GILLETTE — Circuit Court Judges in Wyoming are not supportive of the state Public Defenders Office’s decision to not represent people who have only been charged with misdemeanors.
It’s been a month since State Public Defender Diane Lozano informed Circuit Court judges in Campbell and Natrona counties of her decision, citing staffing shortages.
Circuit Judge Brian Christensen, president of the Wyoming Circuit Court Conference of Judges, wrote that he and the other judges are “very alarmed and distressed” that Lozano would go this route.
“We are amazed that the State Public Defender can refuse to do their job without consideration of other alternatives, or the serious impact such a decision has on the entire criminal justice system,” he wrote.
What Lozano has done, he wrote, is create “an unnecessary emergency that everyone in the criminal justice system must deal with except the one agency that is required to deal with it.”
Because of her decision, the people “of Wyoming end up being the losers,” he wrote.
The Wyoming Circuit Court Conference of Judges passed a resolution saying they will continue appointing public defenders to represent indigent defendants, despite Lozano’s decision.
The Joint Judiciary Committee will meet in Gillette on Monday and Tuesday, and the issue is on its agenda for Tuesday. State Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, is on the committee. He said the refusal to represent misdemeanor defendants “really took me by surprise.”
“I don’t know if it had ever happened before,” he said. “This is the only time I can remember.”
He said he’s not sure what will come out of Tuesday’s discussion or if the committee will side with Lozano on the issue.
Von Flatern said there are some people who think this is just a publicity stunt by Lozano to increase her budget, but he’s not one of them.
“I truly think Lozano is not doing this for publicity,” he said. “It’d be political suicide to use this to get herself more money.”
He said he thinks Gov. Mark Gordon can move around enough money to get the office through to next February. Then, during the 2020 Legislative Session, hopefully legislators will solve the problem during the budgeting process.
“There’s not much we can do statutorily, because you’d have to screw with the (U.S.) Constitution,” he said.
Von Flatern added that if this doesn’t get fixed in the legislative session, then “we just wait until we get sued by someone who doesn’t get defended.”