The Wyoming Public Defenders Office notified Circuit Court judges Wednesday that its attorneys will no longer represent people charged with misdemeanors in Campbell County until more attorneys are hired.
The action was effective Wednesday even before a letter of notification was delivered to judges at the end of the business day.
Public defenders represent people who can’t otherwise afford an attorney to represent them in court.
State Public Defender Diane M. Lozano said public defenders in Campbell County can no longer represent those charged with misdemeanors because of the heavy workload those attorneys now carry.
The decision has put local judges and county officials in a quandary because defendants have a constitutional right to an attorney. It means that if a defendant asks for an attorney, judges must now appoint one from among local private attorneys — a cost Lozano warned could be significant.
“I have informed Governor (Mark) Gordon of this possibility as well as the possibility that paying for private attorneys in Campbell County may well ‘bankrupt’ the entire Public Defender budget,” Lozano wrote to Circuit Court Judges Paul S. Phillips and Wendy M. Bartlett on Wednesday.
Lozano said it was a decision that she did not take lightly, but that “I do not believe there is another option.”
Lozano said the public defenders in Gillette are overworked and underpaid. The local office employs 4.5 attorneys who handle the workload of 7.5 attorneys.
“I believe my attorneys are the best defense attorneys in the state,” she wrote. “But no matter the quality of an attorney, he cannot do the work of two attorneys.”
That led Lozano to the conclusion that, “We can no longer provide ethical and effective counsel for the workload in Gillette.”
When attorneys can’t meet their ethical obligations, they jeopardize not just their clients’ constitutional rights, but their license to practice law, Lozano wrote.
Phillips warned commissioners that “the ramifications for the people of Campbell County are significant. ... Wyoming constitutional and statutory law hold that if the defendant cannot afford to retain his or her own attorney, the court must appoint one at the state’s expense.
“To give you an idea of the magnitude of the issue at hand, by my count in 2018 this court dealt with more than 2,000 cases where the right to representation was mandatory unless waived,” Phillips wrote.
Phillips wrote that he and Bartlett are “hopeful the Office of the Wyoming State Public Defender can overcome its apparent staffing and budgetary challenges and once again provide competent representation for indigent defendants appearing” in Circuit Court.
State statute allows the court to “appoint an attorney to represent the needy person if no public defender is available,” Phillips wrote, and he is reaching out to local attorneys to see if they’re willing to represent indigent defendants.
Phillips wrote that although he’s confident local attorneys will step up, it is “not an ideal situation.”
The Public Defenders Office will accept misdemeanor cases once it has enough staff to handle the workload, Lozano wrote. But the office is having trouble hiring and keeping attorneys.
For one, it can’t compete with the Campbell County Attorney’s Office because the public defenders are “working on a market pay from almost a decade ago,” Lozano wrote.
“To add to the crisis, nobody is applying to work for the Public Defender in Gillette,” she added. “Our turnover is high and becomes cyclical: When staffing levels are low, the attorneys who remain with us have to work the overload and they become burned out and eventually quit.”
She said that once the office is fully staffed, it will again accept new misdemeanor cases. Another attorney will begin in August, and she said that she will continue to “aggressively recruit and hire new attorneys.”
“I am working with the governor and the budget office to address in further budgets the ability and resources we need to retain attorneys in Campbell County,” she wrote.
“I understand full well the enormity of this decision. If I could reach another conclusion I would. I hope we can use this as an opportunity to better determine who qualifies for public defender services and what cases are assigned a court appointed attorney,” she wrote.
Campbell County Commissioners discussed the issue at their Thursday morning workshop. County Administrative Director Robert Palmer said the county does not provide any money for public defenders. Its only statutory obligation is to provide space for that office.
The commissioners wondered how the issue would affect County Attorney Ron Wirthwein.
“Ethically, you have an issue with being able to prosecute people who can’t be defended. It’s not his problem,” said Commissioner Mark Christensen.
“It’s going to ultimately be his problem,” said Commissioner Del Shelstad.
“How do you prosecute somebody who has no counsel?” Palmer asked. “It puts his attorneys in a weird spot.”
The commissioners hope to speak with Jefferson Coombs, supervising attorney for the local public defenders, in the next few days to learn more about his office.
Calls to Lozano, Wirthwein, Coombs and Gov. Mark Gordon were not returned by press time Friday.