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Court urged to rethink public defender order

A Nevada Supreme Court order mandating changes to the state's public defender systems came under fire Tuesday from officials concerned about the practicality and potential cost of the reforms.

District Judge Richard Wagner, whose jurisdiction includes Humboldt, Lander, and Pershing counties, said some of the new rules are heavy-handed and unfair, especially to rural counties.

Wagner said the Supreme Court didn't get enough input from rural counties before issuing its January order.

"I take exception to the idea that we're in a crisis," he said at the three-hour public hearing before the entire court.

Wagner was one of several judges, district attorneys, and county managers who urged the court on Tuesday to reconsider or delay making changes intended to ensure that indigent defendants receive adequate legal counsel.

Tuesday's hearing took place on the 45th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that guaranteed state-provided legal counsel to criminal defendants who can't afford to hire lawyers.

Chief Justice Mark Gibbons said the hearing was one of the best-attended in recent court history. The court's seven justices met in Carson City, but some speakers testified by teleconference from Las Vegas.

Justice James Hardesty said he was surprised at the level of criticism aimed at the court's order, which was based on the recommendations of an indigent defense commission that met last year.

"It would have been helpful to have this information before the commission's report was drafted," Hardesty said.

The commission formed last April after a Review-Journal series about flaws in Clark County's indigent defense system.

In its January order, the Supreme Court gave indigent-defense lawyers until April 1 to meet a strict set of performance standards in every criminal and juvenile delinquency case.

It set a May 1 deadline for counties to create plans to remove judges from the selection of public defenders. And it required Clark and Washoe counties by July 15 to complete public defender caseload studies.

Washoe County Manager Katy Singlaub and Clark County Assistant Manager Jeff Wells asked the court on Tuesday for more time to implement the changes.

"We're excited by everything we've accomplished so far," Wells said. "We just need more time."

Wells said Clark County, among other accomplishments, has created an Office of Appointed Counsel to oversee the appointment of private lawyers to many indigent cases.

Clark and Washoe counties have estimated that major changes to their public defender systems will cost millions of dollars.

Federal Public Defender Franny Forsman, a member of the court's indigent defense commission, said it's worth the investment.

"I don't think the performance of counsel is a fiscal issue," she told the justices.

The Supreme Court will consider arguments heard on Tuesday before deciding whether to take any action or leave its order intact.

The court is scheduled in September to re-examine whether to set caseload limits for public defenders.

Contact reporter Alan Maimon at amaimon@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0404.

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