The Nevada Supreme Court has formed a commission to examine ways to improve indigent defense throughout the state, the court announced Thursday.
A Review-Journal series last month found that Clark County’s system of assigning private attorneys to indigent defendants suffers from a lack of rules and oversight, hurting both the accused and the taxpayer.
The Supreme Court’s 12-member commission has representatives from around the state and is headed by Justice Michael Cherry, who was an attorney serving in that system for about 10 years, ending in the late 1980s.
"We want to make sure anybody charged with a crime who can’t afford counsel will get the best possible defense that can be provided," Cherry said Thursday.
"Any time there’s adverse publicity about anything in the criminal justice system, it’s a black eye for the whole system," he added later, referring to the newspaper series.
In the so-called "contract attorney" system, also known as the track or conflict system, judges select defense lawyers who will regularly appear before them. The contract defenders handle misdemeanor and felony cases when the county public defender’s office can’t because of some conflict of interest.
The attorneys’ contract with the county pays each $3,000 per month, and no cap is placed on the number of cases each can be assigned.
As a reward for handling many cases for little pay, the part-time public defenders have been first in line to get cases carrying a possible life sentence that qualify them for an hourly fee of $100. Relatively inexperienced attorneys are sometimes assigned to these serious felony cases.
The current system violates most American Bar Association guidelines for indigent defense delivery.
Cherry said a main priority for his commission is to draft rules to bring every system in the state in compliance with bar association standards by July 1, the start of next fiscal year, when conflict defenders’ annual contracts go into effect.
The newspaper series disclosed that some contract attorneys spent a vastly disproportionate amount of time on cases that paid hourly, leaving little time for many other cases they were assigned. Other appointed attorneys vastly overbilled the county for work on hourly cases.
The investigation also found that contract defenders were much more likely to negotiate guilty pleas on cases that did not pay hourly.
The state’s highest court is the latest judicial body to take action in response to the newspaper’s investigation.
A committee of Clark County judges last month proposed overhauling the system. But at a monthly meeting of justices of the peace Thursday, several accused the committee of offering them no say in the new plan, and overreacting to the Review-Journal’s series.
Justices of the peace preside in the county’s lower courts and are involved in appointing contract attorneys; yet the committee is comprised of four District Court judges and only one justice of the peace, Douglas Smith, who is listed in the committee’s first report as a co-chair.
"I have no power," Smith told his colleagues yesterday. "(District Judge) Stew Bell is the chairman."
Other justices of the peace, who supervise contract defenders handling misdemeanor cases and early-stage felony cases, expressed frustration, confusion and anger.
"How come we weren’t part of the dialogue?" Justice of the Peace Ann Zimmerman asked at Thursday’s gathering. "We’ll be the ones affected most, and we’re being cut out of the process."
District Court Administrator Chuck Short responded to the criticisms by speaking of the challenges of "evolving from what has become a judge-driven system to a more structured process."
The Clark County judges recommended establishing a committee of court officers to select attorneys qualified for contract work and hourly appointments, and assigning contract defenders at random to a group of district judges and justices of the peace.
That committee also proposed giving contract defenders the same tools as attorneys in the public defender’s office, including improved access to defendants who are in jail, and to investigators.
The proposals of the Clark County committee are scheduled to be discussed at a meeting of District Court criminal judges next Wednesday.
Assistant County Manager Liz Quillin, who works with the county’s legal and judicial agencies, said her office was also looking at the problems raised in the newspaper’s series.
"Obviously, we’re very, very concerned about not only the quality of representation that indigent clients are getting, but also the cost of that representation," Quillin said earlier this week. "We’re going to work with the courts to make sure these issues are addressed."
Cherry said he agreed with a conclusion by the committee of county judges, that a more formal approach to indigent defense will eventually be needed in Clark County to minimize the need for contract defenders.
Cherry supports expanding the county special public defender’s office, which currently only handles murder cases and cases dealing with the termination of parental rights.
"It is good to have another entity that continually practices criminal law, provides training and skilled investigators," Cherry said.
His Supreme Court commission soon will set a date for its first meeting, the justice added.
The panel of judges, defense attorneys and court administrators also plans to examine indigent defense issues in Nevada’s rural counties.
Nevada has a state public defender agency that provides lawyers to indigent defendants in counties with populations less than 100,000 that do not have county public defenders.Conflicted Justice