The Minnesota Supreme Court will decide whether counties must pay for attorneys to represent poor parents in child-protection cases, the court announced Monday.

Last month, in a decision that grew out of a Rice County case, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that counties must pay.

Rice County Judge Thomas Neuville had ordered that a private attorney be appointed to represent a teenager whose newborn baby was taken away by the county. In September 2008, Neuville ordered the county to pay the lawyer, Grant Sanders of Faribault, but Rice County commissioners refused and challenged the judge's order in the Court of Appeals. The county lost and appealed to the state Supreme Court.

All sides in the fray agree that poor parents should be given representation in cases involving child protection or termination of parental rights. But the different branches of government, each facing its own budgetary strain, have been fighting over who should pay.

Rice County Attorney Paul Beaumaster contends that Neuville should have appointed a state public defender instead of a private lawyer, and then the state judiciary branch would have paid those costs.

Monday, the high court granted review of the Rice County case and a second case brought by Crow Wing County over similar issues. Both cases will be argued the week of Jan. 4.

The issue has statewide implications, according to the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, because if the Court of Appeals decision is upheld, other judges could become empowered to order county boards to pay court-appointed attorneys.

The association, a voluntary organization, filed a "friend-of-the-court" petition with the Supreme Court. It contends that if the Court of Appeals decision stands, it will have a "significant impact" on county operations, including budgetary, financial and administrative issues.

Sanders said Thursday that he's been owed money by Rice County for nearly a year for his work in representing the mother, whom he helped regain custody of her baby.

The showdown follows a decision in June 2008 by the state Board of Public Defense. Citing a $3.8 million budget shortfall, the board said then that it would no longer provide public defenders to represent poor adults whose children have been taken away.

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017