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Monday, August 11, 2008

Scheduling conflict leads to contempt proceeding for 3rd District public defender

In the 3rd Judicial District, the interim chief public defender, Karen Duncan, faces a contempt charge for not being present at one of two court proceedings scheduled in different counties for the same time.

Duncan was scheduled to handle a jury trial in Faribault (in Rice County) and to simultaneously be at a revocation hearing 15 miles away in Owatonna (in Steele County) on the morning of June 30. Upon receipt of the notice of conflicting hearings, she contacted court authorities in Owatonna, informed them of the scheduling conflict and requested a different hearing date for the revocation hearing. But Judge Casey Christian denied the request, and when Duncan did not appear at the scheduled time, set a court date of August 22 for her to show cause why she shouldn’t be held in contempt for missing the hearing.

Due to a hiring freeze enacted in 2007 and a round of budget and staff cuts that took effect last month, defenders are shorthanded. The Office of Public Defense has undertaken a number of steps to deal with its resource issues, including no longer representing parents in child-protection proceedings. Defenders more often than ever find themselves rushing from courtroom to courtroom trying to handle multiple matters.

“This is a case where the lawyer told the courts in two counties that she couldn’t be in both places at once,” said State Public Defender John Stuart in a press release. “We know the courts need to carry on their business, but as we have told everyone at the Capitol and in the justice system, along with losing 53 lawyer positions we have also lost the ability to do everything the courts want us to do, as quickly as they want to do it. The chief justice says there will be delays in the courts now, and, regretfully, we are part of that problem.”

Stuart told Minnesota Lawyer that, for the most part, the courts have been understanding of the resource issues faced by defenders and that there have been fewer showdowns over reductions in services than he originally anticipated.

The State Board of Public Defense has hired outside counsel, Philip Villaume, to handle Duncan’s hearing. Villaume has requested that Christian be disqualified as a material witness. Villaume has requested that the case be assigned to 3rd District Assistant Chief Judge Robert Benson because 3rd District Chief Judge William Johnson is also a witness in the case.

Villaume told Minnesota Lawyer that his client rushed back from Faribault to Owatonna, arriving approximately an hour after the time for which the revocation hearing had been scheduled. Villaume said that his client believes Judge Christian saw her in the courtroom, which is why Christian will be called as a witness. (Johnson is a witness because he is the judge Duncan was appearing before in Faribault.)

"This is a case where a lawyer was running behind schedule," Villaume said, noting public defenders frequently have to juggle multiple appearances and it doesn't always work out. With recent staff cuts, this is true more than ever, he added.

Villaume provided the following statistics demonstrating how busy 3rd District public defenders are. In the first six months of 2008, the caseload of the office of 17 full-time and 15 part-time defenders included: 1,106 felonies, 728 gross misdemeanors, 1,663 misdemeanors, 1,153 probation violations and more.

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