South Carolina Supreme Court Finds Statutory Caps On Fees For Appointed Counsel Could Constitute Taking Under 5th Amendment

June 22nd, 2011

In South Carolina, there is a statutory cap on fees for appointed counsel of $3,500. An attorney in a complex criminal case sought more money, and tried to withdraw. The Court denied this request. The attoreny challenged this cap as a taking under the 5th Amendment.

The Supreme Court of South Carolina did not find an abuse of discretion by the trial judge in denying fees over the cap, but did find the Takings Clause is implicated:

We…recognize the historic obligation of an attorney to honor court-ordered appointments for the representation of indigents, while also recognizing that the attorney’s service constitutes property for Fifth Amendment purposes where there is a right to counsel.  We do not view these principles as mutually exclusive.  In harmonizing these positions, a trial court should be guided by Bailey’sapproach to just compensation assessed in light of the public service foundation associated with membership in the legal profession.

And, in a passage evoking Adam Smith’s classic views about why the Butchers and Bakers work, the Court stressed the importance of paying appointed attorneys.

Attorneys make their living through their services.  Their services are the means of their livelihood.  We do not expect architects to design public buildings, engineers to design highways, dikes, and bridges, or physicians to treat the indigent without compensation.  When attorneys’ services are conscripted for the public good, such a taking is akin to the taking of food or clothing from a merchant or the taking of services from any other professional for the public good. And certainly when attorneys are required to donate funds out-of-pocket to subsidize a defense for an indigent defendant, the attorneys are deprived of property in the form of money.  We conclude that attorneys’ services are property, and are thus subject to Fifth Amendment protection.

Interesting case via the Legal Profession blog.