ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The state Supreme Court has ruled against a request from the state’s public defenders for relief from what they say are unsustainable caseloads in several southern New Mexico counties.
But unlike most court rulings that spell out the justices’ legal opinion, Tuesday’s order is a simple denial of the Law Office of the Public Defender’s petition, which sought a ruling that would allow overburdened defense attorneys in Lea County to decline new clients.
In that county and others, public defenders have been requesting to be excused from cases because they are overworked and unable to offer constitutionally mandated effective representation.
Those requests have been denied, prompting the appeal to the Supreme Court in one of the denied requests.
“I’m disappointed, but they didn’t say that we were wrong. They denied our petition, but there was not a legal finding that we don’t have the right or the obligation to raise this issue,” Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur said Wednesday. “We’re going to continue to raise this in district courts and the Legislature.”
Indeed, a similar case is brewing in Lincoln County, Baur said.
There, as in Lea County, public defenders say they have such large caseloads that they can’t give each enough attention to provide effective counsel as required by law. In those counties, public defenders say they are too busy to attend arraignments, the first court proceeding after an arrest at which bail and conditions of release can be set.
“There is a stream of clients, of people, and each one of them deserves to have a lawyer who understands their case and has the time to effectively represent them, and if we can’t do that we have to let the courts know,” Baur said.
At oral arguments before the justices on the issue in July, state prosecutors argued that the public defenders aren’t really as overburdened as they say and are able to take dozens of cases to trial successfully.
Baur said that in the year since they started requesting lower caseloads, more attorneys have been hired, but the problem remains.
“There are more attorneys now than there were then, but the caseloads are still well over any national standard, certainly lower than they were, but still far above,” he said.