Public Defenders Office in Helena Overloaded

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — The Office of the State Public Defender says it is overloaded with cases in the Helena area, and asking a judge to not assign them any more cases.

A hearing originally scheduled Wednesday on the request was indefinitely postponed after prosecutors filed their own opinions on the request, arguing the Helena justice court does not have the authority to remove OPD from all future cases.

The public defender’s office said, in an early September filing, that staff attorneys have too many cases and are in danger of not meeting ethical obligations to properly represent clients. It said that more than 3,000 cases were assigned in 2012 to its 10 attorneys in a region that covers Lewis and Clark, Jefferson and Broadwater counties.

The request asks the Helena justice court to assign a private attorney to one ongoing case, and asks the court to assign private attorneys to new cases with indigent clients. It also asks the court to order the state to pay for the costs of the private attorneys because OPD argues it doesn’t have enough in its budget to do so. The filing also says the court could alternatively dismiss cases against some poor defendants.

“Attorneys and managers alike have ethical obligations to avoid excessive workloads which may lead to representation contrary to the rules of professional conduct,” the filing argues.

New attorneys have been getting as many as 400 cases assigned to them in their first year.

The office said it asked the 2013 Legislature for 37 new positions statewide, but was only given eight. The legislature did spend money to increase attorney salaries in hopes of solving a problem with attrition.

“Due to excessive workloads, OPD attorneys in (the region) must prioritize some cases over others, Chief Public Defender Bill Hooks wrote. “They are unable to meet with clients in a timely and sufficient manner, conduct legal research, adequately investigate, conduct an adequate motions practice, engage in plea negotiations, prepare for trial and/or sentencing, or perform a host of other responsibilities on behalf of their clients.”

Lawmakers have been warned that the state could face an unknown budget hit if the judge decides to assign new cases to private attorneys.

The Lewis and Clark County attorney’s office argued in Tuesday’s brief that the Helena justice court does not have the jurisdiction to meet the OPD request. It said OPD is required by state law to provide indigent defense.

The brief argues that the public defender’s office needs to pursue other options of reducing its workload.

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