Dayton attorney highest-paid in Ohio for court appointments

DAYTON — Attorney Ben Swift billed area courts for indigent defense work an average of nine hours a day, seven days a week for 365 days straight.

Raking in $142,945 in appointed counsel fees between March 2008 and February 2009, Swift ranks No. 1 in the state for representing people who cannot afford to hire a lawyer on their own, according to billing records kept by the Ohio Public Defender’s office.

“He’s probably billing more than humanly possible. That’s what it sounds like,” said Montgomery County Juvenile Court Judge Nick Kuntz, whose court was responsible for 60 percent of Swift’s indigent case load.

Swift, who hires contract paralegals to assist him, said he zealously represents his clients.

“We routinely put in 10-, 11-hour (work) days,” he said.

Courts hire private attorneys to handle indigent cases when a public defender isn’t available. But of the 170 attorneys on the juvenile court appointment list, just five lawyers since 2007 received 20.7 percent of the cases not handled by the public defender’s office. Swift topped the list with 848 cases.

Ohio Public Defender Tim Young said kicking cases to a select group of attorneys is troublesome, particularly when an attorney receives a bulk of his income from a single court.

Kettering attorney William T. Daly has been writing letters to Young, Kuntz and others, railing against what he sees as an appointment system riddled with cronyism that risks short-changing people too poor to hire their own attorney.

“Those attorneys that are more zealous, or perceived to be tenacious, are avoided because appointment of those attorneys creates more work for the magistrates, case coordinators and staff,” said Daly, who no longer takes appointment work in juvenile court.

The public has a strong financial stake in the system. Between March 2008 and February 2009 — the latest data available — the state and counties paid out $1.8 million to appointed counsel across Ohio for 43,495 hours of time.

Swift said over the years he has built a reputation as the go-to guy in juvenile court.

“Like any other thing in life, if somebody is doing a good job, you’re liable to go back to them,” he said.

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