Franklin County

Public defenders seek help

FRANKFORT — A Franklin Circuit Court judge will hear arguments Monday on whether the state must give more money to public defenders, who say they will be broke by April.

The legal fight between the Department of Public Advocacy and the Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet began in June 2008 when Public Advocacy filed a lawsuit saying it could not meet its constitutional obligation to represent poor criminal defendants under its current budget.

Lawmakers cut the agency's budget by $2.3 million to $37.8 million for the fiscal year that ends June 30. The agency filed a motion last week saying it wanted the judge to rule on the case immediately because it was quickly running out of cash.

The agency scaled back its operations and refused certain types of cases to stretch the agency's funding until the new fiscal year begins July 1. But in September, Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate ruled that the agency could not refuse to take cases and that the reductions were premature.

The September ruling translated to the agency's money being used more quickly, said Sheryl Snyder, one of the lawyers for the Department of Public Advocacy. The agency thought it may be able to last until May or June. According to the agency's estimates, it will be out of money by April.

"The lights will go out, and the criminal justice system will come to a halt," Snyder said.

Wingate will hear arguments on whether the state has to give the state's public defenders additional money to make it through to July 1. The Department of Public Advocacy is also asking Wingate to withdraw his earlier order banning the agency from withdrawing from cases or reducing its services.

The state has argued, however, that the agency has a fiscal responsibility to live within its budget and provide legal representation to poor clients. The government has also argued that the way public defenders count cases artificially inflates their caseloads.

"We agree that DPA has some pressing budgetary needs; however, the General Assembly is still in session and the agency has funds to operate a few more months," said Jay Blanton, a spokesman for Gov. Steve Beshear. "We strongly disagree that the DPA needs to immediately withdraw from cases or stop representing indigent criminal defendants."