9 Investigates: Florida taxpayers foot bill for State Attorney Ayala's fight against death penalty

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — 9 Investigates found out taxpayers are footing the bill for Ninth Circuit State Attorney Aramis Ayala’s fight against the death penalty.

Two out-of-town law firms are fighting the Gov. Rick Scott’s decision to remove Ayala from first-degree murder cases in Orange and Osceola counties. Channel 9’s Field Sutton started asking who is paying the bill for the litigation, and he discovered Ayala’s two lawsuits are being funded with public dollars.

Dozens of lawyers work inside Ayala's office, but she turned to law firms in Tampa and Washington,  DC. And Sutton learned taxpayers are paying those attorneys at rates most of us could never afford on our own.

A fight that started in an Orange County courtroom over whether Scott can force Ayala to consider the death penalty in murder cases finally arrived in Florida's Supreme Court earlier this month.

And that means the litigation is already costing you, said WFTV legal analyst Bill Sheaffer.

"The meter runs the minute a client signs a contract,” Sheaffer said. “Every telephone call, every memorandum of law, every research that's done."

Sutton filed a records request for contracts with two law firms. Both are charging Ayala's office $395 an hour for attorneys and $95 an hour for paralegals. Plus, they’ll bill whatever it costs to travel back and forth between Washington DC, Tampa and Orlando.

"There are lawyers at this level that would charge upward of $1,000 an hour,” Sheaffer said. “So she's gotten somewhat of a break."

Actually, it's you the taxpayer who has gotten the break.

Ayala's spokesperson sent a statement, saying “It is standard agency practice for the State Attorney's Office to pay for legal fees incurred by this office.”

In other words, tax dollars are paying for those lawyers. It's a case many legal educators think Ayala could win.

"I think she has the discretion to make that call,” said Jennifer Zedalis, a professor at the University of Florida, Levin College of Law.

Zedalis said she has taken no side in the political battle; she simply believes the constitution supports Ayala's bold choice.

And she believes it's controversial enough to force the courts to act quickly.

"What is 'expeditious' in the legal sense?" Sutton asked.

"Probably not as fast as the public would like to have the issues resolved,” Zedalis said.

Sutton asked about the practice of a state attorney's office funding its own legal battles. Other state attorneys told him that is how it works -- to an extent. But they say that's in cases where angry defendants sue over one thing or another -- never in a case filed by the office against the state.