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Officials clash over legal aid resources

Legal experts and county managers clashed on Friday over proposed reforms to the state's public defender systems.

A public hearing of the Nevada Supreme Court was held to discuss proposals made by a commission that spent eight months studying indigent defense. The commission reported that public defender systems in most of the state are in crisis.

Washoe and Clark County officials on Friday targeted the part of the report most in dispute, a proposal to set caseload limits for public defenders.

A procession of witnesses from local and national organizations implored the court on Friday to adopt caps.

Both sides have embraced new performance rules that would require public defenders to follow strict procedures for every case they handle.

The public hearing is scheduled to resume on Dec. 20.

Supreme Court spokesman Bill Gang said the court could endorse or adopt some or all of the panel's recommendations, but many of those changes would likely require legislative approval.

The Supreme Court formed an indigent defense panel of jurists, court administrators, and equal-justice advocates after a Review-Journal series in March detailed problems with Clark County's public defender system.

Chief Justice William Maupin said at Friday's hearing that major reform of indigent defense in Nevada is on the horizon.

"Everyone agrees that this system needs to be fixed," Maupin said. "A government cannot call itself a democracy unless it fairly treats all of its citizens, including those charged with criminal misconduct."

The specifics of those changes are being debated in an atmosphere of budget woes facing state and county governments.

A majority report by the Supreme Court commission proposed limiting public defenders to a maximum of about 190 felony cases per year. Caps would also be put on capital, juvenile delinquency, misdemeanor, and other case classifications. Other court systems around the country have such limits.

Assistant Clark County Manager Jeff Wells, who represented the authors of the commission's minority report, spoke against caseload limits.

"Effective representation is not determined by how many cases an attorney has," Wells told the justices. "It's determined by how competent an attorney is."

Wells said reforms the county has already made, to its method of assigning private attorneys to some indigent cases, show that local officials are serious about addressing problems.

The Review-Journal's series, "Conflicted Justice," revealed that the so-called contract system's lack of rules and oversight led to uneven justice and government waste.

Prompted by the newspaper's findings, the Supreme Court commission proposed reforms that would bring contract attorney systems statewide in compliance with most American Bar Association standards.

Wells and Washoe County Manager Katy Singlaub on Friday called for studies to determine what, if any, caseload limits should be set. Those studies would cost each county several hundred thousand dollars, the officials said.

Singlaub said she believes the ABA's 35-year-old guidelines on caseload limits fail to reflect newer technology that helps attorneys process cases more quickly.

Clark County officials have estimated it could cost the county about $15 million annually to meet the commission's proposed caseload standards. Much of that expense would come from hiring more attorneys for Public Defender Phil Kohn's office. Most attorneys in Kohn's office currently handle more than 360 felony cases per year.

Kohn has said his agency's felony caseload is increasing by 200 cases per month, in large part because of a dramatic increase in Las Vegas police officers. The county acknowledges that the number of public defenders and prosecutors hasn't kept pace.

Casey Landis, one of Kohn's deputies, told the Supreme Court justices that he and his colleagues don't have enough time to defend all their clients adequately.

"After those cases start piling up, you can't do anything near what you need to do," he said. "I can't convey to you what it means to put blood, sweat, and tears into a job and come home every night knowing you're a failure."

Stephen Dahl, a justice of the peace in North Las Vegas, echoed Landis' concerns.

"This requires more than just saying how public defenders need to do their jobs, because they can't do those things if the numbers (of cases) are too high."

Several national organizations have taken notice of Nevada's indigent defense problems.

At Friday's hearing, Emily Chiang, a staff attorney at the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said her group will be watching to make sure Nevada takes steps to repair its indigent defense system. Other national legal groups have pledged to do the same.

"Litigation is time consuming and expensive," Chiang said. "To the extent all of that can be avoided, it's far wiser to spend money to fix the system than on a lawsuit fighting the ACLU."

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

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