Some divisive issues remain even though Public Defender Office appears a done deal



By Diana L. Coleman

Legal News

Fred Johnson, Jr., Muskegon County’s new Public Defender Director, spoke at the November Muskegon County Bar Association (MCBA) lunch meeting. Johnson was hired in August by the county to head the newly created indigent defense (public defender) group in Muskegon County.

The newly created department will eliminate the use of private contract public defenders in the county with the exception of appellate work.
Johnson was introduced to the MCBA members by attorney Karen E. Groenhout, Vice President of the bar association.  He added to Groenhout’s introduction by informing guests he graduated from law school in 1984, did service as a JAG, and worked briefly as a prosecutor. “I have now moved to Muskegon and would like to say that everyone has been very kind—even those of a different mind-set,” said Johnson.

The Muskegon County Public Defender offices are modeled after Washtenaw County’s Office of the Public Defender.  The new system will consist of 13 lawyers and 3 staff members.  In order to make this work, it will require the labor of 80-100 legal externs/interns annually. Johnson said, “With the Muskegon County caseload to be carried by each assistant public defender, it would be impossible without the use of law students (third year), law grads awaiting the bar exam, and those who have taken the bar exam but are waiting for results.  We need the help of the extra staffers due to the caseload for Muskegon County and we will also provide a teaching/experience tool for law students and new grads.”

Muskegon public defenders currently handle approximately 1000 cases per year. “The ABA standard is 400 cases, with 300 cases being preferred,” said Johnson. “Going over 400 cases without sufficient assistance becomes ineffective. We will be adding researchers with plans to extend the relations to the defense bar.”

He added, “The new assistant public defenders will be taking Continuing Legal Education classes at the county’s expense and will be required to take vacation.”

The program plans to move attorneys within the public defender department to avoid the attorneys becoming pigeon-holed in a certain area of defense. “Sixty attorneys have applied for the public defender positions and one hundred for the staff position,” said Johnson. “We want to attract good people. We also need good softball players so we will be up to the prosecutor’s challenge.”

“We will work together where we can,” said Johnson. “We will also be competitive when needed. We will be held accountable for our public defense and proper use of resources. The bottom line here is that it has to be better than what we have and we will amend it as needed as the program ensues.”

Attorney David Shafer asked Johnson If having the prosecutor on the interview committee for public defender positions wasn’t a conflict. 
Johnson responded by stating, “Absolutely not. We also have attorneys Doug Hughes, Mary Farrell, and Chad Catalino in addition to D.J. Hilson.  D. J. Hilson was picked for the interview committee due to his integrity.”

Johnson explained that the creation of the public defender office was brought on by a lawsuit filed against Michigan’s indigent defense system (including Muskegon County’s, though it was not sued directly) stating that public defense was weak and there appeared to be collusion between the public defenders and the prosecutors.

“Our focus is on doing a better job for the client, the community, and the judges,” said Johnson.  “Justice is more likely when everyone does a good job — prosecutors, defenders, judges. The United States has the best justice system—bar none. Is it perfect? — No. The new public defender systems will have to change and improve based upon complaints and feedback.”

Honorable Maria Ladas Hoopes, Chief District Judge, commented on behalf of the bench. “We (judges) are concerned with the vertical representation of clients in any court proceedings and especially

in successful indigent defense.  Some defendants need help even getting to court and need an attorney present on the date of the pretrial hearing and all court proceedings.”  The judges feel strongly that the client needs an attorney, not an intern.

Johnson requested another meeting with the District Judges to clarify the “no interns in the courtroom issue versus an attorney present at all court proceedings.”

While the newly created Public Defender (Indigent Defense) system will move forward as of Jan. 1, there are still some areas of concern from both the bench and the bar to be ironed out.