Trial and Error 

Ravalli County is getting a deal. But are its poor getting justice?

Financially, the Ravalli County public defenders’ contract has been a big success. This fiscal year, the county will save more than $100,000 over what was paid out the year before. And District Court Judge Jeffrey Langton is well pleased with the service provided by the firm of Mansch, McLaverty and Beccari, the Missoula attorneys who contracted with the county for a $125,000 bid for a year of defending those who couldn’t afford legal counsel.

But the county’s two lower court judges, Justices of the Peace Nancy Sabo and Randy Lint, are not pleased. They see problems in the present system that didn’t exist a year ago, and they worry about the quality of justice defendants receive in the lower court.

“My concerns are about clients not having enough time and a lack of availability of the attorneys,” says Sabo. “The situation has improved over the year but it is not the way it is when we have resident [in-town] defenders.”

Sabo says her court is often called on to hold emergency mental commitment hearings and juvenile detention hearings, and when the attorneys are in Missoula rather than Ravalli County, logistics make it unworkable. In addition, most of the attorneys’ time is taken up with felony matters in Langton’s court.

“The higher court’s needs take precedence. The crimes are more serious, but our caseload far exceeds theirs and we need to have our needs serviced adequately,” Sabo says.

Lint agrees. “If someone is appointed a public defender, that person expects to have an advocate,” he says. “I’m concerned about the level of commitment to justice court clients. It is below par.”

Sabo and Lint have talked repeatedly with the public defenders, whom they describe as “good, competent, likable men,” but they agree the public defenders are not easily available for justice court proceedings. “We are on the bottom end of the ladder,” Lint says.

Since the public defenders took over last July, there have been no jury trials involving public defender clients in Ravalli County Justice Court. There have only been half a dozen bench trials before the two justices and most of those have been uncontested.

“In a trial there should be two sides,” Lint explains. “Each side advocates for a conclusion. These public defenders do not advocate for their clients’ interests to the level I would expect.”

Justice court public defenders have always been paid on a flat fee basis. The previous four attorneys, who were local, averaged about $30 an hour based on the flat fee amount and the number of hours each put in on cases.

The Missoula firm, whose misdemeanor offense contract is for $50,000 for the year, is averaging about two hours per misdemeanor case, which brings their fee-per-hour up to more than $80 per hour, according to Sabo.

“The money doesn’t matter to me but someone needs to be down here all the time,” Sabo says. “Someone must be here and available to meet the press of time frames. They have tried to improve, but the reality is their hearts are in the felony contract [for cases in the higher court].”

Praise from the district judge backs up that assumption. In a meeting last week with the Ravalli County commissioners, Langton said the flat-rate contract saved the county “untold thousands of dollars” and said the three attorneys have worked out well.

Langton and the JPs were not notified that the commissioners and county administrative officer Don Klepper planned to discuss the upcoming renewal of the public defenders’ contract. He learned of it five minutes before the meeting. Sabo and Lint did not learn of it until it was over.

Klepper told the commissioners that the contract—$50,000 for felony defense, $50,000 for misdemeanor defense, and $25 for contingencies in conflict-of-interest situations—was on line and would come in at or under the predicted budget figures. From a financial standpoint, the contract has saved money.

The commissioners have the option of simply renewing the contract, Klepper said. However, several other firms have indicated they are interested in bidding on the contract and would like to submit proposals.

Mark McLaverty, whose firm has the bid now, told the commissioners they were interested in submitting an offer to renew the contract. McLaverty said they have had no problems providing defense for the indigent in Ravalli County, describing their work as “running really smoothly.”

Langton reminded the commissioners that providing indigent defense was a judicial function and one that needed input and approval from the judges.

Ability to provide adequate defense is a prime concern for Langton. As serious crimes have escalated, so has the need for attorneys who have experience with those crimes. A felony public defender, for example, must have experience with homicide and attempted homicide cases, both of which have been heard before Langton in the past two years.

“I want to be in any group that is to evaluate proposals from attorneys,” Langton told the commissioners. “This involves both the legislative and judicial branches. I will not allow people who are incompetent or not of good repute to practice before my court.”

Langton has agreed to submit a detailed report about the present contract to the commissioners. Sabo and Lint say they plan to submit their own report about justice court activities. The commissioners will accept proposals from attorneys until May 1. A committee will review the proposals and return with a report and recommendation to the board.

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