Statewide Public Defender Becoming a Reality

Affiliate: ACLU of Montana
June 8, 2005 12:00 am

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HELENA, MT – The American Civil Liberties Union today applauded the Montana legislature for enacting a precedent-setting bill that creates the state’s first ever state-wide public defender office.

ACLU Hails Montana’s Public Defense Bill as Leading National Trend (6/8/05)

“Montana’s new public defender system is a national model for other states striving to remedy deficiencies in their delivery of indigent defense,” said Scott Crichton, Executive Director of ACLU of Montana, at a news conference in Helena.

“The Constitution calls for appointing qualified counsel to anyone who is facing prison time for criminal charges and cannot afford an attorney,” Crichton added. “Upholding these rights isn’t just the fair thing to do, it is the law. The amount of money in your pocket shouldn’t determine the kind of justice you receive.”

More than three years ago, the ACLU of Montana filed a lawsuit, White et al. v. Martz et al., asserting that public defenders did not have proper funding and oversight, and therefore could not confer with clients in a meaningful manner, conduct necessary pre-trial investigations, secure necessary expert assistance or prepare adequately for hearings and trials. “The legislature agreed with us concerning the need for a Constitutionally sound and adequately funded system,” Crichton said.

“We’re excited by this new legislation,” said Helena attorney Ron Waterman, lead counsel in the ACLU lawsuit. “We expect that experienced attorneys, coupled with economies of scale, will produce an efficient and cost-effective public defense system.” Waterman said the system is scheduled to become fully effective on July 1, 2006.

Crichton and Waterman said the process of filling the 11 positions on the newly created public defender commission has already begun. Appointees are being recommended by the state bar, state supreme court, president of the state senate, speaker of the state house, and governor. The two said they are encouraging the appointment of individuals familiar with the law as it relates to people with mental health and disabilities, substance abuse treatment, low income and minority rights advocacy.

After July 1, 2005, the commission will select the new office’s chief public defender, establish regional offices, conduct staff trainings, and identify technological needs associated with creating a state-wide system.

The bill, sponsored by Senators Dan McGee and Mike Wheat, provides that the commission must incorporate widely recognized national standards that address manageable caseloads and sufficient support systems, including legal secretaries and investigators. It also requires sufficient funding to allow attorneys employed by the public defender system to provide the level of legal representation required under the Montana Constitution. The bill commits the state to creating appropriate training for attorneys, paralegals and support staff and calls for staff supervision and evaluations consistent with national standards.

Waterman said m any people will benefit from the new public defender system. “Legislators saw the wisdom of expanding public defender services in cases of abuse and neglect, involuntary commitment, and juvenile justice court cases,” he said. “These are in addition to indigent felons or people who have committed misdemeanors who could lose their liberty.”

In addition to Waterman and Crichton, speakers at the Helena news conference included: Senators McGee and Wheat, Vincent Warren, a senior staff attorney with national ACLU; and Fern Laetham of the National Legal Aid Defenders Association.

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