The conflict over the conflict counsel has left me conflicted. It was so difficult to understand what the legislature did in creating and not funding the office, and then compromising it geographically from the outset, I just assumed the whole system would come crumbling down within a year or so. And it still may.
Now we have been reading about how the Public Defender’s offices across the country can’t take on anymore criminal cases. But if you think they are backlogged, the new Regional Conflict Counsel apparently isn’t too thrilled about receiving as many cases as public defenders are sending their way. Basically, it’s a game of what if they gave away a defendant and no lawyer came? But seriously, the RCC devised a plan to challenge the PD motion to withdraw in any court, trial or appellate.
The issue came up in the case of a carjacking suspect when the conflict counsel’s office argued the public defender should keep the case even though it represented a co-defendant who was sentenced to 25 years in state prison. Conflict Counsel office director Philip Massa argued his office was “a safety net, not a dumping zone” when the state Legislature created conflict counsel offices as a money-saving measure.
This afternoon, in rather declarative terms, the 4th DCA wrote a decision saying no how; no way. Judge Farmer ruled that “no statute authorizes the newly created RCC to object to PD motions to withdraw in any court.” Judge Farmer said more than that the RCC has no standing. He said that “the decision to assert a conflict resides in the presumed good faith of lawyers as officers of the court having the duty to avoid such conflicts.” In dicta, he added that the court has to presume the veracity and truth of the motion; that there are just too many situations where a revelation of the facts would just flat out compromise the client.
The inescapable conclusion was that a unanimous appellate court held that the conflict counsel has not right or standing to object when a public defender withdraws from a case. Indigent defendants are not going to get shoved around anymore, but will our state legislature get around to funding both the regional offices for conflict counsel as well as the underfunded public defenders? Stay tuned, the story is unfolding still.