In a press release Thursday, the Wisconsin Justice Initiative called on judges throughout the state to support pay raises for private lawyers in Wisconsin who agree to take public cases for public offices when they are overloaded or have a conflict.

According to the press release, Wisconsin’s pay rate of $40 per hour for private lawyers who take public cases is the lowest in the nation. The petition supported by WJI would increase this pay to $100 per hour for these lawyers.

The press release said only two judges in the state have come out in public support of the pay raise — Ashland County judge Robert Eaton and Bayfield County judge John Anderson.

WJI executive director Gretchen Schuldt called on judges throughout the state to support the initiative, and called their silence “disturbing.”

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“Judges are the very ones who should be speaking out,”  Schuldt said. “Judges are supposed to ensure defendants get a fair trial with effective representation by counsel. They really need to let the Supreme Court know what is going on in their counties.”

Michele LaVigne, UW clinical law professor and director of the Public Defender Project, said she supports the initiative and firmly believes these lawyers who agree to hear public cases should receive the pay raise.

LaVigne began working as a private bar lawyer in 1978, and she said the pay rate was $50 per hour across the board. This pay rate was set with the intention of recruiting qualified lawyers.

“The idea long ago when the rate was set reasonably was that we would get some experienced lawyers in there for serious cases,” LaVigne said.

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Now, 40 years later, the pay rate has decreased by $10 per hour while costs have risen with inflation. Because of this, LaVigne said these lawyers are now operating at a loss — the costs of operating have exceeded any wages they earn.

These lawyers are the only officers in courtrooms who operate at a loss, which she said has adverse implications for Wisconsin’s criminal justice system.

For starters, the quality of lawyers who take public cases has declined, because good lawyers will “go where the money is.” Additionally, people who are arrested and charged with crimes have faced difficulties in getting attorneys, which LaVigne said has left people sitting in jails for weeks without legal representation.

LaVigne said she’d like to see the lawyers receive their pay raise, and she’d like to see increased oversight of the private bar by public defenders. She said increasing their pay would support small businesses, as many of these lawyers come from small-town, independent firms.

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“If we’re in favor of small business, we ought to be loving these lawyers and making it easy to do their job well,” LaVigne said.

The initiative will hear public comments until May 1, and will then go before the Supreme Court May 16.

Schuldt encouraged judges and concerned individuals throughout the state to contribute their thoughts on the issue before it goes before the Supreme Court later next month.

“Judges should say what they believe, and they should say it to the Supreme Court,” Schuldt said. “Some judges may support this petition, some may not. But this issue is crucial to the administration of justice in the state and judges need to be part of the conversation.”