Minnesota public defenders may strike over workloads and pay

Mar 18, 2022, 9:11 AM | Updated: 9:14 am

Associated Press (AP) — Public defenders are poised to go on strike as early as Tuesday across Minnesota, where unionized attorneys say they’ve been pushed to the brink by routinely high caseloads that have become unmanageable amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Cara Gilbert said she feels a deep responsibility to the clients she represents in juvenile court in Ramsey County, who are mostly “the most vulnerable young children of color.” But she said the workloads have become intolerable for her and her fellow public defenders, who voted by an 80% margin to authorize a strike. And their pay lags far behind what the prosecutors across the table from them make.

“I’ve been a public defender for seven years. I make less than a first-year attorney at the county attorney’s office,” Gilbert said. Public defenders don’t expect to reach parity with prosecutors in the next contract, she added, but they do want progress.

A strike by the 470 public defenders and 200 support staff could bring much of Minnesota’s state court system to a standstill if it persists. Though Minnesota is the only state where public defenders are on the brink of a walkout, legal system observers say the same pressures are being felt across the country – and it’s the poorest defendants who get hurt, mostly people of color.

Minnesota actually has one of the country’s best public defense systems, particularly when it comes to collecting data to track workloads, said Stephen Hanlon, a St. Louis, Missouri, attorney regarded as one of the country’s leading experts on public defenders. He said that could make it better positioned than most to make real improvements, but all states have been struggling unsuccessfully for decades to adequately fund them.

“The whole system, we know, is systemically unethical and systemically unconstitutional, and everybody knows it. … And it’s causing a lot of harm to people who are Black and brown,” Hanlon said. “This is not equal justice under the law. It’s unequal justice under the law, and it has to stop.”

Negotiators for the attorneys and the Minnesota Board of Public Defense are scheduled to sit down with a state mediator starting Friday in hopes of averting a strike. By coincidence, Friday is the 59th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark “Gideon” decision, which held that states are constitutionally required to provide attorneys for criminal defendants who can’t afford them.

Large-scale public defender strikes are almost unprecedented. Attorneys held a one-day walkout in Ventura County of California in 1995, but in many states they’re not unionized. In many jurisdictions, most are private practice attorneys who defend indigent clients part time.

Hanlon said the only major action he knew of that would be comparable to the threatened Minnesota strike was in Massachusetts, where private attorneys rebelled against the low pay they received for handling the bulk of the state’s public defense work. A 2004 class-action lawsuit ultimately led the legislature and then-Gov. Mitt Romney to raise their funding by more than 50%.

It’s not clear how Minnesota’s courts would function in the event of a strike. The Minnesota Judicial Branch hasn’t released a plan and has declined comment except for a short statement that said, in part, “We hope the union and Minnesota Board of Public Defense can reach an agreement during the cooling-off period and avoid a strike.”

State Public Defender Bill Ward, who runs the board, said he didn’t think it prudent to comment while negotiations are underway.

Gus Froemke, a spokesman for Teamsters Local 320, which represents the attorneys and support staff, said they presume the courts will follow similar procedures as when they shut down for COVID-19 for all but the most essential business. That led to a huge backlog that the courts are still trying to clear. The board has indicated it would continue to operate with supervisory attorneys, but it’s not clear how well that would work in practice.

“We represent over 80% of the individuals in the criminal justice system,” Gilbert said. “And so the question becomes how much of that management can shoulder and for how long. That’s it. That’s our pressure point.”

The Minnesota Board of Public Defense acknowledged to legislators in January that its attorney staffing is just 75% of what the American Bar Association standards recommend, and it’s just 60% for support staff. The board had a budget of about $101 million for the last fiscal year. While funding has increased over the years, officials and the union agree that caseloads remain too high.

In response, the House Judiciary Committee chair, Democratic Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, of Roseville, introduced a bill to boost the board’s funding by the $50 million the board said it needed to meet national standards. She said she plans to give it a hearing soon, and said she’s hopeful that Republicans who control the state Senate will ultimately agree to fund at least part of that from the state’s $9.25 billion budget surplus. She said it shouldn’t be a partisan issue, given that the state is constitutionally required to fund public defenders.

