As reported by The Santa Fe New Mexican, New Mexico’s Chief Public Defender was held in contempt of court in Lea County for not providing lawyers in five criminal cases. The Public Defender’s Office is in a funding crisis, causing public defender lawyers in Lea County to have caseloads of as many as 300 cases open at any time, with many more assigned and resolved each year.
There are 22 workdays in the average month — not enough to properly work hundreds of cases. Each case requires client meetings, investigation, research, plus plea negotiation or trial preparation. With such high caseloads and so little time for each, a defender might barely visit the scene of a crime, interview a witness or even, sadly and unethical as it appears, meet with the client. Yes, that’s right. In many parts of the state, the Public Defender’s Office is so underfunded that people facing years of imprisonment meet their attorney for the first time minutes before their case is called by the judge.
Perhaps some don’t see this as a problem. After all, if the accused is guilty, what difference does it make how much time his or her attorney can devote to a case? But that’s not what our country’s founders believed. Our Constitution says even guilty people have the right to an attorney who can articulate and advocate on their behalf.
The criminal justice system is a three-legged stool. Its legs are the prosecution, the defense and the judiciary. If any one of these legs is shorter than the other, the stool — and the system — is out of balance. The real-world consequences of an unbalanced criminal justice system tilted against the defense are wrongful convictions, which means innocent people go to prison, and unnecessarily long prison sentences, which can mean higher taxes for the public.
When a lawyer cannot give a case the time it needs, including time for reasonable preparation, he or she is ethically required to decline the case. If that lawyer does not decline the case, they could be in jeopardy of disciplinary sanction, including possible loss of license, by the State Bar of New Mexico that licenses lawyers.
When public defenders ethically decline cases, it can frustrate judges and prosecutors who want the system to run without a hitch. But the solution is not to order the Public Defender’s Office to bury its head in the sand and ignore the fact that it cannot adequately do its job. It is not to pile more on top of the crushing caseload. It is not platitudes of impossibilities like telling the public defender to “do more with less.” And most certainly, it is not holding the underfunded Public Defender’s Office in contempt and fining them. During a funding crisis — a funding crisis that already causes loss of staffing — finding the public defender in contempt and levying a fine is not only completely counterproductive, it is unacceptable and chilling.
Any lawyer with 300 cases is working very hard. The Public Defender’s Office in Lea County routinely wins not-guilty verdicts for its wrongfully accused clients, which suggests a large part of the crisis is caused by a prosecutor’s office that does not sufficiently screen its cases, thereby clogging the docket with too many questionable cases.
Fairness requires adequate resources for all involved — the courts, the prosecution, the defense attorneys and most importantly, the accused, who have the right to an attorney with sufficient time to evaluate their case. All sides in this matter must come together to find a solution that works for everyone.
Margaret Strickland is president-elect of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.