LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Pulaski County judges will meet soon to discuss a plan which could address the public defender’s plan to object to all new cases beginning in March.
On Monday, KARK 4 News obtained a letter from the Sixth Judicial Division Chief Public Defender William Simpson, Jr. that explained public defenders will object to all new case appointments beginning March 1.
The letter was sent after the Arkansas Supreme Court’s office of Ethics Counsel noted a public defender trial attorney should not maintain a caseload that would violate the attorney’s ethical obligation.
Arkansas Public Defenders Commission Executive Director Gregg Parrish said Tuesday public defenders in Pulaski County are appointed to about 100 cases each week.
Parrish confirmed public defenders in northeast Arkansas had plans to stop providing services in a specialty court in that part of the state.
Pulaski County public defenders have been told to reduce their caseloads to an ethically appropriate level by the chief public defender.
“We’ll continue to persevere the best that we can. That’s not comforting to someone who has been charged, arrested or in-custody and for that I’m very sorry I can’t give that comfort,” said Parrish.
The Office of Ethics Counsel notes that if a public defender refuses to represent someone even after requesting to withdraw or recuse, the attorney could be found in contempt.
Kelly Ward, a law partner at Kamps & Ward Law Firm, said that in her two decades of practicing law she’s never seen anything like this.
“This would be an unprecedented move, I would say, by the public defender’s office, and there are several things that could happen,” she explained. “Ideally, I’m sure, they would like to have more public defenders, more attorneys. I’m sure prosecutors would like more attorneys as well.”
Ward said it’s an issue that would likely to be addressed by the state Supreme Court.
Parrish said the four Pulaski County criminal judges have roughly 3,000 active cases each.
Pulaski County Administrative Judge Leon Johnson said he plans to meet with other judges soon to try and figure out a plan to address the caseload.
Governor Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday that the caseload of prosecutors and public defenders will need to be reviewed statewide.
“Having represented criminal defendants during my legal career, I understand the burdens placed on those lawyers. I also understand the COVID-19 pandemic has had a detrimental effect on caseloads in Pulaski County. The suspension of in-person proceedings has caused a growing backlog of cases, which is an issue that will need to be addressed by the judicial branch. In terms of the caseload, both the caseload of prosecutors and public defenders will need to be reviewed statewide.”