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Defenders Object but Must Endure Office Crush : Lawyers: Six attorneys for poor clients must take refuge in a library and a 12-foot-square trailer room with three desks until new quarters are ready.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the community room of Crown Valley Library, Dr. Seuss meets Perry Mason.

On one side of a sliding partition, librarian Letitia Maitlen reads to 25 preschoolers from “Midnight Snowman,” “Patrick’s Dinosaurs” and “A Tree Is Nice.”

On the other side of the partition, Deputy Public Defender Jan Christie and her colleagues prepare arguments for trials involving rape, assault and vehicular manslaughter. The discussion often becomes animated, forcing the storyteller to demand quiet from the attorneys.

Christie and colleagues are temporary refugees in the library, victims of an office crunch that has reduced the public defender’s office in South County to a library room and a trailer so small that six lawyers take turns sharing three desks and telephones in a 12-foot-square office.

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The attorneys had hoped to move into a new, $900,000 modular building, but it was damaged during the recent heavy rains even before being completed.

And so it goes in Laguna Niguel, where the county’s battle for decent office space has been a long and tortuous one involving encounters with rats, rabbits and snakes that had burrowed under a dilapidated trailer office outside the courthouse.

The trailer was demolished about two years ago, when the stench of dead rats became overwhelming. But the problem did not go away. The public defenders were left out because landlords near the courthouse refused to rent them office space and considered the steady stream of criminal clients undesirables.

The library allowed the lawyers to use a section of the community room on condition that they not bring their clients inside. The county, meanwhile, set up a new trailer outside the courthouse, but it, too, is much too small to handle the staff.

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“They’re taking care of the little guys, and so are we,” said Carmen Martinez, an assistant county librarian. “Giving them a section of the room cuts off access to the community groups that can use it for free. But in the spirit of accommodation, we decided to share.”

Deputy Public Defender Thomas G. Mooney, who supervises the 10-member office, shares the trailer office with five other lawyers. If an attorney strolls in with a client, Mooney has to give up his chair. Two secretaries are squeezed behind desks, while an investigator and an interviewer share a another closet-size office in the trailer.

The public defenders must walk down to the library to retrieve their files. Mooney said some of the lawyers keep their law books in their cars, because it is easier to walk to the parking lot.

The lawyers, who each year represent 7,000 people who cannot afford to hire their own attorneys, interview clients outside the trailer. If it rains, they move inside, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere.

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“A few days ago we couldn’t get out of the office, because seven or eight witnesses came in at the same time,” Mooney said. “There was no space to move.”

“This is the most primitive condition I’ve worked under,” said Christie, who joined the department two years ago. “There’s no privacy, and it’s a disgrace to our profession . . . and the people in the district attorney’s office do not have to put up with this.”

The lawyers said they had expected their trials over the limited office space to be over in August, when a two-story modular building was to have been put up on a site behind the courthouse.

But the building arrived just three weeks ago and has been battered by heavy downpours. Mooney and his staff fear that it could be several months before it is erected.

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Ed Feser, president of Profile Structures, the Santa Fe Springs company that prefabricated the building, said his company had been ready to install it since July, but county officials caused a delay by changing the site.

Feser said he tried to persuade the county not to accept the building three weeks ago, because he feared that the predicted heavy rain would damage it.

“But we were put under the gun to ship it,” Feser said. “We told them we will not be liable if the rains caused damage.”

Several compartments of the modular building were left uncovered, and about 40 gypsum panels were drenched. Feser declined to say how much replacing them would cost.

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Presiding Municipal Judge Pamela Iles said she hopes the public defenders can move into their office soon.

“They’ve waited so long, and it’s a bit of bad luck that the only rains in four years fell just when they were going to get it,” Iles said.

“It’s been frustrating so far,” Mooney said. “We thought getting the building here was an achievement. . . . Now we’re praying that there’s not too much damage.”

Times correspondent Frank Messina contributed to this article.

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