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History of the Office

1991 - 1998

Lincoln Bar Association Report

In 1991, at the request of Lancaster County Public Defender Dennis Keefe, John Guthery, then President of the Lincoln Bar Association, appointed a special committee to study and make recommendations concerning the system of assigned counsel currently in use in the various courts of Lancaster County. Rodney Rehm, an attorney with criminal defense and prosecution background, was appointed Chairman of the committee and other committee members appointed were: Alan Peterson, Susan Jacobs, Richard Sievers, James Mowbray, David Geier, The Honorable Bernard J. McGinn, The Honorable Wilfred Nuernberger and The Honorable Richard Williams.

The committee reviewed and considered a variety of materials relating to the appointment of counsel for indigents in criminal cases. After a number of meetings, the committee made a number of recommendations in a report entitled "Assigned Counsel in the Courts of Lancaster County, Nebraska" which was approved by the Board of Trustees of the Lincoln Bar Association on March 6, 1991 and presented to the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners and the judiciary of Lancaster County soon thereafter.

Federal Drug Monies.

Because of Congressional changes to the federal act providing monies to state and local governments for the War on Drugs, indigent defense systems became eligible for funding in 1991. Nebraska received approximately 3.3 million dollars in 1991 for the War on Drugs. Under the direction of the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office, Lancaster County was awarded $9,000.00 for training for public defenders and assigned counsel. Lancaster County contracted with the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association to provide this training on a statewide basis. Some amount of training money was awarded to indigent defense every year thereafter.

Nebraska Civil Liberties Union Award.

In November of 1991, the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office was awarded the 1991 Defender of the Bill of Rights Award by the Nebraska Civil Liberties Union. This award was given in recognition of the numerous hours of volunteer assistance that a number of attorneys within the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office provided over and above their regular working responsibilities, to attorneys representing Harold Otey, an inmate whose execution was scheduled in July of 1991. Through the efforts of numerous volunteer attorneys, the execution was delayed and the District Court of Lancaster County, Nebraska issued an injunction prohibiting the execution until a "fair hearing" was held before the Pardons Board.

Civil Clinical Law Program and Mental Health Commitments

In 1991 the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office contracted with the University of Nebraska College of Law to allow the Civil Clinical Program at the UNL College of Law to provide representation to clients of the Public Defender's Office in mental health commitment proceedings. The clinical program, under the leadership of Kevin Ruser, a professor, had received a grant for an advanced advocacy program. The program continued for several years thereafter.

Pursuant to the agreement, the clinical program used their grant monies to represent indigent clients in mental commitment proceedings. For a period of 18 weeks in early 1991, teams of two students from the UNL clinical program, under supervision of Mr. Ruser, investigated cases, interviewed clients, and witnesses, prepared for and conducted hearings before the Lancaster County Mental Health Board. Administrative support was provided by the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office.

Contracts for Indigent Defense Services

The 1990s saw a proliferation of contracts for indigent defense services in Lancaster County. Care was taken from the beginning to account for quality services and avoid the low bid as the only measure of concern. This was accomplished through an advisory group nominated by the Lincoln Bar Association and appointed by the County Board. Contractors were protected by caseload limits. The contracts are all for child support cases, paternity cases, and juvenile court representation.

In February of 1993, Lancaster County Public Defender Dennis Keefe advised the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners of a workload crisis in the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office. The crisis was based upon a record of five pending capital felony cases, one second degree murder case, and a serious attempted second degree murder case. Keefe advised the Board that the workload, as calculated pursuant to a formula previously designed by The Spangenberg Group and approved by the Board of Commissioners, indicated the addition of 1.5 full time staff attorneys. However, anticipating that the influx of capital cases and other serious cases might be temporary, Keefe suggested temporary contracts with private lawyers to handle the child support enforcement, paternity and mental commitment cases.

Subsequently, the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners approved a two year contract with the law firm of Mowbray-Walker, P.C. whereby that law firm was responsible for representing clients in the child support enforcement cases and paternity cases for an annual fee of $33,000. The contract began on April 1, 1993 and expired on March 31, 1995. The law firm of Mowbray-Walker, P.C. hired Shawn Elliott, a former Legal Services attorney, as an associate to be responsible for these caseloads. In 1995, the county changed contractors. The new contractor for this docket was the firm of Ugai and Lindgren, primarily Susan Ugai and Sharon Lindgren. This contract has continued until the present time.

