Privatization gone awry

Published: Tuesday, February 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 31, 2005 at 10:36 p.m.
An effort by Gov. Jeb Bush to "privatize" the legal representation of condemned prisoners in appellate proceedings has met unexpected opposition from one of his own appointees to the Florida Supreme Court.
Justice Raoul Cantero Jr., who was appointed to fill a vacancy on the court in 2002, told a panel of legislators and judges last week that the Bush-initiated change has seriously diminished the quality of appellate representation, according to a report in The Miami Herald.
In fact, he said, the change to private lawyers in such cases has resulted in "the worst lawyering I've seen."
That's a pretty serious charge, considering that lives literally are at stake here.
Two years ago, the governor decided that closing the three Capital Collateral Regional Counsel offices and farming out the cases to a registry of private lawyers could save the state money.
Instead of closing all three, the Legislature voted to test the idea by closing the Tallahassee-based North Florida office while keeping open the offices in Tampa and Fort Lauderdale.
Closing the Tallahassee office is supposed to save the state $1.7 million a year, but Cantero argues that justice suffers as a result.
He said many of the private lawyers on the registry don't have enough experience in capital cases to represent their clients adequately.
The end result, he said, is that many appellate briefs take a "shotgun approach" that raises every conceivable issue, no matter how pointless. That wastes the time of the Supreme Court, which must review every death case, and slows the already dragged-out process.
"Some of the registry counsel have little or no experience in death penalty cases. They have not raised the right issues," Cantero was quoted by The Herald.
"Sometimes they raise too many issues and still they haven't raised the right ones. In arguments they're unable to respond to questions, or they don't know what the record shows. They don't have a real good understanding of death-penalty cases," he continued.
The purpose of creating the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel Offices several years ago was to avoid such problems. Death penalty cases are very difficult, legally and emotionally, to handle, and the Legislature reasoned that the public would be better served by competent, experienced lawyers.
The Legislature is scheduled to look at the issue again in the 2005 session, which begins in March. The choice is to reinstate the Tallahassee office, maintain the unsatisfactory status quo - or to make the situation even worse by abolishing the Fort Lauderdale and Tampa offices.
We favor restoring the Tallahassee office and ending the privatization experiment. Opponents to that plan raised many of the objections now voiced by Cantero two years ago, and experience has shown that those objections were valid.
The state should not be attempting to send people to their deaths without competent legal counsel at all stages of the proceedings.

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