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Minnesota Supreme Court considers extending emergency funding for public defenders

The justices of the Minnesota Supreme Court Tuesday heard testimony in support of extending emergency funding for the state’s desperate and depleted public defender system.

Chief public defenders from judicial districts across the state followed state public defender John Stuart and chief appellate defender David Merchant to the podium for a steady drumbeat of bleak testimony, hats in hand.

At stake is a $75 registration fee paid by new attorneys in Minnesota. All of that money is currently routed to the public defender system. The Minnesota Supreme Court imposed the fee as temporary relief, and it is set to expire on June 30, 2011. Stuart testified on Tuesday that the loss of revenue from the fee would mean the loss of 32 full-time equivalent public defender positions — a blow to a system already reeling from three straight years of punishing budget and staff cuts.

Testimony focused on the sort of stark indicators that are traded like currency by the leadership and trench-dwellers in all corners of the public defender system.

Merchant, chief appellate defender, spoke of a backlog of 68 appeals cases waiting to be assigned. Minnesota statute requires an appeal to be filed “within 90 days after final judgment or entry of the order appealed from in felony and gross misdemeanor cases.” According to Merchant, 20 of the 68 cases waiting to be assigned have been waiting 90 days or longer.

William Ward, chief public defender for the Fourth District, which covers Hennepin County, cited a MinnPost survey of public defenders in which we asked “In the last three years, have you put a client on the stand with inadequate preparation?” and 60 percent of respondents answered yes. “That’s pathetic,” Ward told the justices, “That’s what’s happening out in the state.”

The chief public defender of the state’s Ninth District — way up north — spoke of the measures her staff had to resort to in order to cover public defender vacancies. In fiscal year 2010, her attorneys drove 191,000 miles to cover their cases. In one particularly extreme case, a Grand Rapids-based public defender was forced by a detour to leave the country, traveling through Canada and back into the United States in order to make a court appointment in Lake of the Woods County.

Even Justice Paul Anderson added to the list: “I’ve been on the court here for a while. And one of the things I’m seeing on criminal appeals almost as a matter of course is ineffective assistance of counsel — I mean, every case has it almost now.”

Money for public defense means more scrutiny
The justices interrupted frequently to try and steer the conversation towards talk of accountability for the leaders of the public defender system.

Here’s Justice Alan Page:

My impression is that things haven’t gotten better, they’ve gotten worse ... and in the face of having granted the petition in the past it seems to me there’s a more fundamental problem here that nobody wants to come to grips with.

And here’s Justice Christopher Dietzen:

All of you make a compelling case for the need and I truly understand that. The part I’m not hearing — and maybe it’s because it’s not being said — is anyone looking at the system and saying is there a more efficient way to do this ... I need to hear that you are doing the best possible job that you can with what you have and that there isn’t more that could be cut ... because there are new efficiencies that have not been realized.

In response to Dietzen, the Sixth District chief Fred Friedman, a public defender since 1972, was indignant:

I decided a long time ago that I wanted to devote whatever skills I had to try to even the playing field. It is so difficult to look you in the eye and tell you how ashamed I am that the public defender system is gutted. In some counties equal access to justice does not exist ... Justice Dietzen, I have no trouble whatsoever looking you right in the eye and saying I am doing everything I can. In my district there is not a meeting that occurs that I’m not at. There’s nothing that happens where we don’t talk about efficiencies, or how can we do this better ... We enjoy the support of all our judges but we’re seven lawyers down and I cannot tell you how difficult it is to walk in the jail and tell somebody ‘your lawyer got laid off’ — and we have to do this all the time.

Where’s the Legislature?
Also discussed was the Legislature’s responsibility to the public defender system. Here’s an exchange between Friedman and Justice Paul Anderson:

Friedman: “I’m personally ashamed that I can’t come up with the argument to convince the Legislature to give us what we need for what I’ll call a basic part of government.”

Anderson: “It’s more basic than that. This is a mandate under two constitutions — the U.S. Constitution and the Minnesota State Constitution. This is an obligation of all the citizens of the State of Minnesota because they live under both of those constitutions. So why are you here? Why isn’t the Legislature doing what you’re asking us to do?”

Friedman: “Justice Anderson you’ve been in my office. I look out at an $80 million hockey arena they built which is Duluth’s third spectator hockey arena. It seems to me somehow that justice for poor people is a little bit more important than Duluth having three spectator hockey arenas.”

A ruling on the extension of emergency funding for the public defender system is expected before the start of the Legislative session in January. Stay tuned.

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Comments (7)

Even more egregious would be if we were to use general fund money for a Vikings' stadium while at the same time denying equal justice to our most vulnerable citizens.

I can think of little of more importance than the sacrifice and the passionate concern of dedicated individuals like these public defenders.

Thank you for continuing to write about and to keep us unformed about this very important issue. It is so basic to both Constitutions, what is it going to take to set it right? Some big expensive lawsuit that the citizens of the state of Minnesota end up paying tax dollars for? Why not just make it right? I don't understand why legislators are talking about building a new stadium for the Vikings, but don't seem to give a rip about Constitutional rights.

And this business of, "are there new efficiencies that have not been realized?" is absolutely outrageous. Why is it that so many Republicans just think they can paint all public servants with a paintbrush of "lazy" or one of "unimaginative" or "not smart enough to figure out something new". These people are some of the best and brightest that Minnesota has. Just because they are public servants does not make them any less so!

Kudos to Fred Friedman for confronting Justice Dietzen. And, thank you Sheila for your comments, particularly regarding public servants. Indeed, public servants are not the enemy.

The dollar costs to the judicial system are staggering if you look at the amount of time spent waiting for a public defender. Judges, clerks, bailiffs, jurors, witnesses and prosecutors all have to wait for the lawyer to show up and hope that when he or she does that they don't have to be three other places to deal with other cases. I am not criticizing the public defenders, merely pointing out that it is foolishly shortsighted to knock that wheel off the cart. System costs and efficiencies are going the wrong way and that needs to be acknowledged.

The way the GOP paints public servants is strictly psychological projection. As they so LOVE to do, they're projecting their own most worrisome (and most self-ignored) shortcomings onto others, then criticizing those others for being what they, themselves, most accurately are.

You've seen it before: the person who talks all the time but criticizes others for talking too much, the person who's a bit portly but complains about "fat people," the person who's discovered a few gray hairs who suddenly starts commenting about how "old" their friends are looking, the driver whose antics give you a heart attack, but who constantly complains about the "lousy" drivers they encounter,...

the person who can't do math, keep their own books in order, or manage a business who extracts a lifestyle out of every business they own which far exceeds what that business could ever support, but who constantly complains about how lousy employees, unreasonable customers and (very reasonable and predictable) taxes are bankrupting them.

Thank you for including some of the exchanges between the public defenders and the justices. The public defender system in Minnesota is fortunate to have kept such capable lawyers who are able to articulate so forcefully that the spending choices citizens and their representatives have made result in justice delayed and denied for all of us. It is time for the Legislature to choose to adequately fund the public defender system. And it is past time for Minnesota citizens to demand their representatives act to do so.

Well, what more can one say but...a public defender like the rare, one-of-a-kind Fred Friedman gives "Lawyer' a good name.

Then again one could say, 'hell hath no fury' than a public defender, defending...