Also in 1993, the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners approved a one year contract with Lincoln attorney, James Hoppe for a $7,000 annual fee. That contract also began on April 1, 1993 and terminated on March 31, 1994.

The juvenile court contracts began with a contract with Legal Services of Southeast Nebraska for representation of individuals in abuse/neglect cases. This contract was expanded in scope in 1999 when Legal Services agreed to represent children in law violation cases where the public defender has a conflict, and in some status (truancy) cases. In 1995 the county entered into a contract with a private law firm, Orton, Thomas, Peterson, for abuse/neglect cases. In 1999 2 additional contracts were signed for the same type of cases with the firms of Glynn and Bollerup (Rich Bollerup and Jennifer Huxoll) and Anderson, Creager, and Wittstruck (Tom Lamb and Amie Martinez). All of these contracts were for a three year period.

Nebraska Indigent Defense Task Force Study.

In October of 1992, based upon a grant application written by Dennis R. Keefe, the State court Administrator's Office received a federal grant from the Nebraska Crime Commission to conduct a first ever study of Nebraska's indigent defense system. The money was used to hire a national research/consulting firm, The Spangenberg Group, to conduct the study. Chief Justice Hastings appointed a 36 person Task Force to oversee the work of the consultant, to review the findings and make recommendations for change. N.S.B.A provided administrative support to the Task Force and a number of N.S.B.A. leaders were members of the Task Force, including Harold Rock of Omaha who served as chair, Bob Spire and Immediate Past President, John Brownrigg. Judges from all court levels, public defenders, prosecutors and practioners were also represented on the Task Force.

The Task Force and its subcommittee met numerous times over the course of the study, reviewed the findings of The Spangenberg Group and made recommendations to improve Nebraska's indigent defense system including, the following:

  • Establish a Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy. Currently, Nebraska is one of only six states which provide no state funds for indigent defense. While the counties would retain their current right to establish the type of system they want (with only minor changes), the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy would:
    • Set standards for each type of indigent defense system. The counties would be eligible for some state reimbursement if they meet the standards.
    • Provide direct legal assistance upon request of the public defender, assigned counsel or the court and subject to caseload limits, in appeals, capital cases and other major crimes.
    • Provide a resource center for public defenders and assigned counsel.
    • Establish a Litigation Support Fund which could be used by public defenders and assigned counsel to find and pay for services of experts and investigators.
  • Allow the Supreme Court to establish uniform standards and guidelines for determining who is indigent. The Task Force found that the process for determining who is indigent varied from court to court and county to county. The legislation would allow for:
    • A $40.00 fee payable by all individuals with appointed counsel at the beginning of the case. This fee could be waived.
    • A new category of "indigent but able to contribute" which would allow the court to require additional up front fees if the clients are able to pay.
    • Lower the population levels for counties at which public defenders must be full time employees.
    • Change the method of selecting policy boards for contract public defenders.
    • Prohibit county attorneys from involvement in selecting contract public defenders and reviewing assigned counsel requests for expert assistance or fee billings.
    • These changes would be funded by
      • Devoting the 10% which the clerk currently retains from bail bond deposits to the Commission on Public Advocacy.
      • Increase civil and criminal filing fees by $2.00.
      • Retain $3.00 costs currently devoted as court automation fee to indigent defense beginning in 1997.
      • $40.00 reduced fee from all clients who can pay.
      • Additional contributions by clients who can pay.

"The changes that are recommended are designed to improve the indigent defense delivery system in this state," Rock told the House of Delegates. "We must make sure that the services provided to indigents are of the quality which the Constitution demands. By establishing standards and asking the state to join with the counties in funding the system, we will advance the fair administration of justice," he added.

Keefe Re-elected, Serves on ABA Committee and wins awards

Dennis R. Keefe was re-elected to his fifth and sixth terms as Lancaster County Public Defender in 1994 and 1998. Scott P. Helvie was reappointed as the Chief Deputy for the office. In 1994, Keefe was also appointed, by the President of the American Bar Association, to the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense (SCLAID). He served on that committee for 5 years and served as the Chair of the Bar Information program of SCLAID which provides technical assistance to state and local bar associations and governments to assist in improving indigent defense systems.

