A lot of lawyers were approved for hire by Douglas County commissioners last week.
Commissioners approved three contracts for public defenders at their Feb. 3 meeting.
Kris Brown, Matthew Ence and Brian Filter will serve for another six months representing indigent defendants.
There were five full-time contract attorneys on July 1, but the fact the attorneys hadn’t seen an increase in their fees for 16 years has resulted in two attorneys giving up their contracts.
“There has not been a raise since 2005,” former contract attorney Maria Pence said in an email exchange with The R-C a few weeks before her contract expired on Dec. 31. “It’s simply not enough for the amount of work. The sheer volume of the caseload is too hard to manage, and still do a good job for each and every client.”
Pence expects to continue to serve private clients through her office in Minden.
Each of the contracts was for $132,500 for the first six months of 2022, or $265,000 annually, up from the previous $195,000.
Indigent Defense Coordinator Derrick Lopez acknowledged that it was a significant sum but pointed out that attorneys are required to maintain an office in Douglas including whatever staff they hire.
“It has been very difficult to get attorneys,” Lopez said. “For those attorneys who have taken this contract, no matter how hard they work it’s the same amount.”
The county is obligated under state law to provide an attorney to someone who cannot otherwise afford one.
Lopez, who has worked both as a prosecutor and a public defender in Douglas County, said that the public defenders have a full-time caseload, though they can accept outside clients.
“It’s difficult to do much work beyond the contract and the office eats up a significant portion.”
Lopez said it’s possible the higher rate will result in filling the other two positions.
“It’s very difficult to find somebody,” he said.
Lopez said that his office and the judges try to ensure someone who gets an attorney truly can’t afford one. If an attorney finds someone has the capacity to pay, they are obligated to share that information.
Judges have ordered defendants to reimburse the county for their legal fees in some instances. Attorneys are only appointed in cases where prosecutors are seeking incarceration, which tend to be more serious cases.
Last year, the Nevada Legislature made changes in the law governing public defenders, requiring the establishment of an indigent defense program under the county manager.
That also required that county commissioners enter into a contract with a coordinator for the program.
County Manager Patrick Cates said the new law included reimbursement for around $1 million in increased costs with the new system, but that he is a little worried about whether the county will see that money.
“I’m a little concerned that the state approved significantly more than they had appropriated,” he said.
He said that as the law is implemented, he hoped the state would understand more about the costs.
On the other side of the aisle, county commissioners approved two positions for the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office.
Deputy District Attorney Carey Rosser’s move across the country will result in her moving to contractor status with the county.
Rosser, who has a hand in writing code for the county, will work virtually with the county. She often serves with public works, the airport and the recorder’s office.
“She’s extremely talented and has been through all the training,” District Attorney Mark Jackson said.
He said recruiting and retaining qualified attorneys has been a challenge throughout the state.
Elko County has four vacancies in its district attorney’s office and has been trying to fill one for 27 months.
“Even with a law school in their back yard, the Clark County DA’s Office has been having trouble,” he said.
He said in a lot of transactional law, attorneys can live where they live.
“The new generation has been changing how business has been done in our lifetime,” he said.
Jackson also received authorization to have an attorney serve the county’s new vacation home rental program.
The county is only partially through its permitting process for Tier 3 vacation rentals.
The new position would be paid for through a fee increase that will be proposed during this spring’s budget cycle.