COMMENTARY: My union represents lawyers and staff at the state public defender’s office. Like many departments, the lack of revenue has decimated their ability to perform their services. Like many departments, what they do is a matter of life and death (well, not death, but life without parole).
It’s serious stuff: so serious that both the New Mexico and United States Constitutions require that they perform their jobs at a high level, or convictions get overturned. A strong public defender office is essential to protecting the constitutional and legal rights of all of us, it is essential to keeping us safe, and it is critical in protecting us from government overreach and abuse.
So it was pretty shocking to hear that the chief public defender for the State of New Mexico, Ben Baur, refused to assign public defenders to indigents accused of crimes. He was held in contempt of court by a state district judge in Lovington.
Some might look at this as a publicity stunt to generate attention to the underfunding of the department. And hopefully that’s been the result. But that’s not what this is about. Over the years I’ve dealt with our public defenders, both attorneys and staff, and they are some of the most dedicated workers you’ll ever find.
They believe deeply that we should only convict people after a fair trial. They believe deeply that prosecutorial power must be balanced with competent, strong defense. They believe that the bad guys should be put away — but that without forcing the government to prove who is a “bad guy,” we become just another police state where the powerful can lock up those they don’t like whether there’s a case to be made or not.
True public servants
Right now, the public defenders’ office is so understaffed that both attorneys and support staff are working off the clock. They skip lunch or cram a sandwich in at their desk in seven minutes. Not everyone is entitled to overtime or comp time, but many are, and they are putting in the extra work for free because they know the money’s not there to pay them more and that the work has to be done.
As an advocate for workers, I hate that workers are working off the clock, but as a citizen I’m honored that they sacrifice for all of us. Overtime is meant to ensure that employers in both the public and private sector don’t get their employees’ labor for free, and provides an incentive to hire more workers if the current workforce is having to put in 70- and 80-hour weeks. Overtime helps guarantee that families are together more often and that employees are healthy and fresh when they are performing their work.
To watch employees having to work for free because the work is too important and there’s no money to pay overtime is heart-wrenching on many levels.
Sadder still, in the opinion of these hard workers, would be to leave the accused imprisoned longer than necessary because paperwork wasn’t completed or pleadings filed. So they selflessly do the extra work, and take on case after case even if they can’t put in the time on each case that they normally would or should.
Selflessness has limits
But the selflessness has limits, both for the workers and those for whom they seek to provide a competent defense. One of the “technicalities” for overturning convictions is that a public defender provided inadequate counsel. Those mistakes occur, almost always, in settings where the public defender had dozens more active cases than he or she should and was simply juggling too much.
What Ben Baur did wasn’t a stunt. It was the natural result of a real-world implementation of ratcheting down government in hard times and giving away tax breaks to the well-connected in good times (so that the next downturn there’s even less). We can’t keep slashing government without endangering things we value most, like the right to a fair trial and legal representation.
Not one person would want a son or daughter to be represented by someone who had twice the number of cases that professionals say is the maximum allowable to ensure adequate representation. Not one person wants the government to jail innocent citizens. Not one person would forfeit the right to a fair trial with adequate representation.
Tip of the iceberg
This column could have been written about CYFD over the last few years and our failure to protect our most vulnerable citizens: our kids. It could have been written about Albuquerque’s police department. It could be written about our overcrowded, understaffed prison system. It could have been written about almost any state agency.
But Ben Baur very publicly stood up for both the employees under his charge and for the constitutional rights of all of us, so that’s why this particular department is in the spotlight.
The systemic collapse of core societal services is the result of decades of deep tax cuts and years of protecting loopholes and exemptions for favored donors and powerful interests. It’s not just Governor Martinez; there are some legislators who bear responsibility too. Although in fairness to some legislators, some have been steamrolled into accepting the governor’s fiscal plans because otherwise every other project, bill, appropriation and program they care about would have been killed.
There is one person who is absolutely essential to solving this crisis: the governor. Barring an exceptional change of circumstances, there simply aren’t the votes for overriding her vetoes, so she has to be part of the solution. Next column, I’ll look at some bipartisan solutions to our revenue crisis that don’t require raising tax rates, but rather focus on closing loopholes and exemptions that haven’t delivered for our state.
Carter Bundy is the political and legislative director for AFSCME in New Mexico. The opinions in his column are personal and do not necessarily reflect any official AFSCME position. Contact him at [email protected].