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Defender Services – Annual Report 2020

A fair and impartial criminal justice system requires that all defendants have access to legal representation and other defense services. The Judiciary ensures that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and the rights provided under the Criminal Justice Act are protected through the work of dedicated federal defenders and panel attorneys.

Pandemic Response

Federal defenders and Criminal Justice Act panel attorneys (private attorneys appointed by a court) had to adapt quickly during the COVID-19 crisis to a new way of working. They were challenged to carry out their constitutional responsibilities to defend indigent clients while mitigating the risk of getting sick to themselves, their employees, and their clients. Federal defense attorneys by and large transitioned to the use of videoconferencing and teleconferencing for case preparation, client meetings, and court proceedings.

Federal defenders and panel attorneys represent indigent clients, ensuring their Sixth Amendment right to counsel. These attorneys are accustomed to being able to physically visit their clients in detention facilities, go door-to-door to speak with witnesses who can help in a case, and privately share information with clients at the defense table during trial. At the onset of the pandemic, many defenders weren’t equipped to operate virtually from their homes. Federal defender offices quickly had to procure laptops and cell phones, as well as set up new workflow policies.

When detention centers began shutting their doors to visitors in March 2020 to reduce the spread of COVID-19 infection, defenders, often in collaboration with court offices, worked to procure audio and video equipment to bridge the physical distance with detained clients. Holding virtual meetings in detention centers required immense coordination. The defenders and detention officials had to work out call schedules and find suitable space for confidential conversations. In some court districts, remote meetings were made even more difficult by a lack of equipment or incompatible software and a shortage of staff at prisons and jails to facilitate remote hearings and attorney-client communications.

The Defender Services Office at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) provided a series of web-based workshops and resources on The resources included information regarding COVID-19 and its effects on communities; the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act); and video- and audioconferencing assistance.

Cardone Report Assessment

The Judicial Conference’s Defender Services Committee began work in 2020 with the Federal Judicial Center (FJC) to evaluate how the Judiciary has implemented the interim Cardone Report recommendations adopted by the Conference, and the degree to which those actions have addressed the concerns raised in the report. The multi-year study includes data collection, data evaluation, and stakeholder interviews. The FJC expects to provide its final report to the Defender Services Committee for consideration in 2023.

The Judiciary has taken several steps toward implementing the interim recommendations of the Ad Hoc Committee to Review the Criminal Justice Act (CJA). The ad hoc committee, also known as the Cardone Committee for its chair, Judge Kathleen Cardone of the Western District of Texas, conducted a two-year review of the CJA program and transmitted its findings and recommendations to the Conference. In addition to the interim recommendations, the Cardone Report called for the creation of an independent federal defender commission, which would require congressional action.

Pay Adjustment for CJA Panel Attorneys

The hourly rate for court-appointed private lawyers, known as panel attorneys, rose from $152 to $155 for work on non-capital cases, as part of the Judiciary’s fiscal year 2021 appropriations bill. Panel attorneys are appointed by the courts under the CJA to represent indigent defendants. They work on both capital cases (those involving prosecutions seeking the death penalty and capital habeas representations) and non-capital cases.

The legislation allowed for inflationary increases in panel attorney hourly rates and for an additional $1 an hour increase in the non-capital rate to bring it to the maximum amount authorized by statute. The federal defense community and the Judiciary had worked for many years to increase the non-capital panel attorney rate to the maximum authorized level in order to recruit and retain qualified attorneys. The most recent increase marks the final step toward achieving that goal.

The cost-of-living increase in capital cases raised the hourly rate from $195 to $197. The capital rate was already at the statutorily authorized maximum. The new rates were effective Jan. 1, 2021.

Training for Federal Defenders and CJA Panel Attorneys

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A federal defender in San Diego teaches trial skills during a mock trial and training workshop at the California Western School of Law.

In 2020, the AO conducted 55 national training events for CJA panel attorneys, federal defenders, paralegals, and investigators. The programs included national, local, and webinar events and provided substantive legal training on criminal law and procedure and in-person, skills-based workshops on trial practice, electronic case management, legal writing, and sentencing mitigation. Attendees also received training in administrative and managerial skills. Twenty in-person national programs, nine virtual programs, 19 local programs, and 26 webinars were conducted in fiscal year 2020.