Public defenders play an important role in the U.S. legal system because they represent clients who would otherwise be unable to afford hiring a private attorney for their case.
How public defenders are assigned to a case varies, however. Bartholomew County is one of 40 Indiana counties that allows judges to appoint public defenders. The other 52 use an independent board to make those decisions.
We agree with the Bartholomew County Public Defender Board’s recent recommendation that the latter option should be the model to use locally going forward.
It would eliminate any possible perceived conflict of interest created when a judge essentially hires a public defender when appointing the attorney to a case. Such instances have the potential to inhibit a public defender’s ability to serve the client for fear of upsetting the “boss” — the judge who appointed the public defender — and being replaced by the judge in favor of another attorney.
What the Bartholomew County Public Defender Board suggests is hiring one attorney who represents indigent clients to serve as chief public defender. The person in that role would be tasked with:
Determining which public defenders to assign to each case
Selecting, training and supervising attorneys within the public defender system
Handling some of the caseload
To be clear, the integrity of the county’s current judges is not in question, and there’s been nothing to suggest as much.
The issue is removing any possible conflicts of interest, and there’s good reason to do so. Lawsuits were filed in three Indiana counties that claimed public defenders were hampered in their ability to serve their clients because they were employees of the judge.
Following the Bartholomew County Public Defender Board’s recommendation would be a way to avoid such litigation.
It also would be in line with the objective of making sure all court cases are conducted in a manner that is fair to all parties.