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Teton Valley News

Public defender system could change in Idaho

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Posted: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 11:00 pm

Legislation has been proposed that would establish a permanent public defender in counties across Idaho. This would abolish the current system of contracting law firms to perform those duties.

In November 2013, it was determined by state legislature that a state commission be created to oversee public defender contracts and data collection. An interim committee was then established to draft legislation to bar flat rate contracts for public defenders.

“It would take probably two weeks to get through both bodies. You’re looking at least three weeks before the governor signs legislation, just as an estimate,” said Rep. Darrell Bolz, co-chair of the Public Defense Reform Interim Committee.

Currently, public defenders, according to Rep. Bolz, costs counties an average of $23 million annually. He continued that, if the state were to take over the cost, it would want some say in the appointment of public defenders so inexperienced lawyers are not overseeing more dramatic cases.

“If the state is going to take over,” said Rep. Bolz, “should they also have some skin in the game? … If you look at the county, who is county going to assign? Is it the new kid on the block or their most experienced attorneys? There have been instances where the Department of Justice defendant never met his attorney before he went to court.”

“We want to leave it up to the counties what kind of system they really want. They can have contracts, just not flat-fee contracts.”

In Teton County, Faren Eddins of Moulton Law Office in Driggs acts as primary public defender, but other local lawyers also hold contracts with the county when conflicts arise in Eddins’ calendar.

Moulton Law Office has held the contract for roughly ten years and charges $30,000 annually for their services. Given that Eddins charges an hourly $175 for civil clients, to assume the cost of his public defense work accounts for “substantially less than half of that would be a good estimate.”

According to Eddins, contrary to expressions of Bolz, the creation of a full-time public defender will create a position that will likely be filled by recently graduated lawyers trying to build a reputation. The established lawyers, he says, will burn out by focusing only on public defense.

Further, Eddins felt that the law will be a heavier burden on Teton County because having a contracted public defender rather than a permanent county position negates residual costs, such as compensating benefits and retirement and supplying offices, secretaries and law libraries.

If a permanent position is developed, officials fear that it would not only cost the county more money, but it would also risk the relationship Moulton has established with local clients seeking legal counsel.

“People, like myself, in a small town, if I do an unsatisfactory job on a case, … everybody knows about it,” said Eddins in discussing his reputation.

County Prosecutor Kathy Spitzer also noted that according to the Idaho State Bar’s ethical rules, council must zealously defend their clients or face legal ramifications.

If the bill passes both houses and is signed into law by Governor Otter, because of the emergency clause on the bill, it would become effective immediately, but would not be enforced against attorneys with contracts until July 1. Effective that date, lawyers would no longer be able to negotiate the terms of their contract, but they would be honored until expiration.

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