House Finance approves extra money for public defenders amid constitutionality concerns

The Juneau Court House across the street from the Alaska State Capitol building. (Photo by gillfoto/Wikimedia Ccmmons)

The Public Defender Agency has been staring down a projected increase in cases that would put the agency beyond its ethical limit, meaning that overworked public defenders could have had to start delaying or declining cases. It raised the spectre of a potential violation of the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the right to adequate legal counsel, as other states have experienced when public defenders run short of money.

Today, the House Finance Committee put those concerns to rest, at least for the time being, by approving an additional $1.034 million to fund four additional attorneys for the Public Defender Agency. The increase still will need to survive the House floor, the Senate and Gov. Bill Walker’s veto pen.

The amendment was put forward by Rep. Jason Grenn, I-Anchorage, and supported by House Majority Coalition members on the House Finance Committee during the first hearing on amendments to the operating budget following public testimony.

“It helps both victims and those in need of defense,” he said.

The additional public defenders would be located in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Ketchikan and Bethel.

Increased funding for prosecutors and law enforcement officers that’s already in the budget along with changes to how Anchorage’s prosecutors are handling cases are all leading to an expected spike of criminal cases being brought forward. The budget for the Public Defender Agency was untouched. As one testifier explained last week during operating budget on public testimony, the increased funding was all on “one side of the table.”

Public Defender Agency head Quinlan Steiner told The Midnight Sun last week that the projected increase in caseloads would require attorneys work beyond 90 hours a week on average for the entire year.

“There’s a principle of ethics that requires a lawyer not to accept a case if they can’t competently handle a case,” he said. “Not having enough time would be that reason. We would attempt to refuse cases. ”

He said if a judge granted that motion, the state would be required to seek private defense lawyers at a higher cost to the state. If not, he said there would be substantial delays in cases and a higher risk for mistakes.

The increased funding was met with opposition from the committee’s minority Republicans. Rep. Lance Pruitt led the charge by arguing that the problem isn’t of funding or the additional prosecutors, but management of the Public Defender Agency.

“The problem here isn’t a money issue, it’s a management issue,” he said, suggesting that the agency could be more efficient with how it handles cases.

The amendment passed with full support of the House Majority Coalition’s seven committee members (Grenn, Gara, Guttenberg, Kawasaki, Ortiz, Foster and Seaton) to the minority Republican opposition (Pruitt, Thompson, Wilson and Tilton).

This is what you asked for, right?

Pruitt later put forward a pair of amendments that would eliminate all 10 of the Public Defender Agency’s high-level supervising attorneys and replace them with 15 low-level attorneys, typically lawyers fresh out of law school or off their first clerkship. The agency has asked for more attorneys so here’s more attorneys, Pruitt argued. The younger attorneys would be adequate, he said, because he’s sat on juries for trials with young attorneys and said they did fine.

It wasn’t that simple, argued Steiner, who said the high-level attorneys had the skills and knowledge to handle high-level cases like murders and first degree rapes. Without them, he said, the agency would be in the same place as was with high caseloads and it would have to consider trying to decline cases on an ethical ground.

“The impact of the suggest amendments would be fairly dramatic. We’d lose that supervisory class and all of that expertise that goes along with litigation,” he said. “It would essentially render us incompetent to handle that level of cases.”

The amendment package failed on a 8Y-3N vote. Rep. Tammie Wilson, who voted against the funding increase for the Public Defender Agency, crossed over to vote with the members of the House Majority Coalition against Pruitt’s amendments.

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