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Legal Learning: More money for public defenders

Dan Lew of Duluth and the other chief public defenders in Minnesota are happy. The legislature this year decided to add $6,480,000 to their budget for next year. That's about an 8 percent

increase.

Part of the reason for the new funding was the government's projected budget surplus. But also important was the legislature's realization that public defenders are good for Minnesota.

When I started practicing law, there wasn't a public defender system. If a person charged with a serious crime couldn't afford a lawyer, the judge would appoint a lawyer to handle the case — and often it wasn't a lawyer who knew much about criminal law, like Atticus Finch in the book and movie "To Kill a Mockingbird."

All of that changed in 1963 when the United States Supreme Court unanimously decided in Gideon v. Wainwright that lawyers for criminal defendants are "fundamental and essential to fair trials." The court pointed out that "even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law." In 1972 the Supreme Court further extended the right to legal counsel to include any defendant charged with misdemeanors as well as felonies.

The public defender offices in Minnesota are assigned about 145,000 new cases every year.  They employ 390 attorneys who at any one time are handling on average 614 cases. The American Bar Association recommends a maximum caseload of 400 cases, so public defenders in Minnesota are swamped.

Dan Lew, the chief public defender of Northeastern Minnesota, has 33 lawyers and 10 professional staff to represent poor defendants in the 6th Judicial District (Carlton, Cook, Lake, and St. Louis Counties).He's operating at two-thirds of the attorney staff recommended by national standards. It's common for a public defender to spend fewer than 15 minutes meeting with a client for the first time, evaluating the case, explaining to the client the consequences of a conviction versus a plea, talking with the prosecutor, and allowing the client to make a decision on how to proceed. National standards recommend four hours for the same amount of work.

The increased funding this year was pushed through the legislature by DFL Senator Ron Latz, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and himself an attorney. He said "I see the public defenders in court almost every day when we are not in session. I know how heavy the workload is and the good job they do. They don't have the resources they deserve. . . . I have observed in the courtroom, where public defender clients are waiting around because the public defender hasn't gotten to them yet. This is also frustrating to the courts and the county attorneys, who also have places to be."

The new appropriation by the legislature will provide funds to give public defenders their first pay raise in a long time, hire additional attorneys and support staff, and improve the overall standard of representation. The new law also includes an additional $879,000 for legal aid agencies to help victims of domestic violence and prevent improper evictions and foreclosures.

Dan Lew told me that he is "so grateful to the Legislature, the governor, and our Northland delegation for supporting public defense." He plans to use the funding to give salary increases, reduce caseloads by hiring more attorneys, and enhance training of public defenders. Good luck, Dan.

James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota's Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills, and probate in and around Lake County, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author and are not to be attributed to his employer.

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