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Swollen public defender caseloads and hard-pressed judges have resulted in attorneys landing in jail or appealing cases they believe were tried with not nearly enough preparation. In Ohio, a public defender was jailed and held in contempt last month for refusing to go to trial in an assault case having only had a few hours to prepare. The case is on appeal. Ohio v. Jones, No. K2007 CRB 1550 (Portage Co., Ohio, Mun. Ct.). In Louisiana, a supervisor of a public defender’s office was held in contempt and jailed in January because a staffing shortage prevented the office from having an attorney available for a juvenile hearing. Bell v. Singer, No. 2007-C-0036 (La. 4th Ct. App.). Also in Louisiana, a private attorney is appealing a second-degree murder conviction, claiming that the defendant was denied due process because his government-appointed lawyer was pressured into trying the case with only 11 minutes to prepare. Louisiana v. Bell Jr., No. 01183-KA (La. 3d Ct. App.). Meanwhile, the American Council of Chief Defenders, the nation’s leading organization for chief public defenders, is calling on the courts to cut public defenders some slack and lighten their workload. On Sept. 6, responding to what it called a “caseload crisis,” the group passed a resolution calling for appropriate caseload and workload standards for public defenders, limiting their work to no more than 150 felonies a year, or 400 nontraffic misdemeanors. Other proposed limits would include no more than 200 juvenile cases, or 200 mental health cases, or 25 noncapital appeals. “I think there’s an incredible problem of coercion going on,” said Malia N. Brink, indigent defense counsel for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “Too often, there’s pressure from judges on public defenders to move cases quickly without being adequately prepared.” The recent case of the jailed Ohio public defender, Brink said, is a perfect example of that coercion. The case involved attorney Brian Jones, who refused to try an assault case because he wasn’t prepared. He claimed he had 2 1/2 hours to interview three witnesses and his client, and to go over the details of the case. “I thought it was egregious,” Brink said of the Ohio case. “The idea that someone would have less than three hours to prepare for a trial when the results of the trial impact someone’s liberty is absurd. It is literally like asking a surgeon to go into surgery without having run any tests to figure out what’s wrong.” A judge speaks up Not quite, countered Portage County Municipal Judge John Plough, the judge who found the Ohio public defender in contempt. He said that he’s seen plenty of public defenders try cases on short notice, much like emergency room doctors perform surgery on a moment’s notice. “I think they do have very heavy caseloads. I don’t dispute that. But I still think they have plenty of time to do what they need to do to give people a fair trial,” Plough said. Plough defended his actions in the Jones case, stressing that he ordered the trial proceed because he didn’t want to inconvenience three witnesses who showed up to court that day. He said Jones had a day and half to prepare for the case � not a few hours. He added that Jones never filed a motion for continuance, never visited the defendant and did not make an attempt to interview any witnesses during a lunch break, as he was requested to do. Unfortunately, public defenders are under the gun to try cases even if they’re not prepared, said Christine Lehmann, chief public defender in Orleans Parish, La. “We have been faced with situations where judges have insisted on us proceeding to trial, despite our lawyers feeling strongly that they are not prepared to do so,” Lehmann said. Judges also have expressed frustration over staffing shortages at Lehmann’s office, which is roughly $4 million short of the money needed to staff the court. For example, in January, when a staffing shortage prevented the office from having an attorney available for a juvenile proceeding, the judge held the supervisor in contempt. “I think that, at times, judges are too quick to use the power of contempt, particularly when it is an issue of allocation of the staff,” Lehmann said. “I do not believe that supervisors or managers should be thrown in jail based on those decisions. Contempt is an extreme punishment, and is normally merited when there is willful disobedience of a judge’s order. And that wasn’t the case here.” That’s why public defender’s offices should just say no when they get too many cases, said Michael Judge, chief public defender in Los Angeles County. His office has a “declared unavailable” policy, which means that, when too many cases come in, the office says it’s unavailable, forcing the county to contract the work out to the private bar. Judge said he’s turned away anywhere from 2,000 to 19,000 cases a year.

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