Tennessee Supreme Court justices, state judges want increased pay for court-appointed attorneys

Staff File Photo / A person exits the Courts Building in Chattanooga. The justices of the Tennessee Supreme Court and judges around the state are lobbying for a 60% pay increase for court-appointed attorneys.
Staff File Photo / A person exits the Courts Building in Chattanooga. The justices of the Tennessee Supreme Court and judges around the state are lobbying for a 60% pay increase for court-appointed attorneys.

Tennessee judges want to increase court-appointed attorney pay by 60% as the number of attorneys willing to provide legal counsel to those who cannot afford it dwindles.

The committees that act for all state and General Sessions judges recently came forward in support of raising the hourly compensation for appointed attorneys from $50 to $80 per hour, the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts announced in two separate statements Feb. 5 and Jan. 19. The juvenile and family court judges committee also voiced its support late last year.

"Find me a plumber that will come in and work on your house for $50 an hour, and I doubt you can," Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Robert D. Philyaw said over the phone.

All people accused of a crime, all children and those with mental illness are guaranteed access to an attorney under the Tennessee Constitution and the United States Constitution. Parents are guaranteed representation in dependency and neglect cases, too, Philyaw said.

Many criminal defendants and civil litigants can be represented by the public defender's office, but sometimes conflicts of interest arise. A private attorney must be appointed to a case when they do.

(READ MORE: Red Bank man allegedly threatened mass shooting of law enforcement at Courts Building)

In Hamilton County, there are fewer attorneys willing to take cases because they cannot afford to lose money, Philyaw said; the gross pay rate is $50 per hour, including overhead costs, the judge said. Hamilton County courts have the lowest number of willing and available attorneys Philyaw has seen during his 10 years on the bench.

The shrinking pool of court-appointed attorneys affects juvenile court greatly, he said. There can be cases with multiple children and multiple parents, and each individual is entitled to an attorney. Without private attorneys, children may be delayed in finding a permanent home or being removed from dangerous situations.

It can also affect criminal cases. For example, former Chattanooga Police Officer Lawrence Goodine is charged with murder and his case is making its way through the court system. The Hamilton County Public Defender's Office needed to recuse itself from the case.

Last week, Goodine was scheduled to have a preliminary hearing, with the victim's family and witnesses in attendance. Goodine's hearing was ultimately delayed until March because he had no legal representation.

Cases may be delayed, overturned or returned to the trial court on appeal, but they do not go away, Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Holly Kirby said in a statement.

"Victims are left waiting without justice and are retraumatized by additional proceedings," Kirby said. "Children linger in foster care. Witnesses move and misremember, evidence deteriorates."

(READ MORE: Report: Marion County pastor stole thousands from disabled man)

Tennessee's court-appointed attorneys have gone about 26 years without a raise, the statement said, adding the state ranks last in terms of compensation rates.

"This request is not only reasonable, it's really inadequate," Philyaw said. "It is a stopgap measure to try and plug some of the holes."

The Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts is making a request to increase the attorney hourly rate to $80 in its proposed budget this year, the statement said. The state Supreme Court sets the rate, but the rates cannot be raised unless the program budget increases. The budget is set by the General Assembly.

About 11 cents of every state taxpayer dollar goes towards law, safety and correction, according to the 2024 Tennessee budget. Criminal justice is the third-most funded sector following education and health and social services.

Contact Sofia Saric at ssaric@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.

Upcoming Events