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Miami-Dade judge rules new Florida law governing death-penalty legal fees unconstitutional

A Miami-Dade judge says a law tying legal bills for defending death penalty defendants to annual budgets of state judges is unconstitutional.

Circuit Judge Victoria Sigler said the law violates Florida’s constitution, which guarantees a separation of power between the judiciary and lawmakers — who are supposed to be the ones who allocate money for indigent clients.

The ruling, certain to be reviewed by higher courts, could force changes to how the state appropriates money to defend people too poor to afford their own lawyers.

Sigler made the ruling last week in the case of Gregory Martin, charged in the August 2000 slaying of Cynteria Phillips, a chronic runaway whose bloodied body was found next to Miami Edison High.

Martin, who’s facing the death penalty, is represented by court-appointed private lawyers David S. Markus and Terry Lenamon. The attorneys asked the judge to declare the law unconstitutional.

The reason: Every year, the state sets up a pool of money to pay lawyers’ bills in death penalty and racketeering cases. Before this year, the Legislature always appropriated more money to cover overruns.

But lawmakers, looking to contain rising costs of legal fees in death penalty and racketeering fees to private attorneys, quietly passed Senate Bill 1960. The bill, passed in March, mandated that any overruns come from the courts budgets.

More from David Ovalle here.