New public defender rule effect uncertain

But so far, it appears the effect locally will be limited to closely monitoring caseloads.

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WALLA WALLA -- Local governments that contract with attorneys to provide indigent legal defense in Walla Walla County will be monitoring caseloads to make sure new standards are met.

The state Supreme Court last month adopted the standards recommended by the state Bar Association. The standards are to ensure that attorneys appointed at public expense for criminal defendants who can't afford to hire a lawyer aren't overwhelmed with cases and can provide effective representation for their clients.

Basically, the standards -- which go into effect Sept. 1, 2013 -- limit each attorney to 150 felony cases or 300-400 misdemeanor cases a year. Limits also were adopted for attorneys representing juvenile offenders, juvenile dependency actions and civil commitment cases.

Several cities and counties in the state have expressed concern the new standards will hit taxpayers' pocketbooks hard, requiring the hiring of additional defense attorneys to spread the work around.

Because of the complexity of the new standards, it isn't known yet if more lawyers will have to be placed under contract here.

But considering the number of felony appointments, alone, Walla Walla County appears to be in good shape, according to Superior Court Judge John Lohrmann.

"If you look at our numbers, we're well under," Lohrmann said.

Walla Walla County commissioners contract with five local attorneys for felony defense work in Superior Court, in addition to signing up lawyers for misdemeanor and gross-misdemeanor cases in District Court.

Some attorneys have a mix of appointments or additional clients they retain privately. For those, the new standards will be applied proportionately to determine an attorney's full caseload.

For instance, attorney Gail Siemers gets the most felony appointments, with a contract cap of 125 a year, which is below the new 150-case standard.

"But the rub is this," Lohrmann said. "Yes, she's under the 150, but then we have to look at the case mix because that's assuming she's (working on felony cases) full time."

In an email exchange with the Union-Bulletin, Siemers said that's basically her situation.

"I don't take more than a handful of private criminal cases myself because of my caseload which is well below the recommended new guidelines," she wrote.

But Siemers also handles defense matters for Superior Court defendants accused of probation violations.

She commended local officials for keeping the number of appointments reasonable, which Lohrmann and the county's other Superior Court judge, Donald W. Schacht, said has been a priority for years.

But because of the complexity of the caseload-mix issue and a provision in the new standards requiring lower limits for lawyers involved in complicated assignments, Walla Walla County commission Chairman Greg Tompkins said commissioners are still studying the Supreme Court's order.

"Walla Walla County is reviewing the new rules and current caseloads and will need to take a careful look to determine what we need to do to be in compliance with the rules," Tompkins said. "There may be a budget impact, but we don't know what it is yet."

Tompkins added commissioners have concerns about how the new standards should be interpreted.

Among the questions are how the total caseloads for defense attorneys would be calculated and the consideration given as to how much work a major case, such as a murder trial, would involve as compared to defense of a less-serious charge.

Attorneys for the city of Walla Walla are also expressing concerns over the new guidelines, as well as considering adopting "case weighting criteria" to allow their defense attorneys to handle more of the misdemeanor and gross-misdemeanor cases the city files in District Court.

Currently, the city averages about 1,750 criminal and show-cause cases a year, contracting with the law firm of McAdams, Ponti, Wernette & Van Dorn, P.S. for the majority of its indigent defense cases, City Attorney Tim Donaldson wrote in an email to the Union-Bulletin.

One problem Donaldson has with the new guidelines is that they keep track of indigent cases differently than the city.

The result is the city's total number of cases involving indigent defense attorneys could greatly increase because of "duplicate" counting. "For example, the new Supreme Court standards appear to count probation violations in already filed cases as a separate case for counting purposes, but Walla Walla has tracked only newly filed cases," Donaldson stated.

On the other hand, the overall numbers could actually go down because "Walla Walla currently tracks all newly filed cases, while the Supreme Court standards address only those cases that are assigned to public defense attorneys."

Donaldson -- who spoke against the new guidelines at a WSBA Board of Governors meeting last year -- said his department will keep close track of case numbers to determine how the new guidelines will affect their indigent defense attorney budget and if they should implement case weighting criteria.

While case weighting criteria would lower the amount of cases a defense attorney can handle from 400 to 300, the criteria also assign values as low as one-third to cases that are less time consuming, which may actually allow defense attorneys to handle more than 400 cases, Donaldson said.

"We will continue to study the matter and plan to have a better handle on it at the end of this year to enable the city to consider and possibly adopt case weighting criteria and/or other measures before case counting goes into effect," he added.

U-B reporters Alfred Diaz, Terry McConn and Andy Porter contributed to this report.

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