Superior Court judge makes urgent call for attorneys to serve as public defenders in Merrimack County

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Non-profit NH Public Defender has 12 regional offices, including this one on Merrimack Street in Manchester. File Photo

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A superior court judge put out a call on Wednesday for attorneys to help fill the gap at the New Hampshire Public Defender because the organization is currently unable to secure representation for indigent criminal defendants in Merrimack County.

In an email to more than 20 attorneys, Superior Court Judge John C. Kissinger asked for their help, saying the state is “facing a crisis in securing representation for indigent criminal defendants in Merrimack County.”

New Hampshire Public Defender, which started in 1972, represents the majority of indigent citizens facing criminal and delinquency prosecution in New Hampshire. It is a private, non-profit corporation and helps to fill New Hampshire’s constitutional obligation to provide equal justice for all under the sixth amendment by handling 85 percent of the indigent caseload.

Kissinger’s email cited high staff departures and “overwhelming caseloads” as part of the cause for what he referred to as an urgent need for attorneys to take cases. 

“Effective yesterday, the Concord office of the NH Public Defender program is no longer accepting new court-appointed cases,” the email says. “This means that contract counsel, who take conflict cases and are already near or beyond capacity, will be unable to fully meet the need.”

Sarah Blodgett, Director of the Judicial Council, which provides funding for The Public Defender and coordinates various civil and criminal justice matters, said The Public Defender has the ability to close or reduce intake of new cases if attorney caseloads become excessive. 

“With one exception, the program has not needed to do this for more than 20 years – until now. High staff turnover and case backlogs have created a perfect storm for indigent defense,” Blodget said. 

The high staff turnover, combined with fewer cases being heard during the pandemic, has led to stagnant caseloads, she said.  

“Twenty-six attorneys (200+ years of experience) left the Public Defender program in FY21 – that is more than twice the normal attrition rate. An additional six attorneys have already tendered their resignations since July 1,” Blodgett said. “When attorneys leave the program, their cases are split among the remaining attorneys, exacerbating stress levels and caseloads.” 

Blodgett said New Hampshire Public Defender has already had to close intake at its Laconia, Dover, Orford, and Nashua offices. 

“During these closures, contract attorneys and private attorneys have accepted a huge number of court-appointed cases – much more than these systems were designed to support,” she said. “Our indigent defense system relies on a robust, statewide Public Defender. NHPD is widely recognized as one of the best public defender programs in the country, and it is the backbone of NH’s indigent defense system.”

Blodget said New Hampshire Public Defender and the Judicial Council have taken steps to address these issues by recruiting experienced criminal defense attorneys as lateral hires, and by reaching out to the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to request assistance with the caseload.  

“The Judicial Council has been recruiting new private attorneys to accept cases, but low reimbursement rates and challenging work make both of these efforts difficult,” she said, adding that the Judicial Council has also reached out to the Massachusetts and Vermont associations and have added about 15 attorneys to their panels, as well as trainings for defense attorneys who are new to NH state court criminal practice. 

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About this Author

Scott Merrill

Scott Merrill is Editor of Publications for the New Hampshire Bar Association.