The juggling of cases by overburdened public defenders was in full swing Tuesday afternoon in Dakota County District Court, and in three courtrooms it was much the same: Judges, court reporters, prosecutors, defendants and others waited, with proceedings stalling, as public defenders insisted on taking the time they needed to talk privately with their clients.

The county lost five public defenders last year because of state budget cuts and a hiring freeze, and could lose several more from its current rank of 18 under proposals by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the state Senate to further cut the budget of public defenders' offices.

It's not only the public defenders who are concerned that more cuts will further slow down the system and threaten justice for both suspects and victims. Judges, prosecutors, police and others worry, too.

"The waits will increase whether it's in the courtroom or in the scheduling," District Judge Shawn Moynihan said as he and others waited Tuesday afternoon for a public defender who was doublebooked -- scheduled to be in two courtrooms at once.

That public defender, Patricia Phill, rushed from one courtroom, where she secured a plea agreement for one client, and then to Moynihan's courtroom, where she was scheduled to represent a man about to go to trial, accused of a credit-card crime. The jury selection had already been delayed, but now Phill needed more time to discuss a crucial piece of evidence with her client.

"I need to do my job and the time to do my job," Phill told Moynihan. She was able to settle the case with a plea agreement that left her client serving jail time, yet satisfied it wasn't a harsher sentence.

Public defenders in Dakota County now each handle 120 to 150 cases at any given time and often work nights and weekends, several said.

Dakota County District Judge Joseph Carter, a former chief public defender, said traditionally in the county, criminal cases have moved through the system in about three months, but now, cases are being set six months out. That's so long that witnesses have trouble recollecting facts. One such case led to a dismissal recently, he said.

"The public defenders are in trouble, and as a result of their being in trouble, the court system is in trouble," Carter said. "It means that our justice system will slow down considerably and so cases will go unresolved, and that's very harmful for the victims and witnesses and general public. It also means that we will have to probably confine ourselves to more serious offenses, and other offenses will be delayed."

One danger, the judge said, is that criminals whose cases are not addressed could become involved in even more serious offenses, "and so it can snowball very quickly."

Last year, public defenders offices had a 12 percent budget cut, and 53 attorneys were laid off statewide. Pawlenty now proposes a 5 percent cut, which could lead to layoffs of 14 percent of the attorneys, said John Stuart, Minnesota's chief public defender.

Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom said the public defenders are "woefully" underfunded.

Impact is widespread

"They do not have enough staff to handle their cases," Backstrom said, "and that directly impacts all of us who work in the criminal justice system, including the prosecutors. Our cases are delayed. We have staff in courtrooms waiting for public defenders to arrive, which also inconveniences the court and witnesses."

The court system itself is becoming bogged down. Without adequate funding, state court officials say, they'll be forced to delay or no longer process more than 20 types of cases, from truancy to delinquency cases to restraining orders. And they fear cases could be thrown out because they'll take too long to get to court.

"I'm very concerned that, without adequate funding, the public safety of our state citizens will be put at risk and our public's confidence in our system of equal and fair justice for all will begin to erode," Backstrom said.

The economy is worsening the strain. The number of criminal cases in Dakota County has increased 9 percent over this time a year ago, said Carol Renn, the county's court administrator. At the same time, more people are qualifying for public defenders because they have lost their jobs. Some are committing crimes out of desperation to feed their families and to pay bills, Renn and several public defenders said.

Tuesday, in Judge Martha Simonett's courtroom, she and others waited for nearly an hour as public defenders talked with clients. But Alan Morrison, 24, of South St. Paul, said he was grateful for the time that his public defender gave him.

Without his public defender, Sophie Morgan, he said later, he's sure he would have gone to jail for violating his probation, which was for check forgery. But Morgan persuaded the judge to give Allen another chance to complete drug treatment and follow rules.

"If you can't talk to someone who's on your side," Allen said, "you've got no one in your corner. And if there's fewer and fewer public defenders, you might not get full justice."

The public defenders' load of felony cases is already nearly double what the south-metro public defenders handled when they were at full strength in Dakota County.

Catherine Turner, a Dakota County public defender who was laid off last year and now represents some clients for free and others on a sliding fee scale, said it's "borderline unethical" to require lawyers to take on such a caseload and spend less time with clients.

"Justice doesn't work that way," she said.

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017