The Wyoming Supreme Court unanimously ruled Wednesday that the Campbell County Circuit Court unlawfully held the State Public Defender in contempt when she would not provide attorneys for misdemeanor cases due to understaffing.
The case started on May 1 when State Public Defender Diane Lozano wrote to Campbell County Circuit Court Judges Paul Phillips and Wendy Bartlett, telling them that her office has 4.5 attorneys handling the workload of 7.5 attorneys, according to her letter cited in the Supreme Court’s opinion.
“Because of this and pursuant to the Public Defender workload standards I am informing you that we are not available to take misdemeanor cases until our staffing numbers reach the necessary levels,” Lozano wrote, citing state law.
The overload jeopardizes effective counsel, and causes burnout and high attorney turnover with few if any applicants for the public defender jobs, she added.
After Lozano refused to take on two misdemeanor cases, the circuit court on May 23 found her in contempt and fined her $1,500 a day.
A week later, she appealed to the Wyoming Supreme Court.
The circuit court’s action caused a conundrum because defendants have the Sixth Amendment constitutional right to an attorney, but the Public Defenders Office must adhere to state requirements for the office’s workload.
On Nov. 20, the Wyoming Supreme Court heard the oral arguments including the meaning of “unavailable” and who should decide public defender availability.
In its ruling Wednesday, the high court noted that Lozano took time to look at other options for the defendants in the circuit court cases before declaring the State Public Defender’s Office was unavailable to offer those defendants public defenders.
“That it took time to decide the the only option was to declare the office unavailable does not undermine the public defender’s evidence that the ethical concerns were real and imminent,” the justices wrote.
Circuit courts have the right to punish for contempt “persons guilty of resistance to or disobedience to any lawful order,” the justices wrote.
But what the Sixth Judicial Circuit Court did was not legal, they wrote.
“We have determined that the circuit court’s order mandating that the public defender accept the two misdemeanor appointments was not lawful because it disregarded the public defender’s determination that no public defender was available,” they wrote. “Because there was no lawful order, the circuit court could not properly find Ms Lozano in contempt.”