After twice being rebuffed by Philadelphia's Common Pleas Court, a death-penalty defense group Wednesday asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to hear its challenge on how Philadelphia pays lawyers appointed to represent poor people facing capital punishment.
"We are hopeful that our Supreme Court will view this petition as an opportunity to ensure that poor people are adequately represented in death-penalty cases," said Marc Bookman, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Atlantic Center for Capital Representation.
The latest version of Bookman's petition asks the Supreme Court to accept the case for review under the high court's "power of extraordinary jurisdiction."
Whether the court elects to exercise its rarely used power is an open question.
The petition - filed on behalf of three Philadelphians charged with first-degree murder and facing the death penalty if convicted - contends that the flat rate used to reimburse appointed capital lawyers is so low it violates their clients' constitutional right to "effectiveness of counsel."
Common Pleas Court Administrative Judge D. Webster Keogh dismissed two earlier versions of Bookman's petition on technical grounds.
"This problem is not going away," Bookman said. "Court-appointed representation in Philadelphia must be brought into line with the rest of the country."
According to data in Bookman's original petition, Philadelphia pays 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 among 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 more than 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 get to trial and running three weeks or more from jury selection to verdict.
Since its original filings, Bookman's petition has gathered support.
The Philadelphia chapter of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers called Philadelphia's flat-fee payment a "disgrace, plain and simple."
JoAnne Epps, dean of Temple University's law school, acknowledged the financial problems the courts and other governmental entities faced.
"Nevertheless, our commitment to justice requires that capital cases, the most serious in our criminal justice system, be conducted with fairness and adequate resources - on both sides," Epps said.
George Kendall, former head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, called Philadelphia's fee structure "completely inadequate, and every study during the past three decades shows as much."
And Stephen Bright, president and senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights, called the flat-fee payment "outrageous even by Southern standards."