A stark contrast in courts: Upstairs, the pricey lawyer-filled Coleman-Franken trial; downstairs, an overworked public defender

Michael Kunkel’s work was done. For the moment.

The young lawyer with the Joe Mauer sideburns was trying to relax. His hearing before the Minnesota Court of Appeals, including rapid-fire, rugged questioning from the three justices, was over.

But his day was not.  

Kunkel, 29, was gathering his belongings for a parole hearing in Anoka County 25 miles. He has another 30 or so cases on his desk back at the State Public Defender’s Office at the less-than-glamorous Griggs Midway Building on University Avenue in St. Paul.

Just so happens Kunkel’s venue today was Courtroom 200 of the Minnesota Judicial Center.

It’s directly beneath Courtroom 300, the daily venue for the Norm Coleman-Al Franken recount trial.

Same — but different
Same building, different stage. Same justice system, different approach. Same profession, different league.

Coleman’s and Franken’s lawyers are making — what? — an average of $500 an hour? They’re big hitters from Washington, Seattle and the Twin Cities. Sounds like as much as $20,000 a week per lawyer, give or take a grand or two.

According to the State Public Defender’s office, Kunkel’s salary is about $55,000.

“Per year,” he noted, “not per week.”

The state public defender’s office, already reeling from 53 layoffs this year, could be in further danger if state budget cuts whack the justice system. Kunkel, who has been with the PD’s office for three-and-a-half years, could be laid off.

Meanwhile, three state district court judges, supported by their state-paid clerks, sit in Courtroom 300, and a Ramsey County courts clerk administers proceedings that drag on in the Franken-Coleman case.

Upstairs, downstairs
In Courtroom 300, where Day 19 of the election contest ground on, a half-dozen lawyers, backed by legal workers and public relations staff, were seeking to determine who Minnesota’s next U.S. senator will be.

In Courtroom 200, where the ceiling is lower, the chandelier is smaller and the peanut gallery benches are fewer than one floor above, Kunkel was passionately arguing for his client, a man who is now in prison in Moose Lake after pleading guilty three years ago to sexually abusing his nieces.

Michael Kunkel
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Michael Kunkel

Kunkel stood tall and resolute under questioning from three skeptical justices, as he sought to get them to send Carey’s case back to the district court because of a technical sentencing mistake.

Kunkel was representing “a bad guy.” That’s what public defenders do. Barely four years out of the University of St. Thomas Law School, he said earnestly: “The right to appeal is important especially in light of all the cutbacks.”

He noted that PDs statewide are overloaded with cases. When lawyer jobs are trimmed, it just gets worse. Deadlines are missed. The Court of Appeals adjusts, but “What we see is these cases being drawn out. … We don’t condition the application of our laws as to who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy. We obviously don’t represent the most sympathetic of individuals. Nevertheless, they are citizens of this country and this state who are entitled to the application of those laws.”

It may seem a stretch to juxtapose the Franken-Coleman trial, its high-powered lawyers and its absentee ballots with Kunkel and his indigent sex offender client who needs a public defender to assist him.

But it does seem to raise an overarching question: How much justice can a person afford?

Court system cutbacks
Last month, at a news conference launching an effort to fend off judicial budget cuts by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson noted that such cutbacks could mean fewer peace officers, less law enforcement, more cuts in court and public defender staffs, extended delays in trials, fewer prosecutions of crimes and fewer resolutions of minor disputes.

Such budget cuts are “counter-cyclical.” As the economy tanks, more people are eligible for public defender services. And need them.

Some counties could face having no PDs under Pawlenty’s proposed cuts of up to 10 percent, court supporters say. Speedy trial guidelines won’t be met. Victims won’t see their assailants brought to justice.

In Hennepin County, Deputy Courts Administrator Michael Kelley told MinnPost that counters and phones in courthouses already are closed on Wednesday afternoons because of cutbacks last year. Conciliation court there is scheduling hearings six months out. Processing of fines, such as traffic violations, are slowing down, cutting into needed revenues.

The county, he said, is set for 5 percent in court system cuts, which could eliminate as many as 10 percent of its 560 employees. He’s already told budget planners to be prepared for a full 10 percent reduction.

The big trial
So what’s the Franken-Coleman trial going to cost when all is said and done?

State courts information director John Kostouros said there’s no way to estimate the total cost to taxpayers.Besides, he said, “It should be about justice and not about the cost.”

Still, we know that Judges Kurt Marben and Denise Reilly are each paid $129,124 per year. Judge Elizabeth Hayden is the chief judge in Stearns County, so she’s paid $135,580.

They’ve been on this case for more than a month now. Assume many work weeks of their time.

Marben, from Thief River Falls, and Hayden, from St. Cloud, are staying in a hotel in St. Paul during the case.

Each of the judges’ clerks are tied up at the recount trial, too.

As for the bulk of legal fees, both Coleman and Franken are raising money. State law says that, “If the contestee succeeds, costs of the contest must be paid by the contestant.”

So, in theory, if Franken prevails, Coleman will have to pick up the tab. (Stay tuned for the next trial on that dispute!)

But back in their district courts, the three judges’ cases are starting to back up. Kelley said that Hennepin County District Court has asked the state courts administrator to lend it a retired judge during Reilly’s absence.

Still, there, on a bench outside the Court of Appeals, sat a smart and energetic young public defender named Kunkel.

He was switching gears from one hearing to the parole revocation event in Anoka. He had his future in mind, too.

“I’m in a position, in a spot, seniority-wide where it’s too close to call,” he said of his job security. “I’m not boning up my resumé yet, but it’s possible.”

Up the 31 marble stairs, the Coleman-Franken trial continued. YouTube videos and $1,000-a-plate banquets are raising cash to support it.

The pursuit of justice happens in different ways in the Minnesota Judicial Center.

Jay Weiner can be reached at jweiner [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Erich Russell on 02/19/2009 - 07:15 pm.

    Good on you Jay Weiner! I am not sure what this says about the ECC proceedings but the point had to be made about the price of justice. Best wishes to that dedicated young PD as well.

  2. Submitted by Louise Mengelkoch on 02/19/2009 - 10:30 pm.

    What an amazing report! I’ve been wondering about the cost of all this. What a dramatic way to tell this poignant story. Thanks!

  3. Submitted by dan buechler on 02/20/2009 - 10:26 am.

    Good report. My best friend burned out being a public defender.

  4. Submitted by Gary Lee on 02/20/2009 - 11:15 am.

    Indigent people who need a PD are like homeless people. We don’t want to see them, we don’t want to know they are there, and most of all we want to believe they are all guilty anyway, so why bother defending them. It takes a special kind of dedication to the constitution and the concept of equal justice to be a PD.

  5. Submitted by Craig Westover on 02/20/2009 - 11:59 am.

    Good piece. Nice contrast. However, the real question we ought to be asking is, what is our legislature spending money on that it is not adequately funding a fundamental responsibility of government, providing an adequate public defenders office?

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