Facing Budget 'Crisis,' Public Defenders May Refuse Cases

"I think what they're doing is greedy," he said. "This is nothing more than a power play on their part to try to take the decision making out of the legislature and put it in the courts in terms of funding.

"But at who's expense?" he said. "Do we cut the schools? Do we cut health services? Everybody has had to share in the reductions."

John Stuart, the head of Minnesota Public Defenders, said his office would cut 72 of its 440 attorneys, or about 16 percent, and will stop representing parents in child welfare cases and in some drug court cases.

The Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, facing a $2.3 million budget cut, plans to stop taking cases involving multiple defendants charged with the same crime, involuntary commitment cases and family court cases -- between 10,000 and 20,000 a year, said Erwin Lewis, the state public advocate.

Lewis said he planned to ask local judges to force the state finance cabinet to pay for private attorneys in extra cases, though it was unclear if that plan would be successful. "We're trying to facilitate it so court doesn't grind to a halt," he said.

A spokeswoman said the finance cabinet had no comment on the proposal.

Under Kentucky law, public defenders must have a judge's permission to be removed from a case. Lewis or local public defenders could face contempt of court citations and jail if they refuse to follow a judge's order to represent a client.

"This is an action for which I am ultimately responsible, and any sanctions or retribution should be directed at me rather than a directing attorney or individual staff attorney," Lewis wrote in a letter to the state's judges.

In Atlanta, where the state public defender services recently announced plans to close one of its offices, leaving 1,850 defendants temporarily without lawyers, the local chief judge said this week that the situation may lead to a "legal crisis."

The Georgia state government is working out plans to provide those defendants with other attorneys or to keep the current public defenders on the cases at least temporarily.

But several of those suspects and their lawyers filed a proposed class-action lawsuit on Wednesday against the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, charging that the firing of 16 attorneys violates their right to due process and right to counsel. They are seeking a restraining order to keep the lawyers, who are scheduled to lose their jobs at the end of the month, in place for at least three months.

The firings will mean defendants will receive "only perfunctory representation by lawyers contracted to handle a high volume of cases for meager compensation," the lawsuit claims. "Representation by knowledgeable public defenders will be replaced by lawyers who meet, greet and plead their clients in as little time as possible."

The cuts come to the Metro Conflict Defender Office, which handles cases in which it would be a conflict of interest for the public defender's office to represent more than one client charged with the same crime. The cuts would eliminate conflict public defenders in Atlanta in juvenile and superior court.

The local district attorney, Paul Howard, told ABC News that the cuts could make it difficult to prosecute some cases. He also worried that a proposed plan to pay lawyers $200 for a plea bargain and $600 for a trial could diminish the quality of representation.

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