Karen Duncan walked into an Owatonna court room Tuesday with a bold request.
Duncan, the chief public defender for 11 counties in southeastern Minnesota, asked a judge to free her and her staff from 46 criminal cases she said they are simply too overworked to handle. It was the first such request from a public defense system that is straining statewide from staff and budget reductions.
Judge Casey Christian denied Duncan's request, saying that defendants have a constitutional right to representation. But he told Duncan she could hire private attorneys for those defendants and send the bill to the state.
"We see it as a victory because in the courtroom it was clear that all of our justice partners believe this is an imminent emergency situation that needs to be dealt with on an emergency basis," Duncan told MPR News.
Judge Christian's written ruling is expected this week. Duncan said that the ruling might mean that she could hire more attorneys, depending on the wording of the decision. She said she would need to double her staff to provide competent legal representation for clients in the state's 3rd Judicial District.
"I think it's dangerous for our citizens if we're deciding that we no longer need to fund core government services," she said. "Public defense and the criminal court system is a constitutional mandate. It's not an option. It's not frosting for the citizenry."
Duncan said the ruling could impact other districts, and that the state's chief public defenders will discuss the judge's decision at a meeting on Friday. She said she expects other districts will face similar problems in the next few months.
The 3rd Judicial District's workload sharply increased recently when six attorneys took unpaid voluntary leave in two months, Duncan said. At the same time, the number of office specialists dropped from five to two.
The remaining office specialists couldn't keep pace with processing hundreds of files from the departing attorneys, she said.
Duncan said that the situation worsened when one of the counties received a case with 17 co-defendants. All of the defendants needed a public defender, and she said the district was "scrambling" to assign enough attorneys.
"All of these things were happening at once," Duncan said. "And then I'm seeing more staff people still at work after midnight, working at 4 o'clock in the morning. And it was just so obvious that we cannot continue to do this."
Duncan said that, as a result, attorneys missed several court hearings that week.
"I'm not sure how much worse it can feel to go to court and have your lawyer not be there," she said.
Duncan said that the current workload also makes it impossible for public defenders to adequately prepare for court and gives the public an unfairly negative view of public defenders.
"The impression is that 'Good lawyers are prepared. Public defenders are not prepared. Therefore, public defenders are not good lawyers,'" she said. "And it's simply not true."
Duncan said it's unclear how the district will hire and pay for private attorneys. She expects the judge's written ruling will clarify the process.