
Lentine, among other things, will work to provide training to lawyers and direct lawyers to other legal resources when needed.
"The key is to make sure the lawyers are well-informed and well-trained," said Lentine, who is past president
of the Greater Birmingham Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and the Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyers
Association. "We want to give people who are indigent the best possible representation. I think it's really going to improve the quality of representation in the district."
Federal officials said the resource counsel is just one of the steps being taken to make sure the more than 100 court-appointed lawyers are well-informed on how to handle cases. This is also a move to eventually bring the district in line with the way other districts across the country provide defense services to eligible federal criminal defendants.
About 75 to 80 percent of the defendants in the Northern District, which includes 31 counties, have court-appointed attorneys, said T. Michael Putnam, the district's chief magistrate. Currently, magistrates
appoint lawyers based on a list of lawyers known as the Criminal Justice Act panel. There are no minimum
requirements to be on the list other than to be a licensed lawyer in good standing with the bar and sworn in as a member of the Northern District by taking an oath.
Putnam said a committee is rewriting the plan that covers lawyer appointments. He said the committee,
which includes himself, Lentine, judges and lawyers, is establishing some minimum qualifications and
mentoring programs, which will allow a less experienced lawyer to work with more seasoned lawyers
to gain experience.
Putnam said the qualifications being considered are not so much for lawyers getting on the panel, but for
taking certain cases.
"We want lawyers to volunteer," Putnam said. "At the same time, we want to make sure that if they have a
complex case, they have the necessary experience and training to handle a complex case. On the other hand,
if they get a fairly simple case that's a good place to start to get used to working on the panel."
U.W. Clemon, the district's chief judge, said it is imperative to make sure the appointed lawyers comprehend the complex federal sentencing guidelines passed by Congress in 1987. Less-experienced lawyers
often do not challenge the presentence report that aids judges in calculating sentences, Clemon said.
While the U.S. attorneys are well-versed in the guidelines, Clemon said, appointed lawyers often have
limited exposure in comparison.
"Criminal law in the federal arena has become increasingly complex," Clemon said. "It's very difficult for a lawyer who doesn't regularly practice federal criminal defense to properly defend a client."
Putnam said the Northern District is one of the few districts that rely entirely on bar members and appoint attorneys from the panel.
Of the 94 districts that comprise the nation's federal court system, at least 83 have some type of federal
defender organization, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Court's defender services division.
The districts have either a government-run public defender's office or a nonprofit community defender,
which is similar.
Out of Alabama's three districts, the Middle, based in Montgomery, and the Southern, which includes Mobile,
have community resource defender organizations. The Northern District, which is bigger than the other two
combined, has neither.