Lawsuit to target public defender cuts in service

The mother of a juvenile who was denied a lawyer plans to file a federal lawsuit contending that service reductions by state public defenders are unconstitutional, her attorney said on Monday.

Chad Butcher, a Lexington lawyer who represents the mother of a juvenile status offender, filed a motion in Fayette Circuit Court Monday to open the records of a closed-door hearing held on July 14. Public defenders began withdrawing from certain types of cases on July 1 because of budget cuts.

Juvenile status offenses are acts that would not be a crime for an adult, such as running away from home, truancy or smoking.

The July 14 hearing was the first judicial test of defender service reductions. But it is unclear what took place in the hearing because a judge refused to make the hearing public.

Butcher said it is necessary to make the records of the hearing public because the juvenile's mother will be filing a lawsuit against the Department of Public Advocacy and the state on her daughter's behalf. He is asking for the rec­ords to be released with the juvenile's and mother's names redacted.

A hearing is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Tuesday in Fayette Circuit Court.

An overworked lawyer is still better than no lawyer at all, Butcher said.

“We're sympathetic to DPA's position regarding the budget, but we feel that their service reduction plan is unconstitutional, primarily because it leaves indigent persons without counsel,” Butcher said.

Butcher added that he thinks DPA doesn't handle its budget properly. Evidence of that was presented at the hearing, he said.

Public advocate Ernie Lewis strongly disagreed. He said Kentucky has one of the lowest-funded public defender systems in the nation. It defends poor people at a rate of only $254 a case, and only 6 percent of its budget is spent on overhead, Lewis said.

“I absolutely say he doesn't know what he talks about when he says we are not an efficient public defender system,” Lewis said. “We have modestly salaried public defenders with high caseloads.I don't understand how you can do it any cheaper.”

Kentucky could easily provide adequate funding for public defenders, Lewis said.

“It is not a choice between a lawyer with an unethical caseload or no lawyer at all,” Lewis said.

Butcher is also asking for an order that would subject to contempt of court any news media or person that reports the juvenile's or mother's full name.