Public defenders file grievance over workload

Published 10:30 am Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Public defenders in 11 southeastern Minnesota counties have filed a labor grievance over their heavy workload, saying they’re overwhelmed with cases and can no longer adequately represent their clients.

The Star Tribune reported Tuesday that the move is the first of its kind by public defenders in Minnesota. State budget cuts have left defenders working long hours and weekends without compensation.

“Public defenders for years have had excessive caseloads, and they finally came to a point where they decided to address it through a formal grievance process,” said Kari Seime, business agent for Local No. 320 of the Minnesota Teamsters Public and Law Enforcement Union.

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The grievance, filed last month with Karen Duncan, the chief public defender in the Third Judicial District, says that due to unmanageable workloads, innocent people could go to prison, people will be incarcerated longer and public defenders could lose their attorney licenses because they can’t do their jobs adequately.

The 14 attorneys who filed the complaint said they may even need to turn away new clients without more funding.

What’s happening in southeastern Minnesota reflects what’s happening statewide, Seime said.

John Stuart, chief public defender for Minnesota, said state budget cuts have fueled the crisis and that he’s “plenty concerned” that attorneys handle nearly twice as many cases as recommended by the American Bar Association and other organizations.

“This has been a statewide concern for quite a while, whether there are too many cases,” he told the newspaper. “We’re working on that quite a bit, as to what to do about that.”

Minnesota is down to 370 full-time-equivalent defender positions statewide, after 53 positions were cut in 2008 and another eight or nine public defenders left last year through attrition. More substantial cuts are feared on July 1 when the state’s new budget year starts.

The 11-page grievance points to a Feb. 10 report by the state legislative auditor that highlighted how public defenders’ heavy workloads are hindering the efficient operation of criminal courts.

Pat Kittridge, chief public defender in Ramsey County, in the second district, said he may have to lay off attorneys at the end of this fiscal year on June 30. He’s lost 12 positions since 2007, he said.

The problems aren’t confined to public defenders. Minnesota’s courts also have faced budget cuts in recent years, leading to staffing shortages and reduced services. Minnesota Chief Justice Eric Magnuson has described the state’s judiciary as being at a budgetary breaking point. Underfunding is also a chronic problem for legal aid programs, which represent people in civil cases. Nor are the problems confined to Minnesota; court systems and public defender funding have been on the chopping block across the nation.