Alaska public defenders to refuse some Nome and Bethel cases due to shortage of attorneys

The Nome court. (Photo: Matthew F. Smith, KNOM file)
The Nome court. (Matthew F. Smith/KNOM)

A state agency that represents Alaskans who cannot afford their own attorneys intends this month to stop taking clients facing serious felony charges in parts of southwest and western Alaska due to staffing shortages.

Samantha Cherot, head of the Alaska Public Defender Agency, notified the judges overseeing the Nome and Bethel judicial districts of the plans Tuesday, the Anchorage Daily News reported. The agency asked the presiding judges to direct Superior Court judges in those regions to not assign new cases to the agency for certain felonies that cover the most serious and complex crimes, starting Feb. 13.

An Alaska Court System spokesperson declined to respond to questions from the newspaper about the options available for individuals who would be affected.

Cherot said the agency has long struggled to recruit and retain qualified attorneys, challenges worsened by a pandemic-fueled backlog in criminal cases. Recent resignations in Bethel and Nome have left the agency without enough experienced attorneys to handle new complicated cases, she said.

“With a few additional attorneys with the necessary training and experience to handle unclassified and A felonies, the situation could improve quickly. Otherwise, the agency needs time for its existing qualified attorneys to resolve many of their pending cases before they can ethically accept new cases or for newer attorneys to gain the necessary experience to be able to handle these case types,” Cherot said.

The agency has used contracted private lawyers and will continue to do so, Cherot said. But finding enough private attorneys with the skills and experience to represent individuals charged with serious felonies and fill the gaps has been difficult.

The agency has identified two private lawyers who may be willing to represent individuals charged in the Nome Superior Court but no additional private lawyers for Bethel cases.

While lawmakers last year approved pay increases for state attorneys and, in recent years, more positions for public defenders, that hasn’t fully addressed the problem, Cherot said. For example, applicants often lack the qualifications to take on the most complex cases immediately. And recruitment is challenging, she said, with attorneys citing as reasons for not wanting to work for the agency more lucrative compensation and manageable workloads elsewhere.

James Stinson, director of the state Office of Public Advocacy, which is asked to represent clients when public defenders face a conflict of interest, indicated the office would resist if ordered by the courts to share the burden of cases typically handled by the Public Defender Agency.

The Legislature never intended for this office “to be the front line defense agency for the state. We are not staffed, funded, or structured to be,” Stinson wrote in an email.

He cited as an option an administrative rule that allows the court to appoint private attorneys to qualifying clients.

Jeff Turner, a spokesperson for Gov. Mike Dunleavy, said the governor’s supplemental budget calls for an additional $3.1 million for the Office of Public Advocacy and Public Defender Agency.

Dunleavy’s office “will work with the Department of Administration and the Legislature to determine if this level of financial support is sufficient for the Office of Public Advocacy and the Public Defender Agency to handle the emergent issue of caseloads in Bethel and Nome,” Turner said in an email.

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