EDITORIAL: Taxpayers, poor to pay dearly for pointless changes to public defenders

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plan to change the structure of how Aurora manages public defenders will cause nothing but trouble for the courts, those drawn into them, and every taxpayer in the city.

For absolutely no good reason, some top city officials have decided that changes are needed in how Aurora governs its small but important office of public defenders, a system that for decades has been a model for other municipalities, and still is.

The office is run by a chief public defender, who oversees about four lawyers who represent poor defendants in court. On TV, when they read the so-called Miranda rights, saying that “in the event you cannot afford an attorney…” this is what they’re talking about. In city court, these lawyers navigate cases that usually involve things like shoplifting, assault, domestic violence and a host of crimes that aren’t felonies.

Aurora Sentinel BadgeThe entire small office is governed by a commission, composed of a few attorneys and laymen, whose chief job is to hire the chief prosecutor and advise on topical issues as they arise. The commission and the office itself is independent from city management — by design.

Abruptly this fall, city management made clear they wanted to bring the office under the supervision of the city manager, eradicating its critical independence. Not being under the control of the same arm of government that runs the police department is vital to the very tenets of a criminal justice system.

So far, no one but a handful of city officials think this is a good idea, or even remotely justified. Opponents include the American Bar Association, the Colorado Bar Association, Denver’s public defender commission, the Colorado office of public defense, the Colorado ACLU , state lawmakers, former members of the Aurora commission and the city’s former city attorney, now a sitting councilman, Charlie Richardson.

“I could use a lot of public improvements in Ward IV instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees on this colossal mistake we’re about to make,” Richardson said, according to a story by Aurora Sentinel reporter Rachel Sapin.

He’s right. This change, which jeopardizes case integrity and actual fair-trial justice, is for no good reason. It doesn’t save the city any money. It doesn’t improve defenses. And it arguably will create a huge legal expense as civil rights organizations line up to sue, and then individual defendants win expensive appeals, in the unlikely case this change is actually enacted. The few proponents of this measure say they’re unhappy that the commission has in the past held closed “executive session” meetings when discussing the hiring of a chief defender. We agree such topics are not fodder for closed meetings, and they should be banned by the city council. And they can be prohibited without upending the commission’s structure and purpose.

More likely, city management is still seething over a city public defender testifying for a state bill earlier this year, contrary to the official position of Aurora. The bill targeted cities like Aurora that imposed jail time for poor people who didn’t pay court fines upon conviction. The controversial bill made it out that Colorado Springs and Aurora created virtual debtor prisons by jailing people who couldn’t make good on fines. Aurora sent its chief judge to the state Capitol earlier this year to testify against the bill. The maligned city defender testified in favor of the measure, angering city hall. The bill, which garnered a great deal of media attention, overwhelmingly passed.

So if this measure is about revenge, stop now. This is a wildly expensive and unethical scheme that will only backfire. If there are legitimate reasons that outweigh expensive lawsuits and diminishing an important part of justice, we’re anxious to hear them. What we’ve heard is no complaints, effusive praise for the office and a track record that shows this office wins almost 9 out of 10 jury trials in city courts. If anything, the evidence warrants attention on potential problems among city prosecutors.

This part of city government certainly isn’t broke, and it only will be if lawmakers are successful in trying to fix it. At the next vote, table this idea and then make public any legitimate concerns. Otherwise, can it.