State Pub. Def. v. Amaya, 20-1346

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtOXLEY, Justice.
Decision Date24 June 2022
Docket Number20-1346



No. 20-1346

Supreme Court of Iowa

June 24, 2022

Submitted March 23, 2022

Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Sarah Crane, Judge.

The State Public Defender challenges a trial court order finding Iowa Code section 815.7 unconstitutional under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and granting the defendant's request for ancillary services at state expense. WRIT SUSTAINED.

Jeff Wright, State Public Defender, and William Bushell (argued), Assistant State Public Defender, for the plaintiff.


Benjamin D. Bergmann (argued) and Alexander Smith of Parrish Kruidenier Dunn Gentry Brown Bergmann & Messamer, L.L.P., Des Moines, for the defendant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and David M. Ranscht (argued) and Samuel P. Langholz, Assistant Attorneys General, for amicus curiae State of Iowa.

Oxley, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Waterman, Mansfield, McDonald, and McDermott, JJ., joined.


OXLEY, Justice.

An estimated 70%-80% of Iowa criminal defendants are indigent,[1] which means that when they are facing what may be one of the most difficult circumstances of their lives, they get a court-appointed attorney selected by a judge unless their family, friends, or others are able to hire a private attorney of the defendant's choosing. Once hired, that attorney may need to hire investigators and experts to help with the defense, but those cost even more money. In 2019, the Iowa General Assembly enacted Iowa Code section 815.1- changing the process by which an indigent defendant can obtain state funding for investigation costs when represented by privately retained counsel. 2019 Iowa Acts ch. 51, § 1 (codified at Iowa Code § 815.1 (2020)). This appeal requires us to determine whether those changes unconstitutionally pit an indigent defendant's right to an attorney of his choosing against his right to services needed to allow him to put on an adequate defense. We conclude they do not.

I. Factual Background & Proceedings.

Twenty-two-year-old Rodrigo Amaya faces sexual abuse and sexual exploitation charges after police discovered him and a fifteen-year-old girl in the backseat of his car in a secluded area of a city park and videos of the girl on his phone. The court determined Amaya was indigent and appointed the public defender's office to represent him. Amaya's mother was able to pull together $15,000 and retained Benjamin Bergmann, a private attorney who had


experience in sexual abuse cases and was conversant in Spanish to better communicate with Amaya and his family.

Bergmann wanted to hire an investigator and experts to help with Amaya's defense, so Amaya filed a motion with the district court requesting funds from the state to pay for these needed services. Defendants represented by court-appointed counsel receive reasonably necessary ancillary services such as investigation services, the cost of transcripts for depositions, and experts as part of the court appointment. See Iowa Code §§ 815.7 (court-appointed attorneys are entitled to reasonable fees and expenses), .10A (providing process for court-appointed attorneys to seek reimbursement of expenses) (2019). Before Iowa Code section 815.1 was enacted, indigent defendants with privately retained counsel could seek state funding for those same ancillary services as long as the defendant showed he was indigent and the court determined the requested services were reasonably necessary.

Effective July 1, 2019, the Iowa General Assembly passed Iowa Code section 815.1, which provides a process for determining whether an indigent defendant who is represented by a privately retained attorney is entitled to have ancillary services paid by the state. 2019 Iowa Acts ch. 51, § 1 (codified at Iowa Code § 815.1 (2020)). The district court may grant an application for state funds for ancillary services if it finds: (1) the defendant is indigent and unable to pay the costs, (2) the costs are reasonable and necessary for the defendant's representation, and (3) the funds available to the retained counsel are insufficient to cover the requested costs. Iowa Code § 815.1(4)(a)-(c). Amaya


challenges the process used to determine that last step-whether the funds paid to the retained attorney are insufficient to cover the requested costs.

