The State Bar of Montana unanimously passed a resolution calling for funding for the Office of the Public Defender at levels adequate to fulfill its constitutional and statutory mandates at its annual meeting last week.

The resolution quotes U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black -- the justice who wrote the Gideon v. Wainwright decision 51 years ago -- describing defense counsel as essential for a fair trial: "This seems to us to be an obvious truth... Lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries."

It cites several ongoing problems, including caseloads in excess of American Bar Association standards, high staff turnover and delays, as impediments to a fair judicial system.

And it calls on the "Montana Legislature and the Governor of the State of Montana to recognize the constitutional imperative of providing competent professional representation for indigent defense, and to adequately fund the OPD program so that it can meet its mandates under the Public Defender Act for appropriate caseloads, training and mentoring of attorneys, and provide market wages for staff attorneys, private contract attorneys, investigators and support staff."

The State Bar joins a growing list of organizations and people concerned about Montana's underfunded Office of the Public Defender. In August, Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath wrote a letter to Office of Budget and Program Planning Director Dan Villa pointing out the increasing caseloads of the Office of the Appellate Defender and the need for more funding for that office.

“Whereas, in the past, the Office of Appellate Defender obtained two or three extensions of time to file its opening brief in a criminal appeal, it now is not unusual for them to make a sixth or seventh request for an extension of time to file the opening brief on appeal, McGrath wrote. “Please consider providing an increase in the budget for this important agency in your pending budget proposal for the next Legislature. I am satisfied these employees are hard-working, diligent employees, but they do not have adequate resources to conduct their duties in a timely fashion.”

The Helena Independent Record provided a good look at the workload of Montana public defenders with a recent profile of Brady Smith. Smith has worked for the Office of the Public Defender for two years.

“I have 70 to 80 people. Any of them could be calling at any time with a crisis,” Smith said. “It’s kind of like working in an ER; you have to be doing triage.”

At times her caseload goes as high as 100 defendants. Pay is low.

It's time for Montana to fulfill the promise of Gideon. It's time to make sure the Office of the Public Defender has the resources it needs.

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