New Mexico’s Public Defender’s office has been undergoing changes since voters approved a constitutional amendment creating an independent office last year. A commission made up of 11 members appointed by Governor Susana Martinez and state legislators will select a chief public defender by mid-October, moving the department out of the governor’s authority.
The Public Defender Department provides criminal defense attorneys for indigent adults and juveniles. The full-time staff of almost 400 lawyers, social workers and support staff handle about 72-thousand cases per year. The office has a $40-million budget.
Neither Governor Martinez nor future governors will be able to make political appointments to the chief public defender’s post anymore. Instead she and others will name commissioners who will in turn hire a chief whom they can also fire. The state Supreme Court chief justice gets to name three members, the dean of the UNM School of Law appoints three, and legislative leaders will name the other four commissioners. Ben Bauer is New Mexico’s acting chief public defender.
“An 11-person commission is going to bring different viewpoints, different strengths and different connections to the table,” Bauer says. “We have to ensure that we have an adequate budget and we have to ensure that we’re administered effectively and I think each commissioner will be able to ensure a different part of that.”
Bauer says the department’s attorney vacancy rate is improving, going down from 20-percent in 2010 to 10-percent this year. Another 130 private attorneys have contracts to defend the poor in rural areas as well.