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With L.A. courts paralyzed by COVID-19, public defenders say caseloads are ‘unconscionable’

The Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.
The Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on March 21, two days after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide “stay at home” order to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The email set off alarm bells throughout the Los Angeles County public defender’s office.

In a message that reached roughly 1,200 lawyers and staff members, veteran public defender Ernesto Diaz pleaded for help with what he and some of his colleagues described as “unconscionable caseloads.” Felony attorneys were representing as many as 70 clients, more than double their normal workload, and some were so stressed out that they were becoming physically ill, he wrote.

“I have heard from countless dedicated public defenders that they do not want to do this job anymore,” Diaz wrote in the email. “This saddens me because, for many of them, this is the only job they ever wanted to do.”

Replies poured in from other public defenders echoing Diaz’s concerns, according to emails reviewed by The Times. Some said they were so overworked they could not provide effective counsel to their clients. Others expressed fear for their own safety, warning that the combination of high caseloads and what they consider lax court safety protocols during the pandemic could lead to more of their colleagues falling ill, after a deputy public defender died of COVID-19 in May.

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In recent weeks, The Times has spoken with a dozen public defenders and their union representatives, all of whom say workloads have doubled, and in some cases tripled, as the pandemic severely slows the operations of the nation’s largest court system. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation from supervisors. Diaz declined to be interviewed for this story.

A public defender in the downtown courthouse said most felony attorneys have as many as 50 clients, double their normal workload. A misdemeanor attorney who normally has about 100 clients had a caseload of nearly 300 by mid-November, the attorney said.

“None of us can competently represent 300 people. I have lost track of files and clients. Bad things have happened because of that,” the misdemeanor attorney said. “I’m just one person. You can’t give adequate representation to 300 or more people.”

Los Angeles County’s courts process more than 100,000 cases a year, and social distancing is nearly impossible in the busy corridors and elevators of courthouses in downtown L.A., Long Beach and Compton. The courts briefly shut down in March, and jury trials were suspended for months amid fears that hearings could become de facto super-spreader events. By September, there were at least 7,000 criminal cases in L.A. County that needed to be heard “to satisfy defendants’ statutory speedy trial rights,” according to a general order issued by Presiding Judge Kevin Brazile.

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Despite the panic over caseloads from public defenders and their union — which last week submitted a letter to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors seeking remedies, including a cap on the number of cases individual attorneys should be allowed to carry — L.A. County’s chief public defender, Ricardo García, has expressed doubt about the scope of the problem.

While he acknowledged that caseloads are increasing in some courthouses, he said he needed more data to validate the complaints of a systemwide surge and warned that case counts might not represent a problem on their own.

“Looking at simple numbers like caseload isn’t sufficient to really understand our workload. Workload isn’t the issue at the end of the day. Handling cases in a pandemic is truly difficult,” he said. “Communicating with clients is difficult. Working up investigations is difficult. Appearing in court is difficult.”

The public defender’s office launched a case management system in late October to help track caseloads and identify acceptable workloads, according to García, who said there were “discrepancies” between the anecdotes reported to The Times and internal caseload data he had collected. He did not provide statistics to validate that claim.

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The number of cases filed this year by the L.A. County district attorney’s office has fallen by 23% compared with the same time frame in 2019, records show. But many public defenders say the systemwide backlog is still driving up their individual caseloads.

Nikhil Ramnaney, head of the union representing L.A. County public defenders, said the office’s upper management has done a poor job of tracking caseload data. Managers began taking a census of individual attorneys’ caseloads only after Diaz’s email went out, Ramnaney said. And in its letter to the supervisors, the union alleged that internal records on individual caseloads were inaccurate.

“How is it 2020 and we don’t have a meaningful way to track what caseloads are and how many cases we are taking in?” he asked. “People are screaming. The ship is sinking.”

Beyond the case backlog, Ramnaney said the spread of the coronavirus inside the county’s jails has severely delayed pretrial hearings. With clients frequently subject to quarantines, hearings have to be continued again and again while caseloads balloon with new clients entering the system.

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A supervisor who spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the matter candidly said the contents of Diaz’s email were largely accurate and scoffed at García’s dismissal of the severity of the workload problem. The supervisor, who has been involved in conversations with other managers trying to verify complaints about high caseloads, said reports of felony attorneys carrying more than 50 cases have come in from across the county.

“Caseloads have doubled. ... They literally don’t have enough time in the day. There’s not enough hours to be able to manage that,” the supervisor said. “These folks are going out on stress leave; they’re going out on medical leave. ... That is taking a psychological and physical toll on employees.”

Several attorneys said they are struggling to meet the demands of their weekly court schedule and fear they are performing the bare minimum for their clients.

In an office that frequently represents mentally ill and homeless defendants, many attorneys said the caseload crush has left them unable to spend time petitioning for pretrial diversion or alternative sentencing on behalf of clients who might qualify for such services. That type of work is simply too time-consuming with the current caseloads, one public defender said.

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“Honestly, I don’t think I’m effective right now,” the attorney said. “Most people are surviving week to week. Unless that case is set that week, you’re not thinking about it.”

García said he has an “open-door policy” for attorneys in his office who are worried about the quality of counsel they are offering their clients.

“I’m always concerned about the health and safety of my lawyers, but I have no question about the level of quality that my lawyers are giving their clients,” he said. “They are the finest, client-centered, criminal defense firm in the nation.”

Some public defenders have pleaded for the office to declare itself “unavailable,” meaning new clients would be referred to the alternate public defender’s office or other pool attorneys for a period of time. Ramnaney and other attorneys say such a move is desperately needed to allow caseloads to shrink.

García, however, described that plan as a “nuclear option” that he would use only on a limited basis, if at all.

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“Going unavailable means essentially abandoning clients who are no longer able to avail themselves of the incredible resources [of this office],” he said. “It’s a choice I’ll only make if I determine — again, with real data and in consultation with the highest leadership in my office — that it’s in the best interest of our clients and my attorneys.”

Sean Kennedy, the former head federal public defender for the Central District of California, said while he agreed with García’s assessment that caseload figures alone might not indicate that attorneys are overworked, the volume of cases described by L.A. County public defenders is troubling.

“I was always worried when someone had caseloads that approached 35 serious felonies,” he said. “So if someone has 70, having been a line deputy for years before I did the bureaucratic gig ... that’s a lot.”

Kennedy warned that high caseloads are “the gateway to assembly-line justice,” meaning that some of the most disadvantaged clients in L.A. County might be represented by lawyers who barely have time to think about their cases outside the courtroom.

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“When caseloads get unreasonably high, in my opinion, what happens is the representation becomes very focused on what is happening today in this courtroom,” he said. “It’s not high-quality representation to deal with everything the day of the proceeding. We need to investigate. You need to research, write and file motions. You need to be able to talk to your client in a confidential, nonreactive environment.”


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