To support the third step of the application process, the retained attorney must provide the court with information about the financial arrangement of his representation, including a copy of the fee agreement, the agreed-upon hourly rate, the amount of the retainer or other money received, the number of hours worked in the case to date, and the expected or anticipated hours needed to finish the case. Id. § 815.1(2)(a), (c)-(e). The court then uses a formula that multiplies the anticipated total hours by an hourly rate. Id. § 815.1(4)(c)(1). Instead of using the retained attorney's agreed-upon rate, the formula uses the statutory contract rate for court-appointed attorneys under Iowa Code section 815.7. Id. § 815.1(4)(c)(1). If that "calculated product" is greater than the amount available to the retained attorney, the district court can authorize the requested services at state expense. Id. § 815.1(4)(c)(2). If it is not, the application must be denied. Id. § 815.1(4). In essence, the statute precludes state payment for ancillary services for an indigent defendant represented by retained counsel unless the defendant can show that payments to the retained attorney would not cover the retained attorney's time when calculated at the state contract-attorney rate, regardless of the arrangement between the third party and the retained counsel.

As a practical matter, this process would not be a big deal if the statutory contract rate was in the ballpark of the retained attorney's rate. In other contexts, attorneys are used to having their rates compared to a lodestar rate.


See, e.g., Lee v. State, 906 N.W.2d 186, 197 n.8 (Iowa 2018) (reviewing a statutory award of fees under the Family and Medical Leave Act and explaining: "The starting point in determining attorney fees is generally the lodestar. Courts calculate the lodestar by multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended by a reasonable hourly rate." (citations omitted)). At the time Bergmann was hired, the contract rate was $63 per hour for representing a defendant charged with Amaya's crimes (the current rate is $68), a rate declared to be "reasonable compensation" by the general assembly. See Iowa Code § 815.7(5)-(6). Bergmann's agreement with Amaya's mother charges him out at $300 per hour, a rate no one suggests is out of line for privately retained criminal defense attorneys in Des Moines.

Amaya takes issue with the legislature's characterization of its statutory contract rates as "reasonable compensation." In support of his argument, he offers a recent letter authored by The Iowa State Bar Association president discussing that it takes the average Iowa lawyer $75 per hour to breakeven, the state rates are nearly 60% below the federal appointed-attorney contract rate of $155, and in the last ten years the number of Iowa attorneys willing to contract with the public defender's office has been cut in half, from 1,200 attorneys to now only 650. See Anjela Shutts, President's Letter, Iowa Law., Feb. 2022, at 5, 5. But no evidence was presented to the district court (including the letter from the February 2022 issue of The Iowa Lawyer magazine) to support a finding that $63 per hour is an unreasonable rate. Nor was the district court asked to find that rate unreasonable.


Amaya's motion for services generally sought funds to cover the costs of an investigator and depositions but did not request specific amounts.[2] Instead, his motion challenged the constitutionality of section 815.1 under both the Federal and Iowa Constitutions. He specifically argued that to the extent section 815.1 incorporates the contract rate from section 815.7, it requires private attorneys to either lower their hourly rate to the $63 contract rate or forego taking depositions, serving subpoenas, undertaking investigations, and hiring expert witnesses. Amaya argues that this places indigent defendants who are able to retain a private attorney through a third-party source in a Hobson's choice: he can either keep his counsel of choice but without the needed ancillary services or he can forego his counsel of choice and accept a court-appointed attorney to receive the needed services at state expense. Requiring him to give up one or the other, argued Amaya, violated his constitutional rights.

After objection by the State Public Defender (SPD), who is part of the application process, see Iowa Code § 815.1(3) (requiring a copy of the application and attached documents to be submitted to the public defender), Bergmann provided a copy of his fee agreement with Amaya's mother, which required a $15,000 retainer and specified an hourly rate of $300. Bergmann informed the court he had performed 16.1 hours and estimated that Amaya's case would


require an additional 70 hours of his time through trial. At his hourly rate of $300, counsel expected his representation to cost $25,830, thereby exceeding the $15,000 retainer and leaving nothing left to cover the litigation costs.[3] However, using the statutory contract rate of $63 per hour, Bergmann's 86.1 projected hours[4] totaled $5,424, leaving $9,576 from the retainer to cover the requested ancillary services and making Amaya ineligible for state funding for these costs.

The district court concluded that using the contract rate to determine whether funds paid to a privately retained attorney were insufficient to cover reasonable and necessary litigation costs to trigger state funding violated Amaya's rights under the Sixth Amendment to the United States...

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