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11th Circuit PD says his office is at ‘the breaking point’

Senior Editor Regular News

While the appeal drags on in the case of the constitutional crisis of not enough lawyers to do the job, the 11th Circuit Public Defender’s Office has “reached the breaking point” and must inform their clients.

“Our practical, professional, and ethical problems are real, immediate, and of overwhelming magnitude,” retiring Public Defender Bennett Brummer and Public Defender-elect Carlos Martinez wrote in a recent letter to Chief Judge Joseph Farina.

The purpose of the letter, they said, is to give as much notice as possible that they have no choice but to let their clients know they must prioritize felony cases — and third-degree felony cases in which the client is not in custody will be given the lowest priority, even though the office is still required to accept the court appointments.

“PD-11 will officially inform our clients and the courts by filing notices as to our lack of professional capacity to timely and effectively investigate cases, meet with clients, locate and interview witnesses, take depositions, and otherwise prepare for trial in a timely manner, and further advising them of probable serious delays in handling their cases if they wish us to handle them.. . .

“PD-11 intends this notice to provide our clients with sufficient information to enable them to make informed decisions, including whether they desire the court to provide alternative counsel.”

PD-11 actually won their desperate plea for help at the trial level. After a July 30-31 evidentiary hearing, Stanford Blake, 11th Circuit administrative judge of the criminal division, ruled that PD-11 could stop taking new third-degree felony cases beginning September 15 ( see September 15 News ).

“Unfortunately, even the relief granted by Judge Blake’s order has been purely academic,” the public defenders wrote.

“The Third District Court of Appeal stayed that order, despite our best efforts to oppose and then to dissolve the stay. The Third District Court of Appeal has now set a briefing and oral argument schedule such that no appellate decision will be forthcoming until after March 30, 2009.”

That will be nine months after PD-11 first filed for relief in June 2008, chronicling the office’s plight of higher crushing caseloads, even more departing attorneys, and the specter of a worsening budget crisis.

Since that time, Brummer and Martinez said, the 105 attorneys (including supervising and training attorneys) handling noncapital cases, with an average annual caseload of 436 — have dwindled to 96 lawyers presently handling 502 cases per attorney, a 16 percent increase in caseload.

Twenty-eight trial lawyers resigned since the Legislature finalized the FY 08-09 budget in May 2008—“a rate of attorney attribution that is about double PD-11’s historical rate.”

Thanking the judge for his leadership, understanding, and cooperation in trying to help manage their workload, the defenders nonetheless sounded the warning those efforts are not enough.

“Unfortunately, even before the budget cuts proposed for our office in the coming months, we find ourselves, despite our best managerial efforts, unable to fulfill our statutory, ethical, and constitutional obligations to the courts, our community, and all of our clients,” Brummer and Martinez wrote.

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