Rochester public defender threatened with contempt

A Rochester public defender has been threatened with a contempt of court citation for missing a hearing, but Rick Smith and his boss told the judge he was scheduled to be in two courthouse in two different counties at once - a symptom of chronic understaffing.

Fillmore County Judge Robert Benson, who is also the chief judge of the 3rd Judicial District, issued the threat this week to Smith, his boss, and the chief public defender of the state, the Rochester Post-Bulletin reported Friday.

All three could face jail time and lose their licenses to practice law.

Smith, Karen Duncan, the chief public defender in the 3rd district, and John Stuart, the chief public defender of the state, can argue against the contempt citation at a Monday court hearing.

Duncan has asked for a continuance of Monday's hearing, saying the office needs more time to hire attorneys to represent the trio.

Public defenders are defense attorneys in criminal cases when a defendant can't afford a lawyer. They say understaffing and heavy caseloads have become problems.

This spring, several public defenders filed a grievance saying heavy caseloads put their law licenses and reputations at risk. It hasn't been resolved.

The Minnesota Board of Public Defense recently tried to reduce caseloads by asking the State Judicial Council to treat nonviolent crimes as offenses than can be handled with fines. The council took no action.

And Duncan has asked a Steele County District Court judge to reduce caseloads, but that request was denied.

In Smith's case, he was the defense attorney in two trials - one in Olmsted County and one in Fillmore County - both set to begin Wednesday.

In a Sept. 24 letter, Smith asked Benson to postpone the Fillmore County case because the defendant was in prison on another matter and Smith couldn't meet with him and prepare for trial. Smith also wrote that the defendant was expected to hear about the status of an appeal around Oct. 6. Smith said if the appeal was reversed, the conviction could not be used against his client in the upcoming trial.

In a Monday letter to Benson, Smith said he had been ordered to start a jury trial in Olmsted County on the same day as the Fillmore County trial, and that the judge in Olmsted County wouldn't postpone it.

Duncan also wrote to Benson on Tuesday, saying: "While I respect your authority to deny the motions (for continuance), and assume that you have valid and pressing reasons for doing so, I am writing to reiterate that I do not have a defender to send to those hearings."

She said that as of Sept. 23, each of the full-time public defenders in the district had an average of 200 open files. She asked Benson to issue sanctions to her or Stuart if necessary, but not to Smith.

In his order Wednesday, Benson said the Fillmore County case was scheduled for a three-day jury trial starting Sept. 29 and that Smith had known about that since May 27. ---

Information from: Rochester Post-Bulletin

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.