MONTGOMERY COUNTY — The Montgomery County Legislature is set to vote Tuesday on confirming the appointment of Amsterdam-based attorney Kimberly Van Wormer to be the county’s first assigned counsel administrator.
The new part-time position — which has an annual salary of $65,000 — will be tasked with taking over the handing out of “assigned counsel” legal jobs, which are legal cases in which defendants meet the income qualifications for a publicly-paid defense attorney, but all of the county’s full- and part-time public defenders have conflicts that prevent them from being able to take the cases.
Van Wormer said the “vision” behind the assigned counsel administrator job is to reform the past practice of assigned counsel cases being handed out by judges who then preside over the cases where they have essentially picked the attorney for the defendant.
“It is a problem — I’m on assigned counsel panels in other counties, and it is a problem, if a large percentage, or a certain percentage, of [a lawyer’s] income is coming from a judge’s court [a lawyer may] feel they can’t [adequately] represent [those clients] or appeal [those cases],” she said. “And there is a dire need [for] a huge number of people we can’t find attorneys for, and sometimes it’s quite urgent, if you have someone charged with a felony.”
Van Wormer said the new job was created as part of reforms put in place after the class action Hurrell-Harring vs. the State of New York lawsuit, which exposed deficiencies in the state’s public defender system for indigent criminal defendants. The lawsuit was settled in 2014, with the court ruling New York state would have to implement major reforms to provide more adequate legal defense for indigent defendants, enabling them to have a lawyer at their first court appearance and making sure there are enough public defenders to meet the available case load.
Van Wormer was serving as one of Montgomery County’s part-time public defenders, being paid a salary of $43,000, until County Executive Matt Ossenfort appointed her to the assigned counsel administrator job May 24, and she’s been doing the job since then.
“It’s a lot of effort to find attorneys for these cases, I have to go through lists and lists and lists of names until I find someone, and it’s difficult because some attorneys don’t want to go to certain courts and far away courts,” she said.
The resolution to confirm Van Wormer’s appointment is sponsored by District 3 Legislator Roy Dimond and cosponsored by District 2 Legislator Brian Sweet. The resolution did not include the salary for the job, stating the financial impact was part of the 2021 operating budget, which lists the salary as $65,000. The budget indicates the position is part-time.
As far as fringe benefit costs, Van Wormer said as of now she is not receiving health insurance for the position. She said she’s not sure whether she will receive any New York state pension credits.
Van Wormer, a 2003 graduate of Amsterdam High School and a graduate of Albany Law School, said she intends to maintain her private practice, located in offices in Albany and Amsterdam, while doing the administrator job.
She is a mother of four children and was the Republican candidate for Amsterdam’s Third Ward Common Council seat against Democrat Irene Collins in 2019, but lost the race. She has remained active in supporting Republican candidates in Montgomery County since then, including District Attorney Lorraine Diamond.
Van Wormer said politics can play no role in legal matters, and she has already served as a public defender in adversarial legal cases prosecuted by Diamond since she took office. She said as assigned counsel administrator she herself will not be representing any of the clients she is charged with finding lawyers to defend.
She said the county is now looking for an office to rent for her, and there will be a secretary assigned to work with her.
Part of Van Wormer’s job will be establish better standards for the assigned counsel program and a deeper panel of available attorneys for the work. She said one barrier to doing that is a prohibition on assigned counsel lawyers being allowed to charge “mileage or expenses” she said was passed in 2010.
“I want them to change that with a resolution,” she said. “I’m not sure what would happen if we had a bunch of defendants, and I literally can’t find any attorneys who will take their cases. How can you have a county that can’t provide a public defender or an assigned counsel?”