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Pressure mounts on public defenders amid funding crisis

SANTA FE, N.M. — A district attorney in southern New Mexico is petitioning the state Supreme Court to order public defense attorneys back to work on behalf of criminal defendants who cannot afford legal representation.

District Attorney Dianna Luce on Wednesday confirmed her request for the Supreme Court to intervene, citing more than 200 instances in which the Law Offices of the Public Defender has sought to withdraw its attorneys in magistrate and district court cases in Lea County.

“What we’re seeking is for the public defenders to do their statutory duty,” she said. “The public defenders have selected only Lea County to stop accepting new felony cases … claiming a lack of attorneys and a lack of funding.”

Chief Public Defender Ben Baur said his agency’s attorneys previously declined to accept cases and continue to ask to withdraw in some instances because increased caseloads and limited funding are making it impossible to provide effective legal assistance. In October, the agency’s annual budget was reduced by 3 percent amid far reaching state spending cuts.

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Earlier this week, a New Mexico judge fined Baur and found him in contempt for failing to provide lawyers to defendants who couldn’t afford them. Lea County District Judge Gary Clingman imposed a $1,000 fine in each of five criminal cases in which the public defender’s office failed to make an appearance.

Clingman told Baur that he could purge the contempt finding by following his statutory duty to represent defendants.

Public Defender Commission Chairman Michael Stout said the contempt decision is the clearest consequence so far of the funding crisis facing the Law Offices of the Public Defender. Baur and his team are still discussing how to respond to Clingman’s condition for purging the contempt finding, while a magistrate judge in Hobbs considers similar contempt charges.

“We’ll follow the guidance of the Supreme Court or any other court going forward,” Baur said Wednesday.

Luce’s petition to the Supreme Court said Lea County is experiencing a breakdown in the judicial process and that public defenders do not have the discretion to decline representation to indigent criminal defendants. It was unclear if the Supreme Court would take up the matter.

Contacted by phone, Luce questioned how public defenders could run out of money less than half way through the fiscal year.

Baur has explained that although state statute requires the public defender to appear in a case when ordered to do so by a judge, he has ethical concerns about stretching to meet that requirement.

He said there is an ethical duty to provide defendants facing jail time with effective and constitutional representation, and that his office is struggling to do that in Lea County and other places where the caseloads are so high that attorneys feel they cannot provide effective assistance.

Baur would not speak in detail about the agency’s finances.

“You cannot just continue to pile clients and cases onto lawyers,” Baur said. “You can no longer provide effective assistance.”

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Information from: The Santa Fe New Mexican, http://www.sfnewmexican.com


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