The Ramsey County public defender’s office clashed with the state courts Monday when one of its attorneys was found in contempt of court after she refused to show up for a jury trial because of a heavy caseload.
The attorney’s supervisor also was found in contempt in the rare occurrence, which signaled an uprising years in the making that pitted the overworked public defender’s office against a court system rooted in tradition. Monday’s development came on the very day the public defender’s office enacted a number of changes it says were ignored or unwelcomed by the courts.
“Ultimately, it’s about making sure our client’s rights are represented and vindicated,” the public defender in question, Baylea Kannmacher, said Tuesday. “It’s his life and liberty that’s being affected by all of this. I’m more worried about him than me.”
Ramsey County Chief Judge John Guthmann said there was no connection between the contempt findings and the public defender’s changes.
“There’s no relationship between the two,” said Guthmann, who consulted both Monday and Tuesday with the judge presiding over Kannmacher’s case. “The courts did not find anybody in contempt of court; an individual judge made an independent judgment.”
The clash began when Kannmacher’s kidnapping and theft trial was set to start in October at the same time as several other trials in front of Ramsey County District Judge Thomas Gilligan Jr. during his four-week trial block. As is common practice in Ramsey County, one trial began and the other attorneys waited to be called for trial at any point during the next four weeks.
When Kannmacher received notice last week that her trial was scheduled to begin Monday, she e-mailed Gilligan explaining that she wasn’t prepared for trial because of several other cases she was handling. Gilligan, she said, wouldn’t budge.
Kannmacher consulted with Ramsey County Chief Public Defender James Fleming, who instructed her not to attend the trial date.
“Really, the date is an arbitrary date,” Fleming said Tuesday of how jury trials are scheduled in Ramsey County. “It’s a miserable lose-lose situation for everybody, and what happens is everyone gets ground up and spit out.”
Movable trial dates in Ramsey County make it difficult for attorneys to schedule hearings in other cases, he said, while Hennepin County has more certain trial dates.
While a judge in Hennepin County may have five cases going to trial at one time, he said, a judge in Ramsey County could have as many as 40.
Fleming showed up on Monday instead.
Gilligan found Kannmacher in civil contempt of court, which carries a fine of $250, and Fleming in criminal contempt.
Gilligan’s findings occurred the same day the public defender’s office rolled out key changes: instead of attorneys specializing in only felonies or misdemeanors, attorneys would handle a combination of both types of cases to spread out the most serious offenses. Attorneys would also start requesting rule 8 hearings, also known as a second appearance, instead of skipping straight from a first appearance to an omnibus hearing, where pleas are commonly entered.
Fleming said he believes Gilligan’s findings were “partially” influenced by a letter he sent to the courts in October stating his office’s push for rule 8 hearings, which are now combined with first appearances in Ramsey County.
“They saw that as being difficult,” Fleming said of the court’s reaction to his letter. “It got to a point that everybody forgot that there’s even a rule 8.”
The change will give the county’s 50 public defenders two extra weeks to work on cases, which will result in stronger representation and better outcomes, Fleming said, adding that defendants aren’t even asked in Ramsey County if they want a second appearance.
Guthmann said he did not receive Fleming’s letter directly, but saw a copy that had been sent to Ramsey County District Judge Nicole Starr, the lead judge of the criminal division.
“We’ve accommodated the extra hearing,” Guthmann said.
While Fleming said the courts have moved hearing dates up two weeks in reaction to his office’s effort, Guthmann said rule 8 hearings are simply being placed in between a first appearance and an omnibus hearing with no extra time added.
Kannmacher and Fleming appeared in court Tuesday before Gilligan to address the contempt matter. About 30 colleagues and supporters packed the courtroom.
Gilligan told the court that he had a “productive” conversation in chambers with Fleming, state public defender William Ward, Guthmann and Starr in chambers.
Gilligan praised the public defender’s office for its “nimble” and “creative” work, and said he had “significant concerns” about the workload attorneys faced. But he quickly pivoted, saying that he could only do so much and would not accept supervisors instructing subordinates to “defy” the court, nor, condone an attorney’s refusal to appear.
“I offered flexibility…” Gilligan said.
The judge said that Kannmacher’s client was the last defendant in his four-week trial block who was in jail, an issue he took into account in insisting that Kannmacher appear. He rescinded his contempt finding for Kannmacher and continued Fleming’s contempt hearing for Dec. 15.
The hearing provided little relief for the public defenders.
“Our offices are run down, emotionally drained,” Ward said of public defenders across Minnesota. “Too often … our clients and our lawyers are treated as fungible goods.”
Ward and Fleming noted that a Ramsey County public defender recently broke down in tears inside Gilligan’s courtroom, and two others broke down inside the office.
The solution, they said, was to adopt changes, such as reducing the workload for public defenders, moving to a two-week trial block and creating a culture in which defendants and attorneys are seen as people instead of cases.
Public defenders across Minnesota each handle about 300 felony and 500 misdemeanor cases every year, while the American Bar Association recommends 150 and 400, respectively, Ward said.
While Gilligan said he would continue working toward solutions, and Guthmann pledged to meet with partners to address the issues, Ramsey County public defender Connie Iversen said she encountered resistance when she engaged the courts this summer.
Iversen spearheaded the “mixed case” calendar, with attorneys handling both felonies and misdemeanors. She met several times over the summer with a court administrator and others.
“They just stopped communicating in August,” Iversen said. “It was radio silence.”
Iversen sent the court administrator one last note in mid-October. She didn’t hear back, and set the change to go into effect Monday.