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Iowa Supreme Court finds that Iowa statute limiting reimbursement for privately retained counsel does not violate Sixth Amendment


Under the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, a defendant has the right to effective assistance of counsel. This right includes an entitlement to reasonably necessary ancillary services paid at state expenses, including where the defendant is represented by court-appointed counsel. Iowa Code Section 815.1 – enacted in 2019 – provides a process for an indigent defendant represented by privately retained counsel to secure state funding for their “reasonable and necessary” ancillary expenses so long as certain requirements are met. One of the requirements for state funding is that “the funds available to the retained counsel are insufficient to cover the requested costs.”

In State Public Defender v. Amaya, the defendant, Rodolfo Amaya, was indigent, but his mother was able to pay a $15,000 retainer for the services of a private attorney experienced in the area of law relevant to the charges against him who charged $300 per hour. The attorney wanted to hire an investigator to assist with Amaya’s defense, so Amaya filed a motion with the court requesting funds to cover the services under Section 815.1. Amaya did not provide the information required under Section 815.1; instead, he argued that the statute was unconstitutional under the U.S. and Iowa Constitutions. Specifically, Amaya challenged the method for determining the sufficiency of funds available to the retained counsel.

The method used in the application process begins by multiplying the anticipated total hours to be worked on the case by the statutory contract rate for court-appointed attorneys, which at the time the attorney was retained was $63 per hour. If the product is greater than the amount of the retainer paid or agreed to be paid to the attorney, by or on behalf of the defendant, the court can authorize the request for state payment of ancillary expenses. This formula gives no regard to the actual hourly fee arrangement between the client and the privately retained attorney.

Applying the statutory formula to Amaya’s case yielded a result of $5,424 of attorney fees for 86.1 estimated hours of work, leaving $9,576 of the retainer to cover the ancillary expenses, which Amaya conceded would cost no more than $5,000. Therefore, application of the statutory method would deny Amaya’s request for state-funded ancillary services.

Amaya argued that using the statutory rate of $63 for the calculation is unconstitutional because it requires a privately retained attorney to lower their rate to $63 per hour or forego reasonably necessary expenses for a fair defense, such as taking depositions or hiring investigators or experts. He argued that this presents an impossible decision for indigent defendants: to hire their counsel of choice while foregoing reasonably necessary ancillary services or to forego their counsel of choice and accept a court-appointed attorney to receive the reasonably necessary ancillary expenses provided by statute. Amaya argued that requiring him to make this choice violates his constitutional rights. The district court agreed with Amaya’s reasoning, found that the usage of the statutory rate was unconstitutional, severed it from the method of determining insufficiency, and granted in full Amaya’s request for ancillary services at state expense.

On appeal, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed. Justice Oxley authored the opinion of the Court, joined by Justices Waterman, Mansfield, McDonald, and McDermott. The Court acknowledged that the statutory framework required Amaya’s attorney to be credited for work at a rate lower than the agreed-upon rate for his legal services, but the Court disagreed that this method of calculation made Amaya choose between having the counsel of his choice or the reasonably necessary ancillary services for his defense. Under the Sixth Amendment, the Court noted, an indigent defendant’s right to an “adequate opportunity” to present their defense – which includes “access to competent” ancillary services – is not unconditional.

Here, there was no evidence in the record that that Amaya’s attorney would refuse to represent him because the attorney was required to cover the ancillary expenses out of the retainer, nor was there evidence that the attorney refused to cover the expenses using the retainer. Thus, Amaya was not in a place of literally having to choose between counsel of his choice or state-funded ancillary expenses.

The Court acknowledged that the statutory framework places limits on the indigent defendant’s entitlement to state-funded ancillary services, but concluded that the limit as applied to Amaya’s case was not unconstitutional. The Court did observe that “there may be a point at which the statutory scheme creates such a chilling effect on attorneys willing to represent indigent defendants that it inhibits a defendant’s ability to receive competent representation.”

Chief Justice Christensen wrote separately, concurring in part and dissenting in part, and she was fully joined by Justice Appel. She agreed with the majority that a right to effective representation of counsel includes the right to public payment for reasonably necessary ancillary services, and that this right is not absolute. However, she disagreed with the majority’s resolution of the case, arguing that a court should not consider funds paid by a third-party to hire a private attorney for the purposes of evaluating whether “counsel’s fee should reasonably be expected to cover” ancillary services. As a result, she would strike as unconstitutional the portion of Section 815.1 which requires the court to consider money paid “on behalf of” the indigent defendant in determining whether the state should fund the ancillary services. She argued that the purpose of the statutory framework is to determine whether the defendant is truly indigent, and Iowa courts have “historically recognized that third-party funds are irrelevant to determining if the defendant is indigent.”

Justice Appel, also dissenting, wrote separately to emphasize that the majority opinion did not hold that the legislature’s hourly rate for court-appointed attorneys are consistent with article I section 10 of the Iowa Constitution and the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Justice Appel argued that the state should consider all of the variables involved in determining reasonableness of fees and not rely on a pure rate-based calculation.



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