New Mexico Supreme Court weighs action on defender workload
By MORGAN LEE
Jul. 26, 2017
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Justices of the New Mexico Supreme Court prodded prosecutors and public defenders Wednesday for possible ways to ease pressure on defense attorneys in the state who have complained of being overwhelmed by crushing caseloads of poor clients that they say hinders their ability to provide effective representation.
Public defenders last year declined to represent or withdrew their representation of hundreds of indigent criminal defendants facing jail time in the southeastern corner of the state, only to be rebuffed by a district court judge who said they were doing reasonably good work.
The independent agency overseeing public defenders across New Mexico took its concerns to the Supreme Court, emphasizing in arguments that many of its public defense attorneys have caseloads that exceed independent recommendations.
Meanwhile, state and local prosecutors told the five-member court that evidence is insufficient to show indigent defendants are being left without adequate legal representation, both in the case under scrutiny for Lea County and across the state.
The court took no immediate action Wednesday, reserving more time for deliberations that could stretch for weeks or months. Several justices sought suggestions on how New Mexico should measure whether heavy caseloads threaten constitutional guarantees to effective legal representation, and on possible emergency measures to ease burdens on public defenders without compromising public safety.
"If we were to conclude that the public defender's office can't completely and constitutionally and statutorily comply with their obligations to provide adequate representation to all the clients, what can the courts do in that situation with those clients?" Justice Charles Daniels asked.
The Law Offices of the Public Defender has suggested possibly dismissing cases involving relatively minor, nonviolent offenses and recruiting attorneys without pay to serve poor defendants.
Assistant New Mexico Attorney General Regina Ryanczak insisted evidence is insufficient to prove that public defense attorneys were stretched too thin to provide effective legal representation in Lea County, while acknowledging pressures across the judiciary to conserve money amid a downturn in state revenues, largely due to low oil and gas prices in a state that depends heavily on the petroleum industry.
She cited high acquittal rates in Lea County as evidence of effective representation by public defenders — rates that public defenders regard as evidence of overzealous prosecutions that clog courts.
Pressed for answers about what might be done to limit burdens on public defenders, Ryanczak suggested easing requirements for speedy trials — prompting grumblings from the crowd inside the courtroom.
David Henderson, appellate attorney for the Law Offices of the Public Defender, emphasized that indigent defendants in Lea County went without legal representation at initial court appearances that determine whether they are released on bail or linger in jail.
He acknowledged that detailed statistics did not exist about how much time attorneys spent with defendants, but insisted public defenders are wrongfully being forced to take on new clients while struggling with heavy caseloads.
"It's our position the evidence shows this is not a local problem, it's a statewide problem," Henderson said.
The American Bar Association and a national advocacy group for public defense attorneys support New Mexico's chief public defender in the Supreme Court proceedings. They have said the New Mexico situation illustrates a national crisis regarding the treatment of poor defendants.
Stephen Hanlon, general counsel for the National Association for Public Defense, told the court New Mexico is a candidate for an in-depth workload study on public defenders that has been performed in states struggling with similar issues including Missouri, Louisiana and Colorado.