Deputy MH public defender tells judge ‘can’t handle any more cases’

An assistant public defender in the Mountain Home office asked Circuit Judge John Putman not to name a number of defendants to him during Monday’s hearing, citing the large number of existing cases he is already handling.

Deputy Public Defender James Wallace told the judge that he now provides legal representation to defendants in about 400 cases, and that the large charge prevents him from providing existing clients with adequate representation, as guaranteed by the constitution.

According to media reports, other public defender offices in the state, including the Little Rock 6th Judicial District, are raising the issue. The problem of increasing workload in the offices of state public defenders has existed for more than 20 years.

The personnel situation causes friction between reality and the 6th Amendment to the US Constitution.

The amendment guarantees all citizens the right to effective assistance from the council, whether they hire a private lawyer or, if they cannot afford the attorney’s fees, rely on a public defender.

It has also been argued in a number of states that it is an ethics violation when a lawyer continues to take on additional cases, preventing him or her from providing “effective advice” to his clients.

There are a number of recommendations on how many cases a lawyer can handle while giving all clients the kind of representation to which they are entitled.

The top recommendations seem to be between 140 and 150 for felony cases. Wallace told the court he had 408 cases by a recent count.

Judge Putman continued to assign cases to the public defender’s office on Monday, but said Wallace should contact the Public Defender’s Commission in Little Rock to see if other attorneys could be assigned to the Mountain Home office.

The judge noted Wallace’s objection to being assigned additional cases in each case, but said he was appointing the public defender’s office to represent qualified individuals, not Wallace specifically.

“Hopefully the office of the public defender’s commission will be able to provide assistance in dealing with what is a significant and growing caseload,” Justice Putman said.

And the workload is increasing, not decreasing. Nearly 20 criminal criminal cases have recently been added to the docket.

There were several part-time assistant public defenders in Mountain Home’s office at one time, but they left for various reasons – leaving Wallace essentially the only attorney currently in Mountain Home’s office to take on the charge.

The statewide public defense agency was created by the Arkansas Legislative Assembly in 1993. In 1997, new legislation was enacted to allow the state to begin taking charge more funding for the system at the state level.

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