Among the recent election results, the passage of a Constitutional Amendment in New Mexico stands as a significant milestone in public defense reform. The state is now in compliance with Principle #1 of the ABA Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System – that the “public defense function, including the selection, funding, and payment of defense counsel, is independent.”
Public defense in New Mexico has been administered through a state-funded system that delivers representation through a mixture of public defender offices and contract attorneys. However, until now, the chief Public Defender was appointed by the Governor, thus subject to partisan dismissal unrelated to quality or merit. The lack of independence of the defense function prevents assurances that quality of representation and allegiance to the constitution – rather than political motivation – drive the representation of accused citizens.
For example, as NLADA discussed in a previous post, Chief Public Defender Hugh Dangler was dismissed from his post in February 2011; the month after Governor Susana Martinez took office. Dismissals upon election of a new Governor were not new to the State and were their own cause for concern in ensuring the quality of a defender office. However, further raising concern among public defense advocates was that Mr. Dangler’s dismissal came one week after testimony before the state legislature. In his testimony, the Chief Defender was candid about inadequate funding and excessive caseloads, stating that if the 20% public defender vacancy rate was not addressed, a system breakdown could result. Regardless of whether this testimony was a causal factor in the Mr. Dangler's departure, the potential for such reactive dismissals is inherent in a system that is not independent. Such removals cause disruption to the administration of the right to counsel, and serve as a looming threat against the honest and independent advocacy that is required to ensure consistent levels of quality, training, and funding.
Now – with the passage of constitutional amendment #5 by over 60% of the voters -- these concerns will no longer plague the public defenders or the individuals they represent. The amendment establishes the Public Defender Department as an independent state agency, and creates a Public Defender Commission to “exercise independent oversight of the department.” While work still lies ahead, including the drafting of legislation to comply with the amendment and direct its implementation, New Mexico stands in a far better position to advocate for the highest quality representation as the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright approaches. A state coalition, “New Mexicans for Equal Justice,” led the campaign in support of the initiative.
The fact that the public strongly supported the amendment should serve as a welcome reminder that many citizens understand the vitally important role a well-functioning public defense system plays in ensuring fairness, public safety, and protection of the fundamental right to liberty.