Wednesday, August 11, 2010

EDITORIAL >>Hire a good lawyer

Everyone stands equal before the law, as we all know, but if you can hire an expensive attorney you stand a little taller.

We never had a problem with the principle of Gideon v. Wainwright, the U. S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision establishing that poor people who face serious criminal charges have the right to a lawyer paid for by the state. It is the implementation that sometimes baffles us. Two recent and quite different cases in Arkansas were especially nettlesome. They will cost the taxpayers heavily and the cause of justice was not advanced.

Abdulhakim Mujahid Mu-hammad was accused of murdering a Conway man and wounding a Jacksonville man in an attack at an Army recruiting office last year. Muhammad’s family hired a crack criminal lawyer at Memphis to defend him, and early this year the lawyer wanted to be paid for his work by the state Public Defender Com-mission, which supplies lawyers for defendants who can’t afford a lawyer. But, of course, he wants to be paid much more than the state public defenders would.

The Supreme Court said in May that the law’s the law and the Public Defender Commission will have to do it, even though it may come close to bankrupting the agency. Muhammad wants to fire his lawyer.

Now comes the case of County Judge David Bisbee in the solidly Republican bailiwick of Benton County. Bisbee, a former Republican state senator (and quite a good one, in our judgment), was charged with three misdemeanors for trying to feather his own nest in the county office. He rejected a low bid for a county building and hired his own construction company to do the work. Bisbee hired Asa Hutchinson, the former congressman and unsuccessful Republican candidate for the U. S. Senate, attorney general and governor (2006), to represent him. It was a good move. Hutchinson came up with a novel and successful defense. He produced the revelation in court that Judge Bisbee was illiterate — he truly never learned to read or write — so that he could claim ignorance of the ethics law that he had flouted. Apparently, Bisbee never read a one of those thousands of bills on which he voted while he was in the state Senate and the leader of the Republican caucus. The Republican jury acquitted him.

Bisbee asked the court to order taxpayers to pay Hutchinson’s fees, which came to $73,044.85. The Public Defender Commission pays private lawyers $90 to $110 an hour to defend people who get the death penalty, but Bisbee’s lawyer wanted $400 an hour to defend misdemeanor charges. Normally, Hutchinson said, he charges $775 an hour, but he gave his friend Bisbee a special rate.

The special judge who heard the case ruled that since Judge Bisbee had been acquitted of the charges, he was entitled to have the taxpayers pay his legal bills. But the judge, John Cole, did whittle them down to $50,145. Bisbee said he was happy that the taxpayers will save him $50,000 and that he would negotiate with Asa on the rest.
Ignorance is not only bliss; with a good lawyer it can be remunerative.
Ernie Dumas writes editorials for The Leader.