LOUISVILLE — A former longtime public defender was appointed Tuesday as director of the state agency providing legal services for Kentucky's poor as the office faces budget cuts, a hiring freeze and a lawsuit seeking to reduce caseloads.
In making the appointment, Gov. Steve Beshear praised Ed Monahan for his experience and ”innate sense of fairness.“ The governor didn't mention the problems at the Department of Public Advocacy.
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Monahan begins his appointment Sept. 1, replacing longtime Public Advocate Ernie Lewis, who is retiring. Monahan most recently was executive director of The Catholic Conference of Kentucky.
He said his main goal as public advocate will be to secure sufficient funding for the agency. But Monahan said he didn't have any magical strategy in seeking more money from the General Assembly.
”I don't have any secrets, and I don't know how to work miracles,“ he said in an interview. ”So the only thing I know to do is to keep trying.“
Lawmakers facing a budget shortfall this year cut the department's funding by $2.3 million, to $37.8 million, in the fiscal year that began in July.
The department has had a hiring freeze in effect since early this year, resulting in more than 30 public defender jobs going unfilled statewide, Lewis said in an interview Tuesday.
The number of public defenders statewide has slipped to close to 300 amid the hiring freeze, said Lewis, who was appointed in 1996 and completed three terms as public advocate.
As a result, caseloads are inching upward toward nearly 500 new cases per year for each public defender, he said, far exceeding caseloads considered ethically appropriate within the profession.
That prompted the department and the Louisville and Jefferson County Public Defender Corp. to sue state officials in an effort to force lawmakers to appropriate more money to pay for indigent legal defense.
Lewis, 60, said budget constraints have forced public defenders ”to do something I thought we would never have to do, which is to reduce services to the people we want to represent.“
In the suit, filed in Franklin County Circuit Court in Frankfort, public defenders seek permission to decline additional indigent clients when representing them would create excessive caseloads.
The suit also calls for judges to appoint alternative attorneys who would be paid by the state when caseloads force public defenders to turn away clients.
In offices hit by vacancies, public defenders have notified courts they will no longer handle less-serious cases — such as family court, probation or parole revocation cases — to reduce caseloads, Lewis said.
A Lexington woman recently filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the plan by public defenders to withdraw from some cases. The woman sued after public defenders representing her child in juvenile court tried to withdraw from the case.
Monahan said the integrity of the criminal justice system depends on adequate funding for courts, prosecutors and public defenders.
Monahan, 57, worked as a public defender from 1976 to 2004, the last eight as deputy public advocate.
He is a graduate of Catholic University's law school. His appointment runs through July 2012.