HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court has vacated a District Court contempt order against the Office of State Public Defender and ruled that OPD met the standards of Montana law when assigning public defenders.
In September, Billings Judge Donald Harris held OPD Director Rhonda Lindquist and her office in contempt after learning more than 600 defendants were without assigned legal representation in Yellowstone County. Harris fined the agency $500 per case, for a total of $15,500, and ordered OPD to assign public defenders to defendants within three working days. OPD paid the fine and did not challenge the order.
In February, Harris again held Lindquist and her office in contempt for failing to assign permanent attorneys to 17 clients. OPD challenged this ruling to the Montana Supreme Court saying an OPD attorney, although not permanently assigned to the client, had a conversation with each defendant, advised the defendants of all rights, and represents the defendants for the hearings.
All seven Montana Supreme Court Justices agreed with OPD stating that Montana law clearly obligates OPD to assign counsel immediately, yet “assigned” counsel does not mean a particular attorney to continuously represent a particular defendant.
“So long as the representation is undertaken by ‘a public defender qualified to provide the required services,’ and so long as a defendant is represented by qualified counsel at all times, the statutory requirement to assign counsel is fulfilled,” wrote Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath in the ruling.
OPD also argued that it would be impossible to assign permanent attorneys to defendants in three working days due to the process of ensuring there are no conflicts and satisfy ethical obligations. Public defenders may be representing victims of defendants in other or past cases.
There has also been a significant shortage of public defenders in Montana. OPD recently increased wages for all public defenders as an effort to help ease case backlog and staffing shortages they’ve faced.