Gideon Alert: MN judge will not let PDs out of open cases, but authorizes office to hire attorneys and bill state

BY David Carroll on Thursday, August 19, 2010 at 9:20 AM

On April 13, 2010, Gideon Alerts reported on Minnesota Public Defenders filing a labor grievance over high caseloads.  An 89-page report from the state legislative auditor states that heavy public defender workload impedes the efficiency of the courts, yet the legislature has not acted to provide relief. 

The Chief Public Defender in the 3rd Judicial District asked the court on August 17, 2010 to be relieved of more than 40 open cases.  In advance of a hearing on that request, the Twin Cities Pioneer Press published an account of how far the bar has fallen in southeastern Minnesota in providing a meaningful level of representation.  One public defender reportedly said that she encouraged one of her clients to appeal her guilty verdict based on ineffective assistance of counsel.  "I made a record on the court transcript that I wasn't ready," she said.  "I kind of had to throw myself in front of the bus and say 'I'm failing this client.'  I had to tell that to the court in front of everybody that was there, and yeah, that's pretty embarrassing."  One public defender in the office fought contempt of court charges for not appearing in court despite having been scheduled in two different counties at once.  Two more are facing complaints filed against them by clients or judges through the Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board.

On August 19th, 2010, Minnesota Public Radio broadcast a story on the caseload relief hearing.  Though the public defender office was not allowed to withdraw from the open cases, the judge ruled from the bench that the office could hire private attorneys for those cases and send the bill to the state.  As the office awaits the written decision for specific guidance on how to proceed, it is important to note that -- unlike Missouri -- the public defense system in Minnesota is being actively supported by some prosecutors in their battle.  Said one, "[w]e can't try a case with an unprepared public defender. You're just buying an appeal at that point, and we're going to lose …  how do you explain that to the victim?"

As the Pioneer Press story notes: “[B]y law, accused criminals who exert their constitutional right to a speedy trial could walk free if an attorney isn't available to represent them.  Legal appeals increase when cases are mismanaged, costing taxpayers money and prosecutors valuable time.  No one benefits from breakdowns in the justice system.”