We, a group of local attorneys with over a century of combined experience, wanted to write about an issue of concern in our local Superior Court 3 judicial race, because most of us serve as public defenders in the Kosciusko court system in addition to our private law practices.
For those who may not know, a public defender is an attorney who is appointed to represent individuals who are not able to afford an attorney — a right guaranteed by both the federal and Indiana constitutions. Our courts have long interpreted that for this right to actually mean something, a warm body with a law degree is not enough. In McMann v. Richardson, the US Supreme Court stated it this way: “defendants facing felony charges are entitled to the effective assistance of competent counsel.”
To ensure that defendants receive effective representation by competent counsel, our courts require minimum qualifying criteria before a lawyer is able to be appointed as a public defender in felony cases. Any lawyer fresh out of law school is qualified to serve as a public defender on misdemeanor and level six felonies. This because misdemeanors are punished with fines and days in jail, while level 6 felonies are punished by, at most, a two and one-half years. As the severity of the crime increases, meriting harsher punishments, the requirements to serve as a public defender become more rigorous.
To serve as a public defender on level 5 felonies an attorney needs one year of experience as an attorney or experience in three criminal trials. For felonies level 4 to 1, an attorney must have additional time and felony trial experience to be appointed.
Court 3 handles, among other matters, felony criminal cases, including felonies as high as Level 4, such as DUI cases involving death. While a judge does not have to meet the same qualifications by law, you, the voter, may think it wise that the judge deciding these Level 4 felony cases is at least as qualified as the attorneys he or she appoints to represent that Court’s defendants.
Three of the candidates in this election are so qualified: (in alphabetical order) Bishop, Grossnickle, and McGrath. The only candidate who could not serve as a public defender in the court to which he is applying to serve as Judge is Miner.