The Minnesota Supreme Court this week issued its decision in the case of Walter Jamille Randolph, a case which arose in Rice County. John L. Fossum co-authored an Amicus Curiae brief in the case along with two other former chairs of the Criminal Law Section of the Minnesota State Bar Association.
Walter Randolph was appointed a public defender for a misdemeanor case and convicted at trial. He requested a public defender on appeal and the Rice County District Court appointed counsel to be paid by Rice County. Rice County objected, claiming that the public defender statute made this an obligation of the Board of Public Defense. The Board of Public Defense intervened in the case and argued that since the statute did not require the State Public Defender to represent indigent defendants in misdemeanor appeals, the appellate division could not be appointed to represent Randolph. The court, after oral arguments, issued an order requiring the parties to submit new briefs on the question of who should pay for an indigent’s Constitutional right to counsel in misdemeanor appeals. The court invited other entities to weigh in on the question, including the Minnesota State Bar Association.
The statute which created the state public defender system, took the then existing system of judicial district public defenders and gave them the obligation of defending misdemeanors, gross misdemeanors, felonies, juveniles and child protection cases. The State Public Defender was put in charge of the system, adding to the former responsibility of running the appellate office. Appeals in gross misdemeanor, felony and juvenile cases were made the responsibility of the public defender system, child protection appeals were paid for by the county the appeal originated from, and no provision was made for appeals in misdemeanor cases when the appellant cannot afford private counsel.
This case was made necessary by Morris v. State, which found that indigent misdemeanants have a Constitutional right to counsel, but did not resolve whose obligation it was to vindicate that right. Prior to the state takeover of the public defender system, there were district public defenders paid by the counties, prior to that all public defense was administered by each of the 87 counties. As the move toward district then state public defense was made, many of those obligations were removed from the counties, but some remained, such as child protection appeals, paternity, non-support contempt and civil commitments to name a few.
Part of the public defender statute said that functions which were not taken over by the state remained the obligation of the county. The county argued another phrase in the statute meant that all public defenders were to be paid by the Board of Public Defense.
The court took a third route, finding the payment of counsel for Mr. Randolph was an obligation of the state, but since the state had no system in place to pay for such counsel his conviction should be vacated. The court encouraged the legislature to find a way to fund such appeals. Failing that, the court encouraged lawyers to take misdemeanor appeals pro bono. Going forward, it seems that any indigent misdemeanant who wants appointed counsel on appeal will likely have their conviction vacated unless a lawyer agrees to handle the case for free, or the legislature creates a new fund to pay for counsel in such cases.
John L. Fossum, is an attorney with the Fossum Law Office, LLC, and has offices in Northfield, MN and Bloomington, MN. Fossum Law Office, LLC handles criminal defense, appeals, personal injury, civil litigation and business law. If you have a legal problem in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Bloomington, Burnsville, Hastings, Shakopee, Faribault, Chaska, Waseca, Owatonna, or elsewhere in the Twin Cities or Southeastern Minnesota, contact Fossum Law Office, LLC for assistance.