The public defender's office refused yesterday to represent four people in Baltimore Circuit Court, escalating the debate over funding for the office.
The action follows Public Defender Stephen E. Harris' warning this week that unless his office receives $1.8 million from the state to hire 16 additional attorneys, new clients may no longer get assistance from his office.
Deputy Public Defender Nancy Forster was adamant that the office's refusal to represent four clients was not a ploy to get more money from Annapolis. "Oh, my goodness, no," she said. "We're very serious. This is just the beginning."
Circuit Court Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller, who said she supports the office's request to fund new positions, said she was dismayed over yesterday's events.
"There is no question but that the public defender has a genuine need for additional resources," Heller said.
But, she added, "I think the public defender should be providing representation, as they are mandated to do so under the law."
Forster defended the office's decision. "The right to counsel doesn't just mean having a warm body standing next to you," she said. "It means the right to have effective counsel. We cannot be effective when attorneys have more than 60 [open] cases."
On Monday, Harris announced that all felony defenders carry caseloads of more than 200 a year. A caseload of 150 a year is recommended by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice, and endorsed by the American Bar Association.
Yesterday before Circuit Court Judge Clifton J. Gordy, Assistant Public Defender Audre Davis-Robinson said she could not represent Dennis Lee Lego, 33, of Catonsville, who faces burglary and other charges.
Gordy told Lego he was responsible for finding a lawyer and that he had to appear for his July trial date "with or without counsel."
Lego was informed by letter of the public defender's decision minutes before his case was called.
"I think it's unjust," Lego said outside the courtroom. "I'm eligible for representation by the state, but they tell me there's no funds, so I have to go to trial without a lawyer. It's ridiculous. I'm poor. I can't afford a lawyer."
Lego earns $6 an hour as a cook at a Pizza Hut in Catonsville. He said what happened yesterday is a violation of his rights.
Heller said Gordy could have assigned a lawyer to Lego, "but we're in a different era, where we have hundreds, thousands of cases."
"It would be an administrative burden to set up a system to appoint counsel for the numbers of individuals that would qualify," she said. "It may come to that, but right now we are hoping that either the public defender will recognize his mandate and provide the representation, or he will get the additional resources he believes he needs to do that."
More help from Annapolis is unlikely this year, state officials said. A spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening said the office fared better than most agencies in the budget pending before the General Assembly.
"The governor included in his budget almost $60 million, which is more than 20 percent increase in two years ... plus another $3.5 million on top of that to pay bills they didn't pay in 2001 and 2002," Michael Morrill said.
As for the budget request for more lawyers, Morrill pointed back at the agency.
"We don't assign what the money goes for," he said. "We just appropriate the money at-large. The public defender's office chooses how to spend the money."
News that the four were denied representation by the public defender's office angered state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who heads the Budget and Taxation Committee.
"Their constitutional obligation trumps their budget problems," Hoffman said. "While they're busy playing the blame game, people who have a presumption of innocence, what happens to them?"
Douglas Colbert, professor of constitutional and criminal law at the University of Maryland Law School, said public defenders "work very hard with limited resources to fulfill their constitutional duties."