Casper lawyers step up to take on misdemeanor cases

The Natrona County Townsend Justice Center (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

CASPER, Wyo. — At least ten attorneys or law firms have communicated a willingness to represent clients in misdemeanor cases in Natrona County.

NC Circuit Court Judge Brian Christensen said on Tuesday, June 4 that more attorneys than he’d expected had stepped up to the court’s request for lawyers to offer their services to assist in such cases.

Christensen’s statements came during a portion of a Wyoming Senate and House Joint Judiciary Committee meeting in Gillette discussing high caseload and staffing issues facing the Natrona and Campbell County Public Defenders Offices.

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In both counties, public defenders have stopped being appointed to misdemeanor cases, following decisions from the State Public Defenders Office.

“I don’t believe it is a monetary issue,” Christensen said regarding unfilled vacancies at the NC Public Defenders Office. “There are a significant number of young attorneys chomping at the bit to be appointed.”

Christensen added that “the equivalent of five full-time attorneys” have reached out to the NC Circuit Court to assist with the misdemeanor cases.

He said that identifying lawyers willing to help out had turned out to be a relatively straightforward process and seemed to question whether it was the role of the court to seek out such assistance rather than the State Public Defenders Office.

“These things could have been easily done going back months,” Christensen said. “If I’m going to do the Public Defenders job, I want their budget.”

Both Christensen and two Campbell County Circuit Court Judges told the committee that communication they’d received from the State Public Defenders Office informing them of the decision to stop appointing public defenders to misdemeanor cases had been abrupt and unexpected.

“We had no indication this letter was coming,” Christensen said of a letter from State Public Defender Diane Lozano.

Campbell County Circuit Court Judge Wendy Bartlett also said that a May 1 letter telling that court that effective immediately, public defenders would stop being assigned to misdemeanor cases was the first that court had learned of the State Public Defenders Office’s intentions.

Lozano told the committee that she’d intended that letter as a means to begin a dialogue with the judges in Campbell County about how to address public defender shortages there.

Campbell County Circuit Court Judge Paul Phillips said he was only able to offer limited perspective to the committee since the court had issued a contempt order against Lozano and her office which is awaiting review from the Wyoming Supreme Court.

Phillips was able to say that a stay order had been issued on the Circuit Court’s contempt ruling until the Supreme Court has a chance to come to a decision.

That stay order means that fines assessed to Lozano and her office would stop accruing in the meantime.

Lozano said that the State Public Defenders Office capital case funding would be used to pays the fines.

“We plan to pay the fine,” she told the committee.

Bartlett said that the Campbell County Circuit Court has been able to find volunteers to provide counsel to misdemeanor defendants until public defenders resume taking on those cases.

Some Joint Judiciary Committee members expressed displeasure at how they’d come to learn of the issue.

“I’m disappointed in this turn of events,” Committee Chair Senator Tara Nethercott said.

Representative Tim Salazar held a similar position.

“I agree with Judge Christensen,” he said. “I’m surprised we got to this point. Greater communication could have avoided this.”

Despite some disagreements about how to address the staffing issues, Lozano and the judges agreed about the importance of providing competent publicly appointed counsel to misdemeanor cases.

Lozano said that the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution requires that competent counsel be provided to defendants unable to afford their own counsel.

She said that in order for attorneys to provide competent legal services, it was imperative that they not take on too much work. High caseloads for public defenders led to her decision to stop appointing them in misdemeanor cases in Natrona and Campbell, she explained.

Deputy Director of the Sixth Amendment Center Jon Mosher also attended the meeting and told the committee that the right to counsel in Wyoming dates back to 1876. He said at that time, two court appointed attorneys were actually provided to defendants.

He said that it was important that people’s right to counsel be protected as it underlies protections to various other rights people have as Americans.

“I agree with the judges, misdemeanors matter,” he said.

Mosher said that reclassifying petty offenses and utilizing means other than jail sentencing in misdemeanor cases were other options Wyoming could explore to address the public defender staffing issues.

Wyoming State Bar Counsel Mark Gifford said he thought it was important that all parties involved in the matter participate in a “solution oriented dialogue.”

“Finger pointing doesn’t help,” he said.

More perspective from legal professionals in Casper regarding the public defenders issues may be found in this article.