Gideon Alert: Minnesota public defenders file grievance over workload

BY David Carroll on Tuesday, April 13, 2010 at 12:56 PM

The Star Tribune reports that line public defenders in 11 Minnesota counties have filed a labor grievance over excessive workload.  The grievance sites a February 2010 Legislative Auditor report finding that the average Minnesota public defender caseload in 2009 was 779 cases, or nearly twice the national caseload standard for misdemeanor cases only.  The National Advisory Commission (NAC) on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals first developed numerical caseload limits in 1973, under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Justice.  Those caseload limits provide that a public defender attorney should never attempt to defend more than 400 misdemeanor cases in a single year if that is the only type of case she handles.  The American Bar Association’s Ten Principles instruct that caseloads should “under no circumstances exceed” these numerical limits.

One problem cited in the Legislative Auditor’s report is that excessive caseloads limit the ability of supervisors to properly monitor and coach assistant public defenders, because supervisors themselves are carrying too many cases.  Forty-three percent of public defenders surveyed by the Auditor’s Office responded that “their supervisors in the past year had not reviewed any of their cases in the context of assessing performance.”  The filing of a labor grievance by these Minnesota line attorneys follows the recommendations of the ABA Ethics Opinion 06-441 (May 2006), which instructs: “[i]f the supervisor fails to provide appropriate assistance or relief, the lawyer should continue to advance up the chain of command” until relief is provided.

Structurally, Minnesota is one of a handful of states that more readily meets Gideon’s promise.  A statewide, independent Board of Public Defense oversees representation of accused people of insufficient means in all of Minnesota's 87 counties.  At least one full-time Public Defender Office has been established in each of the state’s ten judicial districts, and each has a regional chief defender to ensure adequate oversight and training for attorneys in every jurisdiction.  A centralized appellate office handles all state and federal appeals.  Despite the state budgeting $136 million for the 2008-2009 biennium -- or $13.25 per capita (approximately 10% higher than the national average of $12.09) -- this has not stemmed the excessive caseload situation.  The excessive caseload situation in Minnesota only serves to underscore the problems in other statewide programs that spend significantly less per capita on the right to counsel -- like Tennessee ($9.30), Oklahoma ($8.02), Arkansas ($6.65), and Missouri ($5.20).