History of the Office
In its 28th year of existence, the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office experienced a number of changes in staff. Mike Gooch, a 19 year veteran of the office, resigned in October to pursue other interests. Shawn Elliott, a member of the Misdemeanor Division, joined the Felony Division in September. Tim Sopinski, who had worked for the office as a part time attorney in the Misdemeanor Division, joined the Felony Division staff as a full time attorney. Julie Hansen, who had previously been with the Juvenile Division, joined the Felony Division for three quarter time, and the Misdemeanor Division for one quarter time. In late November, Tim Eppler was hired to work in the Felony Division. Tim had previously worked in the Public Defender's Office in Sioux City, Iowa.
The office confronted a crisis situation in the first quarter of 1999 relating to the number of Major Cases and Felonies. In the first quarter of the year, the office had opened 22% more felony cases than had been opened during the same time period in 1998. The number of pending felonies at the end of that first quarter was also 22% higher than at the same time in 1998. To make matters worse, the office had 6 First Degree Murder cases pending in March of 1999 plus 2 other Major cases, which were consuming enormous amounts of felony division staff time. In a memorandum to the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners in March of 1999, Dennis Keefe outlined the problem to the Board and noted that the then current workload for the felony division staff was 41% higher than the Maximum Workload Standard for the office. Eventually, an additional attorney position was added to the felony division during the budget process
In the summer of 2000, Lancaster County Public Defender Dennis Keefe was invited to attend Attorney General Janet Reno's national symposium on indigent defense, along with a team from Nebraska that included Jim Mowbray from the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy, Judge Wright of the Nebraska Supreme Court, Judge Luther of the District Court, Judge Foster of the County Court, and Bill Mueller and Linda Crump representing the Nebraska State Bar Association. One of the themes of the conference was the use of standards to improve the quality of legal services to the poor. The team's efforts eventually led to the introduction of legislation requiring standards.
As an office, 2000 was a busy year and, in ways , a sad year. Mary Gehr, our long time office manager retired in September and Dick Goos, one of the founding fathers of the office, died while on vacation in Mexico. Dick's death was a terrible shock to everyone and we will miss him dearly. A eulogy presented by Dennis Keefe at Dick's memorial service can be found here.
2000 also saw the implementation of a screening program for those requesting court appointed counsel in the county and district courts of Lancaster County. This was the result of a joint effort between the County and the State, with the approval of the Nebraska Supreme Court. In a three year pilot project, the Supreme Court approved a new rule and various forms to be used in the program and the County approved funding for a full time and part time screener. An Advisory Committee drafted policies and procedures and interviewed candidates for the position. Ms. Catherine Rech was hired and serves under the County Court Judicial Administrator by written agreement between the state and the county.
The Nebraska Legislature established the Nebraska Indigent Defense Standards Advisory Council to develop and recommend standards to the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy regarding all types of indigent defense systems (public defender, contracts, and assigned counsel). The legislature also appropriated nearly $1.3 million over the biennium to reimburse counties for 25% of the amount they spend on felony indigent defense. Dennis Keefe, as the Elected Public Defender for Lancaster County, served as a member of the Advisory Council, as they spent many hours developing standards to be implemented in Nebraska.
Revenue shortfalls at the state level necessitated two special sessions of the Nebraska Legislature resulting in cutbacks in various county aid programs, including the new indigent defense standards reimbursement program. This was terribly disappointing, especially considering the fact that the standards had been developed by that time.
Also in 2002, Dennis Keefe, when confronted with the unprecedented increase in felony cases and the failure of the county board to add an attorney, decided to decline to accept appointments in juvenile abuse and neglect cases. Those cases were chosen for several reasons. First, they were the type of case that will most likely create conflict of interest situations with our felony cases. Secondly, the public defender statutes do not impose a duty on public defenders to represent individuals in these types of cases. Finally, it appeared to be more efficient to decline these cases than to refuse representation in felony cases.
In November of 2002, Dennis Keefe was again elected as Lancaster County Public Defender. The office eliminated a Paralegal II position and added an Attorney I position to handle misdemeanors and some felonies.
In January of 2003, The Nebraska Minority and Justice Task Force, a joint initiative of the Nebraska Supreme Court and the Nebraska State Bar Association, issued its Final Report. Dennis Keefe served on the task force for more than three years, He was then appointed by the Nebraska Supreme Court to serve on the Implementation Committee of the task force charged with implementing the recommendations that had made by the full task force, including improvements in the state's indigent defense system.
In 2003, the County Board funded the indigent screener project past the original pilot project term and placed supervision under the new Community Corrections Department.
There was also a proposal to support legislation to require a registration fee for individuals receiving court appointed counsel to fund this project.
In conjunction with the Douglas County Public Defender's Office and the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy, the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office sponsored death penalty training for felony attorneys in 2003. The Colorado State Public Defender's Office provided trainers on an expenses only basis.
Finally, in 2003,our office agreed to assist a SAMSA grant funded project designed to keep the mentally ill out of the county jail by providing intensive services. The project was jointly sponsored by Lancaster County Corrections and the Community Mental Health Center of Lincoln/Lancaster County.
The public defender's office was involved in the planning and implementation of both the Adult and Juvenile Drug Courts. Our office contributes significant amounts of attorney time to these programs on a weekly basis. Since those courts were implemented, Lancaster County also saw