A model for solving a state-wide conflict could be rooted in Luzerne County.
The evolution of the county’s conflict counsel system from costly and criticized to a blueprint eyed by other counties was recently featured in the May/June edition of The Pennsylvania Lawyer, a magazine published by the state bar association.
Conflict counsel administrator John Hakim, who penned the article, said he began receiving calls from attorneys and county representatives from across the Commonwealth as word spread about the department’s approach.
“Every court in the state has a problem with what they’re spending on conflict counsel,” Hakim said. “What we’ve done here is unique. It’s the only thing like it in the state.”
Typically, conflict counsel attorneys represent indigent defendants who are unable to be represented by public defenders due to a conflict of interest.
In the past, the county’s conflict counsel attorneys were private lawyers who moonlighted as part-time county employees. They were paid $26,990 per year plus benefits, Hakim wrote in the article. Between 10 and 12 attorneys were appointed by the president judge and assigned cases by court administration on a rolling basis, but county officials and taxpayers were skeptical of the method.
“There seemed to be this perception, that wasn’t completely accurate, that people wanted to get the job for the benefits,” he said.
Discussions with the judiciary echoed those concerns, and the first county conflict counsel department with full-time attorneys was formed in late 2013. The county council approved the funding and Hakim was named Department of Conflict Counsel administrator.
“It took off from there,” acting Luzerne County Manager C. David Pedri said.
As the department is currently constructed, assistant conflict counsel attorneys Mary Deady, Janan Tallo, Stephen Geist and Joanna Bryn Smith each handle about 100 cases per year, Hakim said.
They are full-time, salaried county employees who are paid benefits and are included in the county’s retirement system, but they are prohibited from practicing law outside of their conflict counsel duties and can’t substitute for one another on cases, Hakim explained.
Hakim, who practiced criminal defense out of Kingston for nearly 20 years before taking over as administrator, takes a portion of cases as well, and others are assigned to independent contractors, he said.
The department averages 78 cases per month and those numbers are trending upward, he said.
“After awhile, a lot of these guys have either been victims or witnesses or defendants, so there are more and more conflicts,” he said. “Every year there seems to be more and more.”
Pedri, who served as chief county solicitor when the department was formed, said the method has been working ever since and believes it could work for other counties.
“We have a new method here,” he said. “It’s an out-of-the-box way of looking at things — and it works.”
Not only is the new system cost effective, but it benefits the clients and the courts by having “excellent representation who are there on time and have no other obligations,” Pedri said.
The Luzerne County manager candidate noted the outpouring of praise he’s received about the department has been “tremendous,” and credited Hakim and his staff for their efforts.
“This is a problem every county in the state has,” Pedri said. “And Hakim fashioned the model that will assist everybody across the board.”
Pedri said he hoped the notoriety will help flip the script for Luzerne County.
“I want us to get to the point where other counties ask what we’re doing, as opposed to us always asking how other counties do things,” he said.