Minneapolis (7-12-04): -- An open letter to the Governor and Legislative leaders:
The letter below was sent this week by Hennepin County Bar Association President Brent Routman to Governor Pawlenty, Senate Majority Leader Johnson and Speaker of the House Sviggum urging a special session of the Legislature in order to deal with the pending crisis in the judicial system precipitated by budget reduction for the office of the Public Defender. HCBA President Brent Routman encourages the media to share this letter with the public through either the opinion page or direct news coverage.
July 12, 2004
The Honorable Timothy Pawlenty
State of Minnesota
130 State Capitol
75 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd
St. Paul, Minnesota 55155
Dear Governor Pawlenty:
On behalf of the Hennepin County Bar Association (HCBA), I am writing to you to express in the strongest possible terms the concern of our association and its 7,800 attorney members, regarding the threatened layoffs of public defenders and the potentially devastating impact the layoffs would have on our state. We respectfully urge you, Majority Leader Johnson, and House Speaker Sviggum to make this issue a top priority. We urge that you either call a special legislative session, or, if a special session cannot be called, commit in writing to give this issue the highest priority in January once the Legislature is reconvened.
As Americans, we pride ourselves on the fundamental rights accorded to each of us in our constitution, the independence of our courts, and the humane treatment afforded those accused of criminal conduct. We know well that for a nation of laws to function and remain credible, we must ensure the smooth and efficient administration of justice to resolve disputes and to adjudicate the guilt of criminal defendants. A fully preventable failure of the system to meet the needs of the public due to inadequate funding or political wrangling would be, at a minimum, a disservice to Minnesotans.
The Constitution secures the right to representation and speedy trial for those accused of a crime. The anticipated layoff of 25% of the public defender staff, most significantly, the assistant public defenders, will have an impact far beyond the rights of the accused. The results are likely to look something like this. The 240 public defenders that will remain employed will be asked to do the work of the 114 full time equivalents that are to be discharged, and to fully handle the 175,000 new public defender matters that are opened annually. The caseloads of those remaining with the PD’s office or as part time PDs, will increase from current levels of 800-950 cases per person (already over twice the 400 cases recommended by the American Bar Association) to nearly 1,200 per person. Nearly all of the public defender offices throughout the state are not county subsidized, including Ramsey County. Those offices will suffer the full brunt of the cutbacks.
But, there's more. Defendants charged with less serious offenses will be released from incarceration as their cases will not be able to be heard in a timely fashion. Criminal caseloads will either be delayed or, in some situations, charges will be dropped as the courts will be unable to comply with constitutional mandates for a speedy trial. Children charged with delinquency will not be served. Victims will either have their day in court delayed or might, if the charges are dropped, never see justice done. Witnesses will be burdened with the challenge of recalling events that occurred months, perhaps years, earlier. As criminal matters logjam the court system, civil matters will be placed on the back burner and domestic and property disputes will not be timely heard.
Clearly, we all need to do what we can to prevent the above scenario from becoming a reality. I urge you to take all steps necessary to convene a special session of the legislature as quickly as possible. The draconian effects of the 7.6 million dollar shortfall are set to take place as soon as next month in many counties. Any delay is contrary to the public interest and will be devastating. In the event that a special session is impossible, please reduce an agreement to writing with the leaders of the House and Senate to make funding for the Public Defender the first priority in January when the Legislature convenes in normal session.
Minnesotans are fortunate to have outstanding elected officials in State government. Now is time for the bipartisan leadership of the House, Senate, and Statehouse to take the difficult but necessary steps to make a difference.
Please accept our appreciation for your good efforts.
Brent E. Routman
Hennepin County Bar Association
Merchant & Gould
80 S. 8th Street
3200 IDS Center
Minneapolis, MN 55402