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New protocol for public defenders

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Public defenders across the state now have more backing to decline cases if their caseload is too high to effectively represent their clients.

The state’s Public Defender Commission, which oversees the Law Offices of the Public Defender, voted Friday to approve a case refusal protocol to guide Chief Public Defender Ben Baur and the department’s staff in deciding when it is acceptable to decline taking new clients.

Public defenders in some southern New Mexican counties attempted to decline new clients in 2016 at Baur’s instruction. The effort was denied and Baur was held in contempt of court.

Baur and 5th Judicial District Attorney Dianne Luce took the issue to the state Supreme Court, which said the parties should seek other solutions to adjusting the caseload issue.

It isn’t clear how the courts will receive this protocol to decline new clients.

The protocol requires each public defender office – 13 in the state employing more than 220 attorneys and contracting with about 160 private attorneys – to continue keeping records of the case assignments per year for each attorney, including the nature of the charges. Each attorney will track all work time.

The caseload record will be reviewed by the LOPD chief quarterly. After three months of consistently high caseloads, based on national standards, the chief would then examine the work time logs and decide what resources can be moved or other measures taken to address the situation.

If those efforts don’t work and the affected attorney is not able ethically to take on new clients, the chief would file a “notice of case refusal” and instruct the attorney to decline to take on new cases until the caseload drops and is re-evaluated.

It is possible that the cases for defendants who aren’t represented would be dismissed.

National standards set a cap of 150 felony cases and 400 misdemeanor cases annually.

Staff reporter Ryan Boetel contributed to this story.