Pennsylvania's Supreme Court today ordered a Philadelphia judge to do fact-finding on a death penalty defense group's claim that Philadelphia's pay-rate for lawyers appointed to represent the poor in capital cases is so low it violates the client's constitutional right to an effective defense.

The joint order by the state's high court appointed Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner to conduct the inquest into complaints in a suit filed by the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, a Center City nonprofit.

The order says Lerner should conduct hearings within 90 days on the validity of the lawsuit's claims. The court then gave Lerner an additional 60 days to recommend remedies, including whether they should be system-wide, or on a case-by-case basis.

Center officials were not immediately available for comment.

The center filed the petition with the Supreme Court after twice being rebuffed on technical grounds by Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Administrative Judge D. Webster Keogh.

According to data included in Bookman's original petition, Philadelphia County pays court-appointed death penalty lawyers less than "any remotely comparable jurisdiction in the country."

Even in Pennsylvania, the petition reads, Philadelphia's flat-fee system in death penalty cases is the lowest of 67 counties.

In Philadelphia a lawyer who accepts a death-penalty case that goes to trial gets $2,000 for trial preparation.

After the first day of trial, the court-appointed lawyer gets a daily fee of $200 for less than three hours and $400 a day over three hours.

In other counties, lawyers who accept death penalty appointments are reimbursed at an hourly rate ranging from $50 in Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is, to $125 in Lycoming County.

Capital cases are among the most time-consuming and complex, commonly taking two years to come to trial and running three weeks or more from jury selection to verdict.

Since its original filing, Bookman's petition has gathered support from groups including the local chapter of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the dean of Temple University's law school and several national civil rights groups.

Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985, jslobodzian@phillynews.com, or @joeslobo on Twitter.

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