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Public Defenders Seek Judicial Relief From Caseloads

Public defenders say they have so many cases indigent defendants are not getting adequate representation. Now tell us something we don't know.

Well, did you know one veteran judge says the caseloads have reduced the constitutional right to counsel to a "hollow shell"? Did you know a state Supreme Court is considering placing limits on criminal filings to deal with the problem?

David Henderson, arguing to the New Mexico Supreme Court, said public defenders are turning cases away. Already, he said, there are not enough attorneys to represent clients at bail hearings.

Solutions, Anybody?

Regina Ryanczak, assistant attorney general for the state, told the court the problem is not quite that serious. When the justices peppered her with questions about what to do, however, she suggested easing speedy trial calendars.

New Mexico Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur says caseloads exceed standards set by a national advisory commission. He has suggested the New Mexico Supreme Court take a number of actions, including the recruitment of volunteer defense attorneys, an order to limit cases filed by district attorneys and the appointment of an independent special master to find a long-term solution.

The state supreme court has taken no immediate action on the public defender's petition, but the issue demands attention in many jurisdictions. The poor are poorly represented, as it were.

Poorly Represented

In Washington, retired Judge William Downing says it is not the public defenders' fault. He says they are dedicated public servants, but government has not committed enough money to help their clients.

"A set of statewide public defender guidelines is on the books but, regrettably, these remain largely aspirational in the absence of an effective enforcement mechanism," he wrote for the Seattle Times. "This can allow local authorities to fail to meet their constitutional burdens and do so with impunity."

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