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Should Race Matter in Court Appointments?

When a court appoints lawyers to represent indigent defendants, should it take race into account? Ohio solo practitioner Lafe Tolliver says yes, in this provocative column in The Toledo Journal.

Tolliver explains that the county spends "millions of public taxpayer dollars" to represent indigent clients in courts through Lucas County, Ohio. Yet in Tolliver's experience, the majority of attorneys appointed under the system are white, while the majority of the criminal indigents whom they represent are black:

A black lawyer should not have to go to the courthouse and see appointments after appointments go to the same white lawyers who are representing for the most part a black indigent population. Something is wrong with that picture. Why cannot black defense attorneys dine at the public feedbag and more often than it is now or has been in the past 20-plus years?

I don't know how much truth there is to Tolliver's arguments, but he raises an interesting point: Should factors like race -- and by extension gender, religion or other social characteristics -- play a role in the court appointment process? Do they have an impact on a lawyer's ability to effectively represent clients?

More broadly, what is the fairest way for court systems to appoint lawyers to criminal cases? Should appointments be based on merit alone, or perhaps a lottery or rotation (i.e., where the court rotates through a list of lawyers)? As the economy worsens, more and more lawyers will be vying for court appointments. And as the competition grows, courts may need to re-evaluate their court appointment systems to ensure that they're fair for lawyers, but more importantly, effective for clients.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on February 18, 2009 at 05:44 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

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