Public Defenders

New Mexico's top court should acknowledge excessive PD workloads and craft remedy, ABA says

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An amicus brief filed by the ABA says the New Mexico Supreme Court should acknowledge public defenders have excessive caseloads in Lea County and craft a remedy that considers lawyers’ ethical obligations.

The ABA brief (PDF), filed on Monday, says excessive workloads can force public defenders to choose among the interests of their clients. “The public defenders are in a classic Catch-22: competent work for one client inevitably results in unreasonable delay or lack of work for other clients,” the brief says. An ABA press release is here.

If the state supreme court decides to impose caseload limits, the number should be determined using methodology that relies on the expertise of defense lawyers to establish the time needed to provided effective assistance of counsel, the brief says.

The brief also says the state supreme court should order lower courts to allow the public defender to decline cases in the county until a workload study can be completed to determine the appropriate workload.

If a study isn’t undertaken, courts should rely on the public defender to determine when workloads are manageable, the brief says.

The ABA filed the brief in support of a petition filed with the court by the state public defender’s office. The PD is asking the court to order private lawyers to represent indigent defendants for free or to order court clerks to stop accepting new cases for minor crimes after a certain number has been reached, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported in March. The office also suggests the court appoint a special master to find long-term solutions.

New Mexico Chief Public Defender Ben Baur was found in contempt of court last December for refusing to provide lawyers in five Lea County cases because of high caseloads. After that, the office began filing motions to withdraw from hundreds of criminal cases, all of which were denied. One of those cases, involving a request to withdraw from representation of a man charged with minor drug crimes, served as the basis for the public defender’s petition with the state supreme court.

ABA ethics rules safeguard the constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel by requiring lawyers to provide competent and diligent representation, the ABA brief says. The association also has established defense function standards that require lawyers to investigate the facts, research the law, communicate with clients, negotiate with prosecutors, file appropriate motions and prepare for trial.

“A lawyer with too many clients and pending cases simply cannot comply with her ethical duties or perform all of the functions in the practice standards for all of her clients all of the time,” the ABA brief says.

The brief was prepared for the ABA by lawyers Mark Donatelli, Peter Schoenburg and Paul Linnenburger of Rothstein Donatelli in Santa Fe.

Missing words in sixth paragraph corrected on June 9.

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