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U.S. courts grapple with budget cuts for defense lawyers

By Nate Raymond and Emily Flitter

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Faced with steep budget cuts, the U.S. federal court system on Monday slashed $15 an hour from the fees it pays private lawyers to represent poor criminal defendants.

The Judicial Conference of the United States said it would cut rates for non-capital cases to $110 an hour from $125. For death penalty cases, the rate drops to $163 an hour from $178.

Judge William Traxler of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a letter announcing the cuts that the action and other budget reductions were "necessary to avoid permanent damage to the federal defender program."

U.S. federal courts have lost $345.6 million from this year's budget as a result of across-the-board cuts called the sequester.

The cuts prompted a group of 87 judges to send a letter last week to Vice President Joe Biden and House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner detailing the impact of the sequester.

The biggest impact was a nearly $52 million hit to court-appointed lawyers for criminal defendants who can't afford them, a service that is required under the U.S. Constitution, the letter said.

Since October 2012, federal defenders offices have reduced their staffing by 6 percent, or 160 people, according to the letter. Remaining employees have been furloughed on average 15 days each over the last half of the fiscal year, it said.

In their place, the courts have been increasingly turning to the private lawyers who cost 20 percent more than salaried federal defenders, before taking into account the cuts announced on Monday.

The sequester is "not saving money, it's costing money," said David Patton, the executive director for the Federal Defenders of New York, which staffs cases in courts covering Manhattan and Brooklyn.

But the fee cuts and related cost-saving measures will provide for $49.8 million in estimated savings from September 2013 through September 2014, courts officials say.

The cuts to public defender spending have been cited in some high-profile cases. In one, the federal defender's office in New York sought to delay the terrorism trial of Suleiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, because of staff cutbacks.

U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, who is presiding over the case, said at a hearing in April it was "extremely troublesome to contemplate a case of this nature to be delayed because of sequestration."

Robert Anello, the president of a lawyer group called the Federal Bar Council, expressed concern that the steps to deal with the sequester could threaten defendant's rights to a lawyer.

"It's just moving around crumbs of an ever shrinking pie," he said. "There's only so much moving you can do without dismantling the whole system."

The $15 hourly cut could result in some lawyers who were already accepting reduced rates to decline appointments, said Jeffrey "Chip" Frensley, a Tennessee lawyer who acts as the chief representative to the courts for private attorneys.

"The fee cut is just really an extremely disappointing situation," he said.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond and Emily Flitter; Editing by Philip Barbara)

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