Desperate measures for public defenders in Minnesota and beyond


Public defenders are overworked–it will probably always be that way. But water up to your chin is different from water up to your eyeballs. And eyeball-deep public defenders are drawing a line according to a story in the New York Times.

“Public defenders’ offices in at least seven states are refusing to take on new cases or have sued to limit them,” writes reporter Erik Eckholm, “citing overwhelming workloads that they say undermine the constitutional right to counsel for the poor.”

The story focuses first on Florida:

In September, a Florida judge ruled that the public defenders’ office in Miami-Dade County could refuse to represent many of those arrested on lesser felony charges so its lawyers could provide a better defense for other clients. Over the last three years, the average number of felony cases handled by each lawyer in a year has climbed to close to 500, from 367, officials said, and caseloads for lawyers assigned to misdemeanor cases have risen to 2,225, from 1,380.

Minnesota public defenders are taking their own drastic measures–confronting insufficient pay rather than overwhelming caseloads. MPR’s Elizabeth Stawicki has a troubling report on the plight of Minnesota’s public defenders who moonlight to make law school loan payments.

In reporting I’ve done over the last year, I’ve heard public defenders, victim advocates, state legislators, the previous and current Chief Judge of the Fourth District, and County Attorney Mike Freeman lament funding for the state’s judicial system in colorful terms. Stawicki highlights a new initiative that hopes to spark a fix:

Minnesota’s Chief Justice Eric Magnuson says public defenders should get paid more and that the state needs more of them … He has convened the Coalition to Preserve the Minnesota Judicial System, which includes representatives from 20 different groups, including the public defenders. Magnuson said the coalition will work on a common strategy, mutually support each other’s funding requests, and inform the Legislature and governor about how all the pieces of the justice system fit together.

With the legislative session just two months off and the economy in the tank, Magnuson is likely fighting a losing battle. The testimony of one public defender in Stawick’s story describes what drove her to public defender work, and reminds us what’s at stake:

“I walked into the jail and saw a sea of non-white faces, and from that moment I realized that we have some socioeconomic problems. And from then on I had a purpose–defending the Constitution is important.”

James Swenson, Chief Judge of the 4th District, issues his own warning in an editorial published in Downtown Journal:

“Politicians sometimes speak of ‘two Americas,’ referring to the widening gap between rich and poor,” he writes. “The current economic crisis, which threatens greater judicial budget cuts, could mean two justice systems in America; one for the well off and another, second-class system, for everyone else. This is a very dangerous road to travel.”