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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Public defenders reject new cases

Public defenders are being hit so hard by budget cuts and growing caseloads that offices in several states are refusing to take on more cases because they say defendants' rights are being hurt. Other jurisdictions say they may follow suit.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that poor people charged with a crime have a right to a lawyer. In most states, taxpayers fund a public defenders' office that handles cases of people who cannot afford a private attorney. The American Bar Association cites studies saying a public defender can competently handle 150 to 200 cases a year.

The growing caseloads could force states to spend more money on public defenders, delay trials or lead to overturned convictions because of inadequate counsel.

"Many public defenders are feeling the squeeze at this point," says Maureen Dimino of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. She has heard from public defenders in more than a half-dozen states who are considering challenging their growing caseloads in court.

Miami-Dade County Public Defender Bennett Brummer sued Florida in June after the Legislature cut his budget 9%. He said his lawyers, who each handle an average of 436 cases a year, could not take any new clients charged with felonies without being in danger of committing malpractice.

A Miami judge ruled last week that starting Sept. 15, Brummer can send his least serious felony cases to the state, which will have to provide attorneys or pay for private lawyers for poor defendants.

The ruling, which effects thousands of felonies, "will have statewide and some nationwide impact," Brummer says. "Many defenders would like to take meaningful steps to alleviate their caseloads."

Attorneys for the Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office are appealing, saying Brummer is exaggerating the caseload. The public defenders are compromising victims' rights by withdrawing, spokesman Ed Griffith says. If a defendant does not get a trial within a set amount of time, a judge is obligated to set the defendant free "to the detriment of all the citizens," he says.

Other state public defenders offices taking action:

• Kentucky's former public advocate Ernie Lewis, who retired last month, has asked a judge to declare his office underfunded so it can refuse misdemeanor cases.

Lewis says his attorneys' caseloads could top 500 each this year because budget cuts forced him to keep nearly 100 positions open. "It's very clear to me that our caseload would be unethical," he says. [Mark Godsey]

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