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New Mexico Supreme Court weighs burden on public defenders

SANTA FE – The New Mexico Supreme Court is considering whether public defense attorneys are being stretched too thin to adequately represent poor people facing possible jail time.

The independent agency overseeing public defense attorneys across New Mexico wants the court to step in and help deal with what it says are overwhelming case numbers, possibly by dismissing some nonviolent offenses or by other emergency measures.

State and local prosecutors insist the concerns are overblown, while a district judge has rejected attempts by defense attorneys to refuse new cases in southeastern New Mexico.

Here is a glance at what is at stake in Wednesday’s oral arguments at the Supreme Court:

ADEQUATE DEFENSE: Public defenders late last year declined or asked to withdraw from representing hundreds of indigent criminal defendants in Lea County.

The area became a flash point in long-running complaints about inadequate state funding for public defense attorneys after a surge in prosecutions came as defense attorneys were departing and retiring – leaving four defense attorneys to perform the work of six or more.

District Judge William Shoobridge has ordered public defenders to continue accepting new assignments, ruling on a case for a criminal defendant named Charles Lopez.

The Law Offices of the Public Defender is taking that case to the Supreme Court to confront what it says is a statewide problem that forces defense attorneys to take on more cases than they can manage in violation of professional and constitutional obligations.

PROSECUTORS RESPOND: The state Attorney General’s Office and Fifth Judicial District Attorney Dianna Luce argue public defenders and contract attorneys have been able to provide effective counsel, in spite of a state budget crisis that has restricted funding to the state judiciary.

As proof, state prosecutors cite an increase in acquittals in Lea County.

They are cautioning the Supreme Court to steer clear of the matter, asserting that public defenders could shift resources to areas of the state where attorneys are struggling with caseloads or weed out more cases in which defendants can afford their own attorney.

REMEDIES: New Mexico Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur says caseloads across most of the state exceed standards set by a national advisory commission.

He has suggested a variety of actions by the Supreme Court, including the recruitment of volunteer defense attorneys and an order to limit cases filed by district attorneys. The court also could appoint an independent “special master” to find a long-term solution.

Baur says caseloads again are spinning out of control, this time at courthouses in rural Lincoln County, where overwhelmed defense attorneys have been unable to attend initial court appearances by poor people accused of crimes.

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