Alabama Senate approves bill raising pay for indigent client attorneys

Amendment to reimburse doctors was also added on the floor

State Sen. Smitherman discusses district maps during a special session of the Alabama Legislature on July 21 in Montgomery, Ala. Smitherman is sponsoring a bill that was raise pay for court-appointed defense attorneys. (Alabama Reflector Photo by Stew Milne)
State Sen. Smitherman discusses district maps during a special session of the Alabama Legislature on July 21 in Montgomery, Ala. Smitherman is sponsoring a bill that was raise pay for court-appointed defense attorneys. (Alabama Reflector Photo by Stew Milne)


The Alabama Senate approved a bill that could provide more money for attorneys representing indigent clients.

SB 83, sponsored by Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, would, among other measures, alter the payment for attorneys representing indigent clients by replacing a flat $70 an hour reimbursement with a new schedule of rates and caps, based on the type of crime a client is charged with and whether it is a juvenile case.

"This bill moves to raise the amount that indigent defense attorneys are paid," Smitherman said.

Under the legislation, approved Thursday, an attorney representing an indigent client charged with a Class B felony – punishable by up to 20 years in prison – would be paid $90 per hour, with a total cap of $4,500.

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The bill also requires two lawyers on the voluntary indigent defense advisory board in a judicial circuit to be two attorneys who regularly practice in that circuit. The bill also says that if the presiding judge has a conflict of interest, they will designate another judge from the judiciary to serve on the board.

The legislation also gives the director of the Indigent Defense Review Panel, which hears appeals based on decisions from the director, the power to ask the panel to review and provide written recommendations on any statements, fee declarations, cumulative timesheets or bills. The board would be required to allow the defense attorney to provide their argument for a fee voucher.

Smitherman's bill also requires all attorneys handling court-appointed representation of indigent clients to meet to review billing standards and practices adopted by the Office of Indigent Services at the direction of the panel.

The bill received two amendments on the floor that were approved by the body.

Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, added an amendment that would change the cap for Class A felonies from $7,500 to $6,500. The current cap in the law is $4,000.

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Givhan said that his amendment was modest and it would be more aggressive if he was trying to get everything he wanted.

"But I know our friends in the House are going to want to have some say-so about it," he said.

Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, added an amendment that would require the state to provide reimbursement for indigent health care services in the state at the rate Medicare would reimburse for a given service.

Melson, an anesthesiologist by training, said in a phone interview Thursday that there is no current reimbursement for health care providers, especially when it's after hours. He said doctors will provide health care because they worry about patients but added the lack of pay can be frustrating.

"They're going to do it either way, but it's a way to help compensate," he said.

Melson said he thinks the House of Representatives will remove his amendment because legal representation is a constitutional right and the fiscal note will go up to add health care, which is not. Melson said he would argue health care is a privilege.

"If you think about it, thinking that's a large fiscal note, that means there's a lot of doctors giving away health care at a minimal rate because Medicare, Medicaid do not reimburse at the same rate as commercial carriers by any means," he said. "That's why a lot of people don't see them anymore."

Read more at AlabamaReflector.com.


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