JUDICIAL DISTRICT 29A – Rutherford & McDowell Counties – Change is coming in how indigent defendants are represented in Judicial District 29A. Presently, judges assign cases in both counties from an approved roster of attorneys. These attorneys are paid a set rate per billable hour. Many local attorneys depend on these assignments to stay in business. Or as one of the District 29A Ted Bell’s Assistant District Attorneys, David Norris, called them in a conversation with the RC Catalyst editor – welfare lawyers. The voucher system will be eliminated with the creation of a Public Defender (PD) office. The Public Defender (PD) will hire his own defense attorneys and staff.
The recently passed North Carolina budget included funds for the creation of a Public Defender Office for District 29A. Instead of using the voucher system for Private Assigned Counsel (PAC), the Public Defender (PD) will hire staff to serve indigent clients. The Public Defender’s office, staff, and attorneys will mirror that of the District Attorney’s. Implementation is expected to commence December 1, 2018.
The appointment of a public defender will be made by Superior Court Judge Tommy Davis. President of District 29-A, Aaron Walker, has called a meeting of the district bar to solicit nominations for the position. The bar will submit 3 names for Davis’ consideration. The Office of the Indigent Defense Services will also submit one name for Davis’ consideration.
From Senate Bill 99:
29 (b) For each new term, and to fill any vacancy, public defenders shall be appointed from 30 a list of not less than two and not more than three and not more than four names nominated as follows:
32 (1) Not less than two and not more than three by written ballot of the attorneys 33 resident in the defender district who are licensed to practice law in North 34 Carolina. The balloting shall be conducted pursuant to rules adopted by the 35 Commission on Indigent Defense Services.
36 (2) One name submitted by the Administrative Officer of the Courts after 37 consultation with the Director of the Office of Indigent Defense Services.
38 (b1) The appointment required under subsection (b) of this section shall be made by the senior resident superior court judge of the superior court district or set of districts as defined in G.S. 7A-41.1 that includes the county or counties of the defender district for which the public defender is being appointed.
There are reportedly 3 or more local attorneys and at least one judge campaigning for the position. Davis, who is up for reelection in 2020, must carefully consider the merits of each applicant as well as the effect on his own future.
While the creation of a Public Defender office came as a surprise to many in the District, both Senator Ralph Hise and House Rep. David Rogers, voted aye for Senate Bill 99 which has been in the works for some time. David Rogers is a practicing attorney in District 29A.
Unfortunately the approved 2018-2019 NC budget did not include funds for a Public Defenders’ office since equivalent office space to the DA’s offices must be provided. Finding office space, furnishings, and parking are already proving to be challenging Rutherford County manager Steve Garrison. The Counties are mandated to provide these public defenders’ offices.
Public Defenders are full-time, state-paid attorneys whose function is to represent indigent criminal defendants and indigent respondents in civil cases in which there is a right to counsel. If a defendant cannot afford an attorney and is accused of a crime that could result in imprisonment, the defendant is eligible for the services of a lawyer at state expense. If the defendant is found guilty, he or she must pay back the money spent on his or her defense. Sixteen districts in the state already have Public Defenders.