New Mexico faces a Constitutional/financial crisis, given pleadings filed in more than a dozen criminal cases.
Poor persons accused of crimes are treated unfairly. U.S. and N.M. Constitutions, court decisions, and statutes say the poor have a right to counsel. If someone can't afford a lawyer, the State must provide one. Courts define “assistance of counsel” as effective assistance of counsel. That should mean a defense as diligent and competent as a paying client would get.
D.A.'s offices get plenty of funding, often screaming “law-and-order” to voters and legislators. Public defenders and contract defense attorneys get paid at rates that would be comical if those rates didn't have tragic consequences for many defendants.
The New Mexico Constitutional amendment removing control of public defenders from the Governor's Office and creating a Public Defender Commission was a great step forward. Voters backed it strongly, and local defense attorney Michael Stout has been an able chairman.
But the work ain't over. Contract public defenders (who defend poor persons in rural areas or when the P.D. has a conflict of interest) get specified amounts for specific classes of cases. Low specified amounts.
How low? $180 for a misdemeanor. Ethical representation requires at least three or four hours for a defendant pleading guilty. Fifty or more hours would be above average, but not unheard of, if a paying defendant chose to fight a misdemeanor charge. (One lawyer told me of spending a week trying game charges against a rancher.) If the necessary work in a contested misdemeanor case took only 20 hours, the attorney would get paid like a McDonald's burger-flipper.
Try $700 for a 1st degree felony. You could talk the facts over with the client, review the charges and a little discovery, and either interview a few witnesses or do a little legal research, even write a short motion; but then you'd have spent the State's money and be well into spending your own, long before trial. Maybe you should talk the defendant into the plea bargain, even if it sucks.
In short, the defense attorney can fail to represent the client properly or spend a bunch of uncompensated time. Is that fair?
Recently Lincoln County defense attorney Gary Mitchell filed motions demanding that the State and its court system put our money where our mouths are.
His motion requests that the court stay prosecution until the State “makes adequate funds available for the defense.” Since Defendant is entitled to effective assistance of counsel at state expense, the State should fund that assistance or stop the prosecution. Further, he suggests that each case should be dismissed if the State doesn't fund a defense within 30 days. (We also have a U.S. Constitutional right to a speedy trial.)
Sound far-fetched? Courts have “inherent supervisory authority” to do such things. New Mexico courts have already done so with regard to capital crimes. A long term of imprisonment could be worse for some of us than a quick death.
If it happens, D.A.'s around the state will have to let a lot of folks go free in borderline prosecutions – and come up with unbudgeted cash for a proper defense in cases that really should be prosecuted.
Mitchell says he may file such motions in up to 200 cases. Contract public defenders from around New Mexico have asked him for copies, presumably to file similar papers.
None of his motions have yet gone to hearing, but Mitchell sounds guardedly optimistic. “There are numerous courageous district judges in our state who are fully aware of the problem,” he says. So is the Supreme Court.
Stout says, “Many contract public defenders like Gary Mitchell give their all to protect clients. They shouldn't also have to give the shirts off their backs to provide a constitutionally-mandated service.”
While the Commission takes no position on Mitchell's motions, Stout said, “It agrees that the present system for paying contract counsel to represent indigents accused of serious crimes is unsustainable.” The Commission “has learned that the indigent defense system is severely underfunded, even more so than it imagined. The PDC is striving vigorously to improve the system and its funding.” However, it has no budget.
Local D.A. Mark D'Antonio could not be reached for comment.
I'd guess the New Mexico Supreme Court will look favorably on the motions.
Many legislators also understand the problem, but it's not politically convenient to deal with it.
Constitutions and statutory requirements? Criminally accused indigents ain't major campaign contributors. Let's kick the can down the road, until there's a crisis. Then we can stand around on a desert road kicking ourselves for ignoring the oil warning light.
We'll pay more than we should have – and/or release a lot of folks our district attorneys wanted in jail.
And speaking of jail, here's another column update: allegations concerning Detention Center head Chris Barela are finally going before a grand jury, possibly this week.
[The foregoing column appeared in this morning's Las Cruces Sun-News, under the slightly unfortunate title, "NM Faces Public Defender Problem." I don't share what may be a widespread sentiment, that the public defenders are the problem. As is so often true, we are the problem.]
[Fact is, it was a strange week. For awhile I thought I was going to write a column updating three issues, each of which deserved a whole column: the situation with legal representation of indigents, discussed above; the revived Barela investigation; and the mysterious disappearance of a judge I'd written about; but since there wasn't a lot to say about the Barela situation and I couldn't quite figure out the situation on the judge, I decided to write the column I wrote, await developments, and keep on investigating the situation involving the judge for a probable column. (Both my column on why we needed an independent Public Defender Commission and my earlier column on Barela are available on this blog.)]
[The magistrate judge situation seems kind of wacky right now. The judge ain't there, other judges are "doing double dockets because he isn't there," lawyers are getting notices that their cases before him are now before other judges, and one source says "he's moved out, lock, stock, and barrel." A memo went around saying he'd been removed by the NM Supreme Court; but both the NM Supreme Court and the memo's author say there's been no order removing him, and I haven't learned what the memo's author saw that indicated otherwise. Meanwhile, we don't know; and as one source put it, "I'm pissed off that we don't know. The public has a right to know." Wherever he's holed up, the judge, who had been pretty diligent about returning my calls, hasn't responded to several messages during the past ten days. Something's going on; likely it involves serious allegations and a "confidential" suspension pending determination of them; but for now, we can only wait and hope the authorities will deign to inform us eventually.]
[With regard to the issues discussed in the above column, I'll add an update on the blog when I hear about some judge's reaction to one of Mr. Mitchell's motions to stay. In my view (and probably his) Mr. Mitchell would also have had standing to bring a suit against the state for declaratory and injunctive relief, based on the impact of the State's misconduct on his own professional work, forcing him to act unprofessionally or volunteer a whole bunch of time taxpayers ought to be paying for. However, what he did is probably more direct, and protecting his clients more urgent than protecting himself.]