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Morrissey unveils appointed attorneys plan

The incoming chief judge of Maryland District Court on Thursday renewed his call for the state’s lawyers to represent indigent arrestees at initial bail hearings either for free or at a compensation rate of $50 per hour — even though the state’s top court has yet to give final approval to rules implementing the representation program.

Judge John P. Morrissey, who takes over as chief on June 1, said he expects the Appointed Attorneys Program to begin July 1, the first day of fiscal 2015. On that date, $10 million of the Maryland Judiciary’s budget will become available for payment to attorneys who answer Morrissey’s call to serve at the more than 153,000 initial hearings statewide that will require assigned counsel in the next year, he said.

“I think it [the program] is going to be attractive to attorneys all the way across the board,” Morrissey said.

Young attorneys can get hands-on criminal-law experience they otherwise might have to wait years to get, while older attorneys will be reminded of why they joined the profession, he said.

“This is all for the benefit of indigent defendants,” added Morrissey, who will succeed retiring Chief Judge Ben C. Clyburn. “We are protecting the rights of the least able to protect themselves. Every attorney has an obligation to try and help.”

Morrissey’s call precedes the Court of Appeals’ scheduled open hearing and vote Tuesday on proposed rules calling on administrative District Court judges to appoint attorneys to represent arrestees at the initial hearings before District Court commissioners.

Morrissey said he plans to attend Tuesday’s session in Annapolis and urge the high court to adopt and implement the proposed rules.

“I don’t know what the Court of Appeals is going to do, but I think the proposed rules are very well drafted,” he added.

The proposed rules largely supplement a rule the Court of Appeals approved Nov. 6, but has held in abeyance and which needs updating after the General Assembly last month earmarked $10 million from the Judiciary’s budget for the appointment of counsel.

The rules were proposed in response to the Court of Appeals’ landmark Sept. 25 decision that found a state constitutional right to counsel at the initial bail determination. The high court has withheld implementation of DeWolfe v. Richmond pending its adoption of a final rule.

Morrissey first urged attorneys to sign up for appointment at a May 9 meeting of the Judiciary’s Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, which drafted the proposal and submitted it to the high court.

The Appointed Attorneys Program is available for Maryland-licensed lawyers in good standing and not subject to any pending disciplinary proceedings, the Judiciary stated. The attorneys must comply with the program’s training requirements, certify that they have reviewed the rules on initial appearances and complete an application form under oath, the Judiciary added.

The attorney must also agree to release the District Court, its judges, commissioners, employees and agents from any liability arising from his or her participation in the program.

The application is available here.

Morrissey said the live training program lasts two hours. A training video is also in production, he added.

Lawyers will be permitted to work in multiple jurisdictions, Morrissey said, adding that staffing needs vary statewide and seasonally.

Attorneys in Baltimore and populous counties will be needed for day, evening and overnight shifts. By contrast, attorneys in small counties may only be needed for several hours each day, he said.

“Ocean City over the summer is going to take much more staffing than what’s going to happen in January,” he added.

In addition to $50 per hour, attorneys will be compensated for their mileage and tolls. Lawyers can also choose to volunteer their time, the Judiciary said.

Morrissey said he would certainly sign up for the program if he were still a member of the bar, rather than of the bench.

“If I can do an eight-hour shift for $400, it can help with a car payment,” said Morrissey, a District Court judge in Prince George’s County.

But Morrissey added he would waive compensation and represent indigent arrestees pro bono.

“It’s not just all about the money,” he said.