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In protest, public defender withdraws panel member

Clark County court officials are facing criticism that the selection process of contract attorneys for indigent defendants has too much judicial involvement and too little transparency.

Citing these concerns, Federal Public Defender Franny Forsman took a lawyer from her office off the selection panel supervised by Chief District Judge Kathy Hardcastle.

Hardcastle flouted a recent Supreme Court order declaring that judges should have no input in the way contract public defenders are chosen, said Forsman, a member of a Nevada Supreme Court commission that studied indigent defense last year.

"My concerns result from the degree of judicial involvement and the lack of public participation or notice of the manner in which the selection process was created," Forsman said in a letter to Hardcastle on Friday.

Hardcastle’s panel met for a second time on Monday to evaluate more than 100 applications for the contract jobs. By afternoon, the group had picked 51 lawyers for 36 available slots. Hardcastle declined to release the names of the attorneys pending their random assignment to judges.

Contract attorneys represent indigent defendants who cannot be represented by full-time public defenders because of conflicts of interest. Some kind of conflict arises in roughly one out of seven indigent cases.

The voting members of the selection committee were Clark County Public Defender Phil Kohn, City Councilman Steve Wolfson, Assistant Clark County Special Public Defender Randy Pike, and defense attorney David Amesbury. Hardcastle didn’t have a vote.

Assistant Federal Public Defender John Lambrose didn’t attend the meeting to protest the perceived lack of rules alluded to in Forsman’s letter.

Hardcastle defended her handling of the situation, pointing out that the Supreme Court order gave counties until May 1 to develop more structured plans for choosing contract attorneys.

Forsman is chairing a Supreme Court committee tasked with giving counties guidance in designing such plans.

Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said county managers plan eventually to assume responsibility for overseeing the selection of contract defenders. The county recently hired an attorney from Kohn’s office to lead those efforts, Assistant County Manager Jeff Wells said.

Supreme Court Justice Michael Cherry, who headed the court’s indigent defense commission, said Hardcastle’s process is an imperfect but temporary solution.

For this reason, Cherry and his fellow justices didn’t get involved in the dispute, he said. "We felt intervention wasn’t proper at this time," Cherry said. "We’re happy this thing is moving along and expect new plans will be in place by May 1."

A Review-Journal investigation last year showed that the contract system’s lack of rules and oversight led to uneven justice and questionable county spending.

Part of the problem with the system was the appearance of cronyism that stemmed from judges hand-picking contract defenders to appear before them on a regular basis.

Hardcastle said court officials terminated the current contracts effective Feb. 1, because the appointment of new contract defenders is integral to reform.

The selection process was closed to the public because it dealt with personnel matters, Hardcastle told a reporter.

Gary Peck, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, was turned away from Monday’s meeting, also. He said the closed-door process violated the state’s open meeting law.

"The process is completely shrouded in secrecy," Peck said. "What’s happening here dishonors the work of the Supreme Court and of its indigent defense commission."

Robert Langford, a longtime contract attorney, said he expected the selection process to be "more thoughtful and open."

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

 

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