City Council Holds Hearing on Bills Related to Conflict Counsel

, The Legal Intelligencer

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City Hall in Philadelphia
City Hall in Philadelphia

In the wake of the Nutter administration's failed bid to appoint a firm to act as conflict counsel, lawyers and city officials gathered before Philadelphia City Council's Law and Government Committee on Tuesday to discuss new legislation that would affect the city's plan to establish a conflict counsel entity.

The hearing centered on three bills put forth by Councilman Dennis O'Brien and co-sponsored by committee Chairman William Greenlee focusing on the city's request for proposals to set up an agency to represent indigent defendants in criminal cases where the Public Defender's Office has a conflict.

The first two pieces of legislation consist of changes to the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter. Bill No. 130851 is the ballot question and Resolution No. 130861 is its accompanying resolution. The portion of the charter the bills deal with is the leasing of office space—in this case for an indigent defense agency.

"Currently, Section 2-309 of the charter titled 'Leases and Contracts' states, 'The council may by ordinance authorize the leasing of real estate for more than one year and the contracting for personal property to be supplied or for services to be rendered over a period of more than one year,'" O'Brien said in his remarks. "As a result, City Council has no authority to review contracts that the administration enters into when the length of the contract is for one year or less."

O'Brien added that while the committee agrees with the section of the charter for the most part, he stipulated, "I do strongly believe that any contract dealing with an individual's constitutional rights is important enough to require council approval."

The amendment to the charter would also require contracts pertaining to legal representation of the indigent of more than $100,000 to be reviewed by City Council before being approved. O'Brien added that the monetary stipulation was included to make sure only large contracts are considered, effectively excluding private attorneys who currently provide court-appointed representation to the indigent.

"The third piece of legislation," Bill No. 130852, "is an ordinance that requires audits of the law firm or entity the city enters into a contract with for the representation of the indigent. There are two audits—a financial audit and a quality-control audit," O'Brien said.

The financial audit is modeled after the requirements the council asks of other city departments, O'Brien said, and the quality-control audit would be performed by an auditor familiar with the indigent defense system.

"Along with the overall review of the operations and quality of the representation provided, the auditor will also check individual employee performance reviews, resumes and job descriptions to ensure that the complexity of cases is matched by an attorney's experience level," as well as make suggestions for improving the system, O'Brien said.

Several attorneys who testified at the hearing voiced support for O'Brien's legislation, notably Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor William P. Fedullo; Phyllis Subin, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Justice; and Robert Muench, chairman of the bar association's criminal justice section.

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