Wyo. Supreme Court grants petition to review contempt order against State Public Defender

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CASPER, Wyo. — The Wyoming Supreme Court has agreed to review a lower court’s contempt order against State Public Defender Diane Lozano.

The Campbell County Circuit Court found Lozano and the State Public Defender’s Office in contempt for refusing to assign a public defender to two misdemeanor cases.

On June 25, the Supreme Court granted, in part, Lozano’s petition for a “Writ of Certiorari and/or Prohibition.” This action orders the circuit court to provide a record of the case for the Supreme Court to review.

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A standard appeals process would first go to the Campbell County District Court. Under the petition for writ of review process, the Supreme Court can directly decide whether to review a case.

The Supreme Court denied Lozano’s request to stay the contempt order. However, the circuit court has issued a stay order for their contempt finding, pending the Supreme Court’s review.

In Natrona County, the State Public Defenders Office said that public defenders would stop being assigned to misdemeanor cases effective June 1.

Oil City has spoken with several attorneys in Natrona County who’ve said that staffing and budget issues have led to the difficulties for the State Public Defenders Office.

Lozano and her office had requested funding to hire 18 new positions in 2018. Former Governor Matt Mead recommended funding for eight of those positions.

The State Public Defenders Office asked for $4,534,362 atop their standard budget. Mead recommended $2,117,808 and the Wyoming Legislature approved this amount during the 2018 budget session.

The request asked for funding for nine legal support specialists in multiple counties and to hire nine new public defenders. They received funding for four legal support specialists and four new public defenders.

The May 23 Campbell County Circuit Court report of the contempt hearings explains some of Lozano’s reasoning for refusing to take on the misdemeanor cases.

The court received a letter from Lozano on May 1 which said that the State Public Defenders Office was “not available to take misdemeanor cases until our staffing numbers reach the necessary levels.”

She added that in Campbell County, “4.5 attorneys are handling the workload of 7.5 attorneys.”

“The Public Defender has determined that when a workload exceeds 100% within a field office, that the field office will no longer be able to accept new cases,” Lozano’s letter continues. “

“This would then require the courts to either reduce the number of public defender appointments, to allow defendants to represent themselves or to appoint private counsel.”

In their report, the court italicized the phrase “this would then require the courts.”

The contempt order states that the court understands the staffing difficulties facing the State Public Defenders Office, but does not agree that Lozano can simply state that public defenders won’t take on misdemeanor cases.

“This Court finds the troubled status of the Office of the State Public Defender lamentable,” the report states, pointing to high public defender case loads, “compensation disparities” and other factors.

However, the court stated that difficulties needed to be addressed through “judicial process and not willful disobedience.”

Lozano said in the letter that her office is prepared to take on misdemeanor cases again once their staffing issues are resolved.

“Once my office is fully staffed, we will again accept misdemeanor cases,” she wrote.

The Joint Judiciary Committee of the Wyoming Legislature met in Gillette on June 4. They discussed the issues at the Public Defenders Office and this article has details about that meeting.