Judge denies public defenders’ request

Published 8:29 am Wednesday, August 18, 2010

By Frederick Melo
McClatchy News Services

A Steele County judge has ruled that public defenders in the 3rd Judicial District may not drop 46 criminal defense cases they say they’re too short-staffed to handle.

Instead, the district’s office of public defense must contract attorneys to represent the defendants, who would otherwise not be able to afford to hire their own private attorneys.

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The ruling sets the wheels in motion for a possible showdown with state officials over staffing and funding for those attorneys constitutionally required to represent defendants facing possible incarceration.

Karen Duncan, chief public defender for the district’s 11 counties, appeared in the Steele County Courthouse in Owatonna on Tuesday to ask Judge Casey J. Christian to release her office from what is widely deemed to be an excessive workload. Her request, had it been honored, would have been a first for Minnesota.

Instead, Christian noted that failing to provide legal representation for indigent defendants would violate the federal and state constitutions, which mandate fair trials.

He said Duncan should use up her office’s budget and bill the state for the contracted attorneys.

After seeing their budget cut three years in a row, the district’s attorneys have avoided layoffs through departures and leaves of absence. Their numbers have dropped from the equivalent of 35 full-time attorneys in 2007 to 24 attorneys as of Aug. 1, with some lawyers as a result juggling more than 200 cases at a time.

In March, the district’s public defenders surveyed themselves, and most respondents said they had at some point put a defendant on the witness stand with little or no preparation. They also felt they were unprepared for trial and not able to fully represent their clients’ interests.