New Mexico Supreme Court weighs burden on public defenders - Albuquerque Journal

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.

Albuquerque Journal and its reporters are committed to telling the stories of our community.

• Do you have a question you want someone to try to answer for you? Do you have a bright spot you want to share?
   We want to hear from you. Please email

Nativo Sponsored Content

Ad Tango

taboola desktop


Death of female hiker in Scottsdale was due to ...
Around the Region
The death of a woman while ... The death of a woman while hiking in Scottsdale last weekend was believed to be due to medical reasons, authorities said Tuesday. The Maricopa ...
Texas executions delayed over religious rights claims
Around the Region
The unresolved legal debate over whether ... The unresolved legal debate over whether spiritual advisers can touch inmates and pray aloud as condemned individuals are being put to death has delayed ...
Page school district superintendent rescinds his resignation
Around the Region
The superintendent of the Page Unified ... The superintendent of the Page Unified School District who resigned Sunday after allegedly making a racist remark at a board meeting last week now ...
Police: 2 killed in wrong-way crash on Tempe surface ...
Around the Region
A man and a 2-year-old girl ... A man and a 2-year-old girl who were passengers in a vehicle driven by a teenager were killed in a wrong-way crash on a ...
Court tosses suit against Texas county's drive-thru voting
Around the Region
A 2020 lawsuit to bar drive-thru ... A 2020 lawsuit to bar drive-thru voting in Houston was rejected Monday by a federal appeals court in New Orleans. The lawsuit was filed ...
Sheriff: Child's remains, 3 abandoned siblings found in home
Around the Region
The skeletal remains of a child ... The skeletal remains of a child were found inside an apartment in the Houston area along with three surviving siblings who appear to have ...
Navajo Nation: No COVID-19 deaths for 18th time in ...
Around the Region
The Navajo Nation on Monday reported ... The Navajo Nation on Monday reported 37 more COVID-19 cases, but no coronavirus-related deaths for the 18th time in the past 26 days. The ...
Tucson police: Body is found in a pond on ...
Around the Region
A body has been found in ... A body has been found in a pond on Tucson's south side, according to authorities. Police said officers were working with the Tucson Fire ...
3rd Pima County resident faces illegal voting charges
Around the Region
The Arizona attorney general on Monday ... The Arizona attorney general on Monday announced the indictment of a Pima County man who is accused of voting in the 2020 election despite ...