Hillsborough's new county attorney, Emeline C. Acton, had been in the position for about a week when she asked her staff for a fairly large favor: How about filing some appeals for indigent criminals? On your own time, for free? Eleven assistant attorneys each took a case.
"I was shocked," Acton said. "It was immensely gratifying to me, like the best Christmas present I could have gotten."
Acton took over when her former boss Fred Karl agreed to act as Hillsborough County administrator after Larry Brown was spun out the revolving door by the County Commission.
It was Karl's idea to ask the law firms that get a share of Hillsborough's paying business to help the county out of a big jam by taking on a few criminal appeals for free.
That problem landed in the county attorney's lap after the state Supreme Court earlier this year agreed to allow public defenders' offices to withdraw from some appeals because of staggering caseloads.
For Hillsborough, that meant 158 cases. Karl, Acton and Hillsborough Chief Judge Dennis Alvarez tried to round up private lawyers to help out, but in the process, the county attorney's hard-worked assistants took on a few appeals, too.
Eventually, all 158 appeals were assigned, 94 of them to lawyers who agreed to do the work for free, and 64 to lawyers who took the case for flat fees of $500 or $750.
"I'm very happy with the response we got from the Bar, especially on such short notice," Alvarez said. "I expected to get maybe 25 lawyers. It's a tribute to the legal community. They're not required to do this."
Among the private firms, Joe Mount and Steven Northcutt from Levine, Hirsch, Segall, Northcutt agreed to screen all the cases and categorize them by difficulty. They also agreed to do about four appeals each.
The law firms of McFarlane, Ferguson; Hill, Ward & Henderson; and Holland & Knight and Bush, Ross each has three or more lawyers taking one or more appeals pro bono.
Noticeably absent among the list of volunteers were other major Tampa firms, including Trenam, Simmons; Fowler, White; Taub & Williams; and Shackleford, Farrior. Alvarez said some lawyers agreed to take on cases later, but others said a criminal appeal was too far out of their area of expertise.
The firms were asked to help out because their staff and resources made taking on a pro bono case easier than it would be for a one- or two-lawyer office. In addition, the named firms get a share of Hillsborough County's paying work.
The whole problem arose after the public defender for the 10th Judicial Circuit, which is supposed to handle appeals for a 14-county area, said enough was enough. The backlog of cases awaiting appeal had grown so large that many defendants served their entire sentences before their appeals even were filed.
A Supreme Court ruling in May said the Legislature must come up with money to pay for processing the appeals.
Here's wishing a "get well soon" to U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich. Kovachevich broke her wrist three weeks ago in a fall at home and is hampered by a large cast on her left arm and severe pain. Despite her injury, Kovachevich was in court last week for short hearings. But she has canceled recent weeks' trials, as well as some upcoming ones.