Keefe was also presented with two awards during the 1990s. The Nebraska State Bar Foundation awarded its Public Service Award to Keefe in 1995. The award was to recognize Keefe's attempts to improve the state of indigent defense in Nebraska and was presented to him at a dinner at the Lincoln Country Club in early 1996. Keefe was also presented with the Nebraska State Bar Association's Award of Special Merit at the 1999 Annual meeting of the NSBA, in recognition of his service in advancing the legal profession, the administration of justice, and the public interest.

Lancaster County Indigent Defense Advisory Committee

In March of 1995, an ad hoc committee, established by Public Defender Dennis Keefe to review the costs of assigned counsel in the courts of Lancaster County, presented a report to the Lancaster County Board. The committee had examined a variety of alternatives to the current system of providing defense services.

One of the recommendations which came from that committee involved the appointment of an indigent defense advisory committee to advise the public defender and the Lancaster County Board on issues relating to the indigent defense system. By resolution, the county board created the Lancaster County Indigent Defense Advisory Committee on April 11, 1995 and appointed its first members on May 9, 1995. Karen Flowers was appointed chair of the committee and other members included Ken Stephen, Jim Bausch, Peter Katt and Jim Mowbray. In September of 1996, Karen Flowers was appointed to the District Court bench and at about the same time, Jim Mowbray was appointed Director of the Nebraska Department of Public Advocacy. Sean Brennan and Virginia Johnson were appointed by the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners to replace them on the Committee. In 1998, Andrew Strotman was appointed to replace Jim Bausch and in 1999, Randy Goyette was appointed to replace Peter Katt.

Indigency Determinations

The advisory committee also followed up on another recommendation of the ad hoc committee and proposed to the county court judges that a more formal process for determining indigency with standards be implemented. The Lancaster County Board approved the hiring of a verification specialist to assist the judges. In early 2000, the County Board agreed to fund a three year trial project for an indigency screener, using Keno funds. A meeting was held between the County Commissioners and Chief Justice Hendry who supported the idea of such a pilot project using a court rule.

Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy

In 1995, the Nebraska Legislature passed and Governor Nelson signed L.B. 646, a bill establishing the Commission on Public Advocacy. Lancaster County Public Defender Dennis Keefe was instrumental in the passage of this legislation, which was one of the recommendations of the 1993 task force. This agency was to provide assistance to the counties in major cases through the direct services of staff attorneys. The Legislature appropriated funds for the 96-97 biennium at a $500,000 per year level with anticipated county reimbursement of one-third. Since its inception, this agency has saved Lancaster County about $100,000 per year in private attorney fees in felony cases.

Other Local Criminal Justice Systems

There were other noteworthy changes in personalties within our local criminal justice system during 1998. A new Chief Justice was appointed (John Hendry replacing C. Thomas White who retired), a new City Prosecutor was appointed (John McQuinn replacing Norm Langemach) and 2 new County Commissioners were selected and elected (Bernie Heier was appointed to replace Darlene Tussing who resigned and Bob Workman was elected to a four year term in November). The Lancaster County Indigent Defense Advisory Committee received a new member with the appointment of Andrew Strotman to replace Jim Bausch, whose term expired. Finally, Dave Jones, a long time Juvenile Court probation officer and a strong advocate for youth, retired in the summer of 1998.

Budget

The budget process brought expansion, much of it related to the Juvenile Court. Two new contracts for the Abuse/Neglect cases were authorized and an additional staff attorney position in the Public Defender's Office was approved. The new staff attorney position in the Juvenile Division of our Office was necessitated because of a significant increase in law violation case filings. Without the addition of this attorney position, our ability to accept appointments in new Abuse/Neglect cases would have been seriously hampered. A new felony paralegal position was approved but the position had not been filled by the end of the year.

Staff and Office Location Changes in the 90s

In March of 1996, Patty King, our investigator for the previous seven years, resigned to take a position with the State of Nebraska as a parole officer in Scottsbluff. Clay Nolte, a former Lincoln police officer, took Patty's place as our investigator. Clay is a native of Humboldt, Nebraska and a University of Nebraska-Kearney graduate. After four months of employment, Clay was offered a position with the federal government as a special agent in the Environmental Protection Agency. We then hired Joe Renteria, Jr. to replace Clay. Joe's background includes working for the State of Nebraska as an investigator for the Department of Revenue.

