To avoid a “looming constitutional crisis” — as Carson City officials put it — the Carson City Board of Supervisors took the first step Thursday to guarantee indigent legal defense services by establishing a new Carson City Office of Public Defender.
The board voted unanimously to approve the first reading of an ordinance establishing the office, and they also approved a corrective action plan with the Nevada Department of Indigent Defense Services (DIDS) subject to future modification. Supervisors further accepted amendments to the city’s own Indigent Defense Services Plan and approved a $2 million tentative budget to set up the office and pay staff.
“Carson City, like the rest of the state and many parts of the nation, is experiencing a critical shortage of indigent defense attorneys. Carson City has resolved to take swift and proactive measures to remedy the situation and to prevent a looming constitutional crisis,” reads a summary created by the Carson City District Attorney’s Office.
The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution establishes the right to a speedy and public trial and legal defense. Carson City has contracted with the Nevada State Public Defender’s Office (SPD) for indigent legal defense services for the last 25 years, said City Manager Nancy Paulson.
“However, at the beginning of April 2023 and over the course of the next month, the State Public Defender notified the city through several letters that their office was critically understaffed and could not accept any new cases, and they would also be moving to withdraw from current cases,” Paulson said. “So, to ensure the indigent defendants received timely and effective representation, the city’s three conflict counsel attorneys — thanks to them, they helped out quite a bit — they agreed to take on cases from the State Public Defender on a short-term basis for an additional cost of $12,500 each through June 30 of 2023.”
However, Paulson said those attorneys’ caseloads prevented them from taking on old cases, so the city hired private attorneys for up to $300 an hour to maintain services.
“The State Public Defender’s Office and the (Nevada) Department of Indigent Defense believe the critical staffing shortage at the State Public Defender’s Office will continue for the foreseeable future resulting in them being unable to provide the primary layer of indigent defense representation for Carson City,” said Paulson. “So based on this situation at the State Public Defender’s Office, city staff believes it in the best interest of Carson City to transfer that primary layer of indigent defense services from the State Public Defender’s Office to a newly created Carson City Public Defender’s Office.”
Paulson said working through a corrective action plan with DIDS is one way to establish the office under state law. She said the budget approved Thursday will be used for salaries and benefits as well as other operational costs and equipment. The new costs for fiscal year 2024 would be offset by funds already designated for SPD and reimbursements from DIDS.
“Pursuant to the (Nevada) Board of Indigent Defense regulations, the budget for the Carson City public defender needs to reflect an office that receives salary, benefits and resources in parity with the criminal division of the Carson City District Attorney’s Office,” Paulson said.
Mayor Lori Bagwell said she doesn’t want the new costs to erode the city’s general fund in the future but emphasized the city is required by law to provide the services.
“I don’t think it will become less expensive as time goes on,” she said.
The summary created by the District Attorney’s Office pointed to inadequate pay in the state office as a contributing factor to the problem.
“This situation is likely to continue for the foreseeable future as the salaries for attorneys in the SPD are too far below market rate to attract qualified attorneys,” reads the summary. “Several positions have been open, listed and advertised for months, and no applications have been received for them.”
According to the new ordinance, which must be read and approved twice, the board will appoint the public defender, and the public defender will hire deputies and staff for the new office.
In other action:
• Supervisors approved a collective bargaining agreement between the city and the relatively new Carson City Deputy District Attorneys Association.
The vote was 4-1, with Supervisor Maurice White voting no.
Made up of prosecutors in the criminal and juvenile divisions of the District Attorney’s Office, the bargaining unit was officially recognized by the Board of Supervisors in November of last year.
According to city staff, the agreement will start July 1 and run through June 30, 2026. The estimated fiscal impact is $981,508 over the next three years. That amount includes pay increases for association members but also for attorneys in the civil division who are barred from union membership per state law. The city wants to provide equitable pay to those in the same workplace, according to a staff report.
• Supervisors approved the Carson City Airport Authority’s 2023-28 capital improvement plan and four grant applications to the Federal Aviation Administration totaling nearly $6.9 million.
If awarded, the grants would require a 6.25 percent local match, approximately $457,867, and would be used for phase three of a new approach-lighting system, a new building for snow removal equipment and a new general aviation terminal building.
Airport Manager Corey Jenkins told the Appeal the airport usually hears back from the FFA on grant awards in the fall of each year.