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State high court sets guidelines for lawyers

In an effort to protect the constitutional rights of poor people accused of crimes, the Nevada Supreme Court has adopted performance guidelines for criminal defense lawyers across the state.

The standards, which will become effective April 1, include recommendations that defense counsel do appropriate investigations of cases and maintain close contact with clients throughout cases.

David Carroll, director of research for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, said the guidelines will benefit attorneys and clients.

"Defense attorneys now have a well-defined set of guidelines that they must take into consideration when contemplating an appropriate defense for each individual client," Carroll said.

The Supreme Court order released on Friday updates an order from January that drew criticism from prosecutors, county managers and rural court officials who complained that the justices needed more input before implementing performance standards.

An indigent defense commission formed last year by the court reconvened several times to iron out a compromise. The commission was created after a Review-Journal series in March 2007 about flaws in Clark County's indigent defense system.

In its order, the Supreme Court reached consensus on most issues, but three of the seven justices gave dissenting opinions over certain aspects.

Justices Nancy Saitta and Michael Cherry said the performance standards should go into effect on Jan. 1.

Justice William Maupin joined Saitta and Cherry in promoting the view that defendants should be made aware of the "collateral consequences" of pleading guilty to a crime.

That issue was discussed at length during public hearings on indigent defense earlier this year. Most of the debate centered on the immigration-related repercussions of a defendant's guilty plea.

Maupin also said the standards should include a requirement for defense attorneys to bring in mitigation and psychological experts on death penalty cases.

Gary Peck, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, agreed with the dissenting opinions but overall thought the order was a step in the right direction.

"We're hopeful that the order will help defendants receive top quality, constitutionally adequate representation," Peck said.

The ACLU and other groups have expressed concern about the constitutionality of indigent defense services in Nevada.

The Supreme Court order gave Clark and Washoe counties until May 15 to complete weighted caseload studies that will determine whether public defenders in the state's urban counties are handling too many cases.

Both counties have contracted with the Massachusetts-based Spangenberg Group, a legal research organization, to conduct the studies.

Indigent defense issues in Nevada's rural counties will be further discussed at a Jan. 6 hearing of the Supreme Court.

Carroll, a member of the court's indigent defense commission, said it will be financially difficult for counties to implement the court's order without intervention from the state Legislature.

A bill draft request by the Nevada Association of Counties asks the state to fulfill a constitutional mandate to fund indigent defense in every county.

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

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