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.