Torres: Guam facing shortage of lawyers for indigent defendants
Updated: May 2
By Gina Tabonares-Reilly
Guam is facing a shortage of constitutionally required counsel due to the declining number of lawyers who represent indigent defendants, Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Torres said, noting that the situation poses a potential crisis for the island's legal system.
Torres attributed the situation to an aging bar, a lack of younger lawyers with an interest in criminal law and the low hourly rate for appointed cases.
"Each of these has contributed to a decline in the number of attorneys willing to serve indigent defendants, exacerbating the heavy caseload of remaining attorneys," the chief justice said in his state of the judiciary address delivered Monday before the 37th Guam Legislature
Torres said the lack of constitutional counsel affects juvenile delinquency cases, juvenile special proceedings and persons-in-need of services cases
"In these family court cases, the effective assistance of counsel is crucial to protect the rights of youth, parents separated from their kids, and children in need of safety and placement," the chief justice said.
Torres' state of the judiciary address coincided with the 60th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, a landmark case that cemented the courts' mandate to provide legal representation in all criminal cases to those who cannot afford a lawyer. As Gideon aptly recognized, “[L]awyers in criminal court are necessities, not luxuries," he added.
To address the situation, Torres said the judiciary rolled several initiatives such as raising the hourly rate and capping amounts paid for legal services.
"In addition, we’ve made our payment process more efficient and timely, paying appointed counsel within 45 days of submitting their vouchers, instead of the 60 days originally permitted under the rules," Torres said. Addressing the compensation issue is not simply intended to fix court operations but is aimed at delivering justice in a fair manner, Torres said.
"Justice for only those who can afford it is not justice at all—only a system where the most vulnerable members of society face the highest risk of imprisonment," he said. "We need the help and commitment of all three branches to ensure access to legal counsel is not just a right on paper, but a reality for every individual, regardless of their ability to pay," the chief justice added.
Torres noted that the entire judicial system depended on the dedicated work of lawyers.
"But we can't turn a blind eye to the storm cloud coming our way from the chronic shortage of attorneys. With over one-third of our Guam Bar approaching retirement, we must take proactive measures to attract and retain young legal talent," he said.
"While we commend the private attorneys who share their talents with the community and help the less fortunate, we need more lawyers to pursue a career in public service," Torres said.
While serving the community is a noble task, Torres said lawyers have bills to pay as well.
"Pride alone won’t pay off student debt, cover the cost of childcare, or enable them to purchase a home. To recruit and retain the best legal minds, we must adjust compensation to reflect recent changes in government employee pay scales, market rates within the legal industry, and the cost of living," he said, "If we fail to act, we will continue to drive seasoned attorneys away from local public service and towards opportunities in the federal government, private sector,or even the mainland," Torres said.