Six Benton County Superior Court public defenders resign - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Six Benton County Superior Court public defenders resign, negotiating

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KENNEWICK, Wash. -- Six of the nine public defenders who work with the Benton County Superior Court resigned last week. None of them spoke with NBC Right Now on the record because they agreed not to talk about this matter publicly while they are in negotiations with the county. The resigned attorneys include; Scott Johnson, Sal Mendoza Jr., Gary Metro, Kevin Holt, Larry Zeigler and Dan Arnold.

In June 2012, the Washington State Supreme Court directed the state's public defenders to limit their caseloads and certify compliance with the new numerical standards. With the goal of improving the quality of legal representation for indigent defendants, the Court has adopted standards that were formerly considered advisory and largely unenforceable. The cap is 150 felony cases annually and 300-400 misdemeanors, one capital case at a time, 36 appeals, 80 open juvenile dependency cases, 250 juvenile offender cases. Their compensation as public defenders in Benton County Superior Court is also capped at a little more than $82,000.

While some argue that the six resignations were due to the money paid being too low, others say it's due to the restrictions doing more harm than good. For example, treating all attorney's as equals and not considering their years of experience or what kind of legal aides and resources they have at their private offices. Some feel that a 150 case cap for an experienced attorney would not interfere with their ability to provide a good defense for an indigent client. Some argue having a cap number on cases interferes with a private practices ability to make a profit.

According to one of the attorneys who resigned, public defenders have to stay on for at least 60 more days. It is not clear what will happen to pending cases at this point. NBC Right Now was not able to speak with the Benton Franklin indigent defense coordinator, Eric Hsu.

Implementation of the new standards will be phased in, beginning October 1, 2012, when attorneys must certify that they comply with the approved Standards for Indigent Defense Services with every court in which they practice.

Certification forms must be filed quarterly or the court cannot assign new cases to the attorney. On September 1, 2013, the numerical caseload limits take effect. Attorneys whose practice includes public defense for felony, misdemeanor, and juvenile cases must certify the percentage of their caseloads reserved for indigent defense, using weighting and case counting methods specific to their jurisdiction.

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