Tennessee: $10 Million to Help Pay Legal Fees for Indigent 

Over the past several years, we have levied our share of criticism of various embarrassing, unjust, and otherwise inappropriate actions taken by the Tennessee General Assembly. But, once in a while, even now, at a time when "mainstream" candidates of the state's majority Republican Party are desperately vying with each other for the honor of being the most anti-immigrant candidate for governor, state government can give a signal or two that it understands what the legitimate needs of Tennessee's citizens might be.

This week brought news that Bill Haslam, our well-intentioned but all-too-laid-back GOP governor (whom we took to task last week for allowing the enactment into law of a bill basically requiring Tennessee municipalities to cooperate with the Trump administration's current Draconian policy of forced deportations) has signed into a law a state budget with a new funding provision  that actually appears to be progressive.

click to enlarge GREG CRAVENS
  • Greg Cravens

The new appropriations bill contains an additional $10 million for expanding and improving the legal representation of indigent defendants in cases across the state.

Now, we musn't lose our heads entirely and start to believe that our legislators and the governor have had some sort of Damascan conversion that has opened their eyes to the plight of the state's underprivileged classes, who end up swelling the ranks of the incarcerated because they lack the means to seek justice for themselves.

No, there's another explanation for that $10 million being added to the budget. It was the brainchild of the Tennessee Bar Association, which made the add-on its top priority in the late legislative session. And the TBA, arguably, was acting like any other professional association on behalf of its membership in lobbying for the additional money. The point of the increased funding, after all, is to make sure that court-appointed attorneys are more adequately paid for what they do.

As Lucien Pera, the TBA's president, declared forthrightly in celebrating the passage of the new budget with its additional lagniappe, "Competent representation costs money, and the constitutional right to counsel is only real if lawyers appointed to defend [the indigent] are paid reasonably."

Simultaneously with its successful exertions on behalf of the additional funding for court-appointed attorneys, the TBA has apparently also secured a commitment from the state Supreme Court to institute "interim billing" for such attorneys, meaning that they will be paid concurrently with their casework — not, as so often has been the fact, after the cases are concluded. And finally, the Association and the Court have agreed to cooperate in upgrading training programs for those lawyers asked to assist the indigent with their legal issues.

There are numerous advantages to be gained, and the end result would seem to be a win-win proposition for all involved, the lawyers, their clients, and, we can only hope, the pursuit of justice. If everything works out well, it will also be a confirmation of sorts for various theories that a judicious attention to self interest can — and ideally will — result in the common good.

It is our wish that the plaintiffs and defendants affected by the new funding will find that to be true.

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