By Sarah Horner
Frustrations among public defenders with growing caseloads and what they say is problematic scheduling in the Ramsey County District Court system came to a head this week when a judge held two attorneys in contempt of court — including Ramsey County’s chief public defender.
The rare reprimand prompted a swarm of public defenders, law clerks and others to pack Ramsey County District Judge Thomas Gilligan Jr.’s courtroom Tuesday to show support for their colleagues and advocate for changes they say would help them serve their clients and deal with heavy workloads, several said.
“It’s a miserable lose-lose situation for everybody,” Ramsey County Chief Public Defender Jim Fleming said of the burden Ramsey County’s trial scheduling system places on already overworked public defenders. “People just get ground up and spit out.”
Ramsey County Chief District Judge John Guthmann said after the hearing that the court system has seen an increase in murder and shooting-related trials recently. That has placed added tension on the judicial system in general, not just public defenders, Guthmann added.
“(So) while moving more slowly allows (public defenders) to better manage their workloads … my judicial colleagues and I want to make sure that we are being thoughtful about the impact slowing down cases will have on the rights of defendants, the rights of victims of crime, and the rest of the justice system,” Guthmann said.
PUBLIC DEFENDERS DOUBLE BOOKED
Tuesday’s incident arose after public defender Baylea Kannmacher got word Friday that one of her cases was to go to trial before Gilligan this week.
With hearings already scheduled for other clients, Kannmacher said she explained to the court she wouldn’t be able to proceed with the trial at that time.She was told in response that she’d have to make it work and to be present at a hearing in the case Monday morning, according to Kannmacher. After explaining the situation to Fleming, her boss, Kannmacher was instructed not to attend the hearing. Instead, Fleming said he would go.
When he showed up in her stead and again communicated to Gilligan that the trial could not proceed due to the scheduling conflict, Gilligan ordered both of them to be held in contempt of court, according to both Fleming and Kannmacher. Gilligan scheduled a hearing on the matter for Tuesday morning.
ATTORNEYS RISKED ARREST
While both Fleming and Kannmacher risked being arrested or fined Tuesday, Gilligan ended up rescinding Kannmacher’s contempt of court and staying Fleming’s.
The judge also explained to the packed courtroom what prompted him to take the unusual action, which he said he hopes will be the start of ongoing talks with public defenders about how Ramsey County schedules cases.
“I have seen the effect the (growing) caseload has had on you …,” Gilligan said. “I listen carefully to your requests for continuance. … If you have to be in two or three courtrooms (at once), I try to accommodate that.
“I understand the concerns of the public defender’s office … and we can have discussions about those issues. … But brinkmanship is not a way to address those issues,” Gilligan continued.
A NEW WAY OF OPERATING
The judge’s reprimands for Fleming and Kannmacher came on the same day the public defender’s office rolled out changes to the way it distributes cases among its staff to help offset some of their workload, Fleming said.
It also came on the heels of a letter Fleming sent to the court of the public defender’s office’s expectation that Ramsey County begin scheduling Rule 8 hearings for defendants the same as other counties do.
Fleming said Ramsey County has historically rolled that hearing regarding legal representation into a defendant’s first appearance. Reinstating it would buy public defenders more time to work with their clients and better ensure the best outcome for their cases, Fleming said.
He added that Ramsey County also asks public defenders to be on-call for four-week trial blocks, meaning one of their trials could be called to begin at any point during that time period. Since public defenders can’t afford to sit idle for a month in anticipation, they often have to schedule other clients’ hearings within the same window, Fleming said. The result is that scheduling conflicts often occur, public defenders are exhausted and overworked, and defendants’ cases can suffer, Fleming said.
“It’s so bad private lawyers won’t even take cases in Ramsey County,” he said.
WHAT OTHER COUNTIES DO
Other metro-area counties have two-week trial blocks for cases, Fleming said, adding that they also make other scheduling accommodations to meet the needs of strapped public defenders.
Guthmann said he is not aware of those differences elsewhere. He said he’s asked public defenders to bring documentation of that to future conversations on the issue.Those discussions began Tuesday morning, when Fleming, state Chief Public Defender William Ward, Guthmann and Ramsey County District Judge Nicole Starr sat down in chambers to discuss the scheduling challenges.
“This is a very complex issue,” Guthmann said, adding that the court is bound by state statute to afford defendants and victims trials in a timely manner. “(The public defenders’ office) is obviously acting in the best interest of their clients and we are working in the best interest of both their clients and all the other components of the criminal justice system.”
One of the frustrations among Fleming and his staff is that they say they have attempted to discuss scheduling changes in the past with court staff but maintain that those talks were halted abruptly without explanation.
CASELOADS EXCEED RECOMMENDED LEVELS
While calling out the irregularities within the county’s problematic scheduling system, Ward said Tuesday that problems also exist for public defenders statewide.
The average public defender in the metro area juggles about 550 misdemeanor cases a year and 300 felony cases, he said. By comparison, the American Bar Association recommends caseloads be capped at about 400 misdemeanors and 130 felonies.
With that context in mind, it appears that some in Minnesota’s legal system expect public defenders to just sub in for each other whenever a colleague has a conflict, Ward said, but that doesn’t equate to good service for defendants.
Defendants build relationships with public defenders and get better representation when they are served by the same one throughout their case, he said.
“Our clients and lawyers are treated as fungible goods and that is just not right …,” Ward said. “The (system) needs to start thinking about the human toll this takes on our clients and lawyers.”
Both Fleming and Ward said they are hopeful future conversations with judges will result in those changes.
While Kannmacher said she’s glad Gilligan rescinded her contempt of court finding, she’s more interested in seeing judges and court staff across the county and state address a “broken system.”
The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the contempt of court issue but released the following statement on scheduling conflicts.
“We recognize that a solution will require a collaborative approach that takes the interests of all affected parties into consideration,” the statement read. “As we have for many years, we will continue to participate in any future discussions on this issue.”