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Legislation, lawsuits seek first raises for assigned counsel in New York since 2004

File photo
Onondaga County's courthouse on Montgomery St.

Lawyers appointed to represent indigent clients in Onondaga County and across Upstate New York haven’t had a raise in nearly two decades.

Officials say the resulting dearth of attorneys and severe backlogs in court ultimately means a violation of someone’s constitutional rights. 

Kathleen Dougherty, executive director of the Assigned Counsel Program for Onondaga County, said she appreciates the initial reaction many might have to calls for higher pay.

“I understand it’s kind of an unpopular thing for attorneys to be asking for money,” Dougherty said.

But she said things are different for the more than 140 attorneys in the program who help those who can’t afford a lawyer. They make $60 an hour for misdemeanor cases and $75 for felonies. They’ve been stuck with those rates since 2004. Dougherty said these lawyers are basically independent contractors, so they don’t have the backing of a law firm.

“That $60 or $75 has to pay for everything, you have to pay insurance, the rent, supplies, and the equipment, and your student loans, etcetera,” she said.

She said that doesn’t leave much to cover the cost of living. Dougherty said the problem becomes clearer when you dig a little deeper.

“There have been some studies shown that somewhere between five and $6 an hour is what the take home is," Dougherty said. "And that's really what we're talking about is that it's not sustainable at that level. What they're doing is they're taking on way too many cases, and running themselves into the ground, just to try to make ends meet.”

Dougherty said only about 40 of her attorneys, or less than a third, are taking new cases because of the low pay.

“They can't afford to accept the assignments, which makes it extremely difficult for this office to operate," Dougherty said. "But also a lot more importantly, makes it very difficult for the courts. And it makes it even harder on the clients because we have so few attorneys who are willing to accept new assignments.”

Assemblymember Bill Magnarelli has sponsored legislation attempting to raise the pay rate for assigned counsel. He said it’s long overdue.

“What has happened in what's made it so urgent, is that criminal defendants and remember, these are people accused of crimes, not convicted, some of them sitting in jail without an attorney," Magnarelli said. "It's been bandied around for, I can't tell you how many years, always with the understanding that it was going to be addressed, it's going to be addressed, it's going to be addressed. And it never was.”

His bill proposes raising the rate to $164 per hour. That’s more than double the current rate, and matches what federal courts pay.

“It costs money. I mean, it does, but I think our freedoms always cost money,” Magnarelli said.

Gov. Kathy Hochul has proposed a pay increase in her executive budget, but Magnarelli said it’s a little low. He does agree, however, with a provision that ties the pay rate to inflation. Then there’s the debate over whether the state or counties will pay for it.

“So it's everybody pointing their fingers at one another. Enough," Magnarelli said. "Because while we're arguing about who's going to pay, somebody is sitting in jail, who might be innocent. And I want every single person listening to me today to think of being poor, without any money without an attorney, and not having done the crime.”

Under Magnarelli’s legislation, the state would foot the bill. He said the assigned counsel pay issue has gotten so bad that lawsuits have been filed.

Dougherty said one was successful in New York City.

“You know, the minute they were able to pay higher rates, they had new attorneys interested in doing the work," Dougherty said.

She said she believes the same would happen here and the rest of the state.

“One of our biggest issues has been that we have not been able to attract new attorneys, new lawyers coming out of law school. We have not had a new grad since 2019," Dougherty said. "But as you can imagine, we've had several, quite a few attorneys, who, you know, have retired or moved on, right. And so we are not keeping pace.”

It’s unclear whether the pay rate issue will be solved in court or by the state. But Dougherty said she knows it can’t come soon enough.

“Our attorneys are doing an extreme public service. There doing this because they believe in it because they're committed to the idea of doing this work," Dougherty said. "It is not a moneymaker at all. No one is getting rich doing assigned counsel work. And it's not the point of it, right. The point isn't to become rich, but the point is to be able to pay attorneys enough.”

She said that's all toward the goal of providing necessary support in court to those with little money.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at