Monday, April 6, 2020

Two courts uphold public defenders' ability to limit caseload

The Legal Profession blog recently reported two different instances where courts in Wyoming and Massachusetts recognized that public defenders should be allowed to refuse new cases. 

In the Massachusetts case, the attorney in charge informed the First Justice of the Springfield District Court that staff attorneys in the Springfield Public's Defenders' Office could not handle any more duty days in that court. In response, the district court ordered that the public defender continue to accept appointments.  The Supreme Court reversed holding that "to the extent such an order may require . . . staff attorneys to accept more appointments than they can reasonably handle, it risks interfering with their ethical obligations under the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct to act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing their clients, and thereby threatens to undermine the very right to counsel that the order seeks to protect."

In the Wyoming case, State Public Defender Diane Lozano notified the Circuit Court of the Sixth Judicial District that until further notice, the public defender was not available to take appointments to represent misdemeanor defendants due to an excessive caseload and shortage of attorneys in its Campbell County office. Shortly thereafter, the circuit court entered orders appointing Ms. Lozano, or her representative, to represent misdemeanor defendants in two cases. When the local public defender’s office declined the appointments, the court held Ms. Lozano in contempt. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that "[t]he public defender is in the best position to know its resources, including its attorneys, the skills and experience of its attorneys, and the weight and complexity of each office’s caseload."

Further, the court explained that "Ms. Lozano testified concerning the public defender’s caseload policies and that the Campbell County office was at 168% of the maximum caseload. Counsel for the Wyoming State Bar testified that the public defender’s policies on caseloads “support a way of measuring when an attorney’s caseload gets to the point where the attorney has no ethical choice but to decline representation.”"

Based on that, the court concluded that the public defender has discretion to decline an appointment or appointments and that in exercising that discretion, there is no requirement, statutory or otherwise, that the public defender show an individualized injury in fact or meet the Strickland post-conviction showing of prejudice.

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