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Minnesota public defense attorneys, staff authorize strike for first time

More than 650 lawyers and legal support staff with the Teamsters Local 320 have been negotiating a contract with the state’s Board of Public Defense for the past six months.

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Tables for the prosecution and defense have been placed in the jury box of a fourth-floor courtroom at the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth.
Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com

MINNEAPOLIS — The union representing public defenders across the state of Minnesota overwhelmingly voted Thursday, March 10, to authorize a strike.

More than 650 lawyers and legal support staff with the Teamsters Local 320 have been negotiating a contract with the state’s Board of Public Defense for the past six months. The union rejected the board’s "last best and final" offer Thursday, saying it failed to address extreme caseloads, high turnover, low morale, and pay inequities.

The dispute now goes to the state Bureau of Mediation Services. If the parties don’t reach an agreement within 10 days a strike will begin. It would be the first time in Minnesota’s history that the attorneys, paralegals, investigators, and other public defense staff would go on strike.

“Caseloads are incredibly high in public defense,” said Local 320 Secretary-Treasurer and Principal Officer Brian Aldes, who explained that part time public defenders average 500 hours a year more than they are contracted to perform. A January survey by the Local 320 found that 70% of attorneys working as public defenders reported working conditions that make it “hard or impossible” to meet ethical standards set by the state. The conditions also hurt staff retention, said Anne Marcotte, an assistant part-time public defender in northwest Minnesota’s Ninth Judicial District.

“It should be acknowledged that public defenders are attorneys at law. We hold the same license as all other attorneys in the state, however, we are compensated at a rate that is far less than private attorneys, prosecuting attorneys and other state attorneys such as the attorney general’s office,” she said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference announcing the strike authorization. “These low wages and harsh working conditions are driving staff turnover and vacancy rates across the state.”

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Court-appointed public defenders represent 80-90% of defendants in Minnesota. A 2021 survey by the Minnesota Board of Public Defense found an 11.6% resignation rate in district public defenders offices around the state, Forum news Service previously reported.

In a statement, the Minnesota Board of Public Defense said while news of the strike was disappointing, its members are ready to continue negotiating in good faith and hope to reach an agreement with the union members.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees a right to legal defense, and court-appointed public defenders represent 80-90% of defendants in Minnesota.

“While we share the belief that Public Defenders statewide are underpaid, and that we are understaffed, the Board of Public Defense is constrained in its negotiations by the resources provided by the state to provide these constitutionally mandated services across Minnesota," the statement said.

The Public Defense Board told Lawmakers it would need $50 million from the state to get staffing up to national standards. The Minnesota Legislature is considering a proposal to appropriate that money.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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