SANTA FE – The New Mexico Supreme Court won’t intervene on behalf of public defenders who say they are overwhelmed by cases from poor defendants facing jail time, court officials said Wednesday.
A state agency overseeing public defenders has insisted that its attorneys in various parts of the state are wrongfully being forced to take on more cases than they can handle without neglecting indigent defendants who cannot otherwise afford an attorney.
On Tuesday, justices of the Supreme Court unanimously denied a petition that sought to limit or reduce caseloads for public defenders.
New Mexico Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur said his office would continue to file protests in district courts when public defense attorneys are overwhelmed, and to push for additional state funding and statutory reforms that can reduce caseloads.
“It doesn’t say that we’re wrong,” Baur said of the court denial. “They’re not intervening at this time. We’re going to continue to raise the issue.”
During oral arguments before the Supreme Court in July, state and local prosecutors said the concerns from public defenders were overblown and that heavy workloads might be addressed by shifting resources to busy courts and identifying more defendants who can afford an attorney. Defense attorneys described those remedies as impractical or ineffective.
Attempts by defense attorneys to refuse new cases in southeastern New Mexico have been rejected by a district judge. More recently, public defenders sought to withdraw from cases in Lincoln County, citing overwhelming caseloads – with final decisions put on hold as the Supreme Court considered underlying issues.
In some instances, public defense attorneys say they have been unable to attend initial hearings where defendants may plead guilty.
The Law Offices of the Public Defender, which oversees about 400 staff and contract attorneys across the state, had urged the Supreme Court to consider several ways of reducing caseloads – by appointing volunteer attorneys; dismissing cases involving relatively minor, nonviolent offenses; or recruiting attorneys without pay to serve poor defendants.
Republican Governor and former prosecutor Susana Martinez vetoed legislation this year that would have reduced penalties for a long list of misdemeanors.
The number of cases assigned to the Law Offices of the Public Defender has increased by nearly 9 percent since 2014, according to new research from the nonpartisan Legislative Finance Committee. Overall funding to the judiciary increased by a similar share.
Public defenders and prosecutors alike are clamoring for more resources as New Mexico overhauls its pre-trial release system to rely less on financial bonding requirements, with courts taking more time to consider whether defendants pose a danger to public safety or flight risk.
Voters approved a constitutional amendment last year to ensure dangerous defendants remain incarcerated as they await trial, while allowing for the release of nonviolent suspects who might otherwise languish in jail because they cannot afford bail.
New bail procedures implemented by the state Supreme Court in July are the target of a lawsuit by the bail bond industry and a handful of lawmakers.
The changes have been welcomed by the Law Offices of the Public Defender, despite budget pressures.
“It helps to ensure the rights of our clients and ensure that people don’t stay in jail just because they don’t have money for bond,” Baur said. “It has taken more work.”