William Bryant was hired to fill a new paralegal position created in 1996. After Bill Bryant's resignation, Jed Rojewski started working as a paralegal on the city misdemeanor docket. Jed was formerly employed by the Lancaster County Court Clerk's Office so his knowledge of the court system is a great asset to us.

During the month of May, 1996, Sean Brennan, after fifteen years as a deputy public defender, announced that he was resigning his position in order to start up a private practice. Sean's replacement was Shawn Elliott, who is a 1990 graduate of the University of Nebraska-College of Law. Shawn's legal background includes work at Legal Services of Southeast Nebraska, the Nebraska Department of Social Services and private practice involving representation for clients in child support enforcement actions.

Later the same month, Richard Goos, a founding father of this office, announced his plans to retire effective June 28, 1996 (only to return to help out the Misdemeanor Division part time in 1999). Dick, along with the Public Defender Office itself, celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of his employment and the establishment of the office. Dick has been a mentor to his fellow attorneys within the office and also to any private attorney needing assistance and guidance. Paul Cooney, a former law clerk with this office, was hired to replace Dick. Paul worked as a Tribal Public Defender for the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska and as a deputy public defender with the Hall County Public Defender's Office.

Jenny Witt was hired in June of 1997 to be an attorney in the juvenile division. She worked here until September of 1999 when she left the office to become an attorney with Boys Town. She was replaced with Jennifer Villebro, a 1999 graduate of Creighton University School of Law. It was also in the summer of 1997, that Bob O'Connor was hired as a paralegal for the misdemeanor docket. His position was a newly budgeted position for the office.

The Juvenile Division (Margene Timm, Jenny Witt and Donna Garwood) moved to Trabert Hall in the beginning of October, 1997. At that time we had interviewed and hired Angelia Onuoha as a second paralegal with the Juvenile Division. She began employment in December of 1997. In January of 1998, Reggie Ryder, a former law clerk with the Lancaster County Public Defender, was hired as a third attorney with the Juvenile Division.

With the County and District Courts being located in separate areas, the County Board approved the hiring of a clerk-runner for the Public Defender staff. Mayme Shannon was hired in November of 1997 and continues with her duties to this date.

In December of 1997, Naomi Martins, a legal secretary with the office for approximately ten years, announced that she would be retiring and returning to her home state of Minnesota. A farewell dinner was held in her honor with all staff, spouses, and significant others attending. Michelle Scamehorn, who had experience both in County Court and District Court, started working with us in December of 1997.

On January 13, 1998, after much planning and coordinating, the Lancaster County Public Defender staff moved to its fifth location, 555 South 10th Street, Suite 202. The move went fairly smooth since we didn't have to move any furniture. It took a few weeks to get settled and we were pleased to have enough space with some room for expansion. Our Juvenile Division, which had moved to Trabert Hall in October of 1997 rejoined us in the summer of 1998.

In February, 1998, Julie Hansen, also a former law clerk, was hired as a part-time temporary attorney to assist in the ever growing misdemeanor docket. Julie eventually became a full time attorney with the office. Tim Sopinski took over the part time misdemeanor position and he also became a full time employee in October of 1999. Also joining the office was Tim Eppler, a 1997 graduate of UNL Law School, who became a member of the Felony Division in November, 1999. Also joining the office in 1999 were 2 paralegals, Angela Franssen in the Misdemeanor Division and Kristi Gottberg in the Felony Division.

Office Celebrates its 25th Anniversary

A celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office was held at the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln on Friday evening, April 12, 1996. Approximately 200 people attended the celebration, sponsored by the Public Defender staff, which included a brief program describing the establishment and the early years of the office.

Chief Justice White of the Nebraska Supreme Court made brief introductory comments highlighting the crucial role that the right to counsel pays in fundamentally fair criminal proceedings. Tom Davies of Lincoln presented a brief historical background regarding the Lincoln Bar Association study in late 1970 which led to the establishment of the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office. Davies was President of the Lincoln Bar Association at that time. Former District Court Judge Samuel Van Pelt read excerpts from Lancaster County Board resolutions and minutes referencing the establishment of the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office. He then played a video tape of comments by the late T. Clement Gaughan, Lancaster County's first public defender.

The evening's festivities concluded with a dance with music provided by the Fabtones.