“We haven’t been doing right by our citizens and this really needs to happen,” Becker-Finn said.

Hanlon said the national caseload standards, which date from 1973, are woefully inadequate, and faulted the legal profession for tolerating the system for so long. But he said that could change. He’s part of a group of experts from several organizations who will meet next month to study data from workload studies that have been done in 17 states and will issue their final report in August. Those studies include seven that Hanlon led for the ABA, including reports released in January that documented severe overloads in Oregon and New Mexico.

And he said they plan to present their findings at a U.S. House Judiciary subcommittee hearing this summer on legislation originally championed by Vice President Kamala Harris when she was a senator to provide more funding for public defense.

“I’m very optimistic,” Hanlon said. “I think we’re on the verge of a real breakthrough here.”

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Currency traders watch monitors at the foreign exchange dealing room of the KEB Hana Bank headquart...
Associated Press

Asian shares fall in muted trading ahead of Fed meeting

TOKYO (AP) — Asian shares mostly fell in muted trading Tuesday as investors awaited decisions on interest rates and earnings reports from around the world. Traders were awaiting the U.S. Federal Reserve’s decision on interest rates, expected on Wednesday. They also were watching for indicators on the Chinese economy, the region’s key engine for growth. […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Boeing bids farewell to an icon, delivers last 747 jumbo jet

SEATTLE (AP) — Boeing bids farewell to an icon on Tuesday: It’s delivering its final 747 jumbo jet. Since its first flight in 1969, the giant yet graceful 747 has served as a cargo plane, a commercial aircraft capable of carrying nearly 500 passengers, a transport for NASA’s space shuttles, and the Air Force One […]
1 day ago
FILE - A worker loads boxes of goods from a truck outside a wholesale clothing mall in Beijing on T...
Associated Press

Chinese factory activity rebounds, adding to recovery signs

BEIJING (AP) — Chinese factory activity rebounded in January from three months of contraction, adding to signs the world’s second-largest economy might be recovering from a painful slump, an official survey showed Tuesday. A monthly purchasing managers’ index issued by the Chinese statistics agency and an industry group rose to 50.1 on a 100-point scale […]
1 day ago
Visitors try out Samsung Electronics' Galaxy Book2 at its shop in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Jan....
Associated Press

Samsung’s profit plummets amid global economic woes

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Samsung Electronics said Tuesday its profit for the last quarter plummeted nearly 70% as a weak global economy depressed demand for its consumer electronics products and computer memory chips. The company’s operating profit of 4.3 trillion won ($3.5 billion) for the three months through December fell 69% from a year […]
1 day ago
A trishaw driver wades through a crowded street at the frozen Houhai Lake in Beijing, Monday, Jan. ...
Associated Press

IMF upgrades outlook for the global economy in 2023

WASHINGTON (AP) — The outlook for the global economy is growing slightly brighter as China eases its zero-COVID policies and the world shows surprising resilience in the face of high inflation, elevated interest rates and Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine. That’s the view of the International Monetary Fund, which now expects the world economy to […]
1 day ago
Joe Garner, a truck driver and shop steward for the local 315 of the International Brotherhood of T...
Associated Press

Self-driving semis focus of California rules, legislation

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — As California regulators explore new rules to put self-driving semitrucks on the road, labor unions are rushing to the state Legislature to ask for a new law they say will protect their jobs — the start of a debate that could shape the future of the nation’s nearly $900 billion trucking […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

Quantum Fiber

How high-speed fiber internet edges out cable for everyday use

In a world where technology drives so much of our daily lives, a lack of high-speed internet can be a major issue.
Quantum Fiber

How high-speed fiber internet can improve everyday life

Quantum Fiber supplies unlimited data with speeds up to 940 mbps, enough to share 4K videos with coworkers 20 times faster than a cable.
Children’s Cancer Network

Children’s Cancer Network celebrates cancer-fighting superheroes, raises funds during September’s Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

Jace Hyduchak was like most other kids in his kindergarten class: He loved to play basketball, dress up like his favorite superheroes and jump as high as his pint-sized body would take him on his backyard trampoline.
Minnesota public defenders may strike over workloads and pay