Almost anyone involved with the Office of the State Public Defender in Montana can tell you: This first 18 months has been a little rocky. There’s not enough money and that means there’s not enough people or other resources to fulfill the mandates set for the Office by the legislature and the ACLU case that started this whole ball rolling. Of course, those are the same problems plaguing indigent defense systems nationwide; usually it’s just a matter of degree. Take, for example, Missouri, where it appears things have truly reached a state of crisis.
That story doesn’t provide much detail, but it does suggest the attorneys are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The courts are saying they’re personally liable for inadequate or ineffective assistance of counsel, regardless of the fact that the legislature won’t provide them the resources they need to do their jobs. So what is a lawyer to do? Have they begun refusing to take cases? That might be a start. Of course, then the article says the legislature is “considering” a bill that would allow the lawyers to refuse to take case. Um, what? You mean to say there’s some law saying they can’t refuse? Even when their rules of professional conduct say they must refuse if they cannot adequately represent new clients? Whoa.
Obviously no matter how bad things seem, they could always get worse….
Meanwhile, it sounds like the Vermont Supreme Court just issued a fascinating opinion on speedy trial delays. If the news article is correct, it says that public defenders are part of “the state,” so delay caused by a public defender is attributable to the state, not to the defendant. Crazy. I mean, it actually might be a more fair way to look at it in many cases where a public defender’s heavy workload means he/she isn’t ready for trial and has to ask for more time through no fault of the defendant, but still, this decision would turn speedy trial analysis upside down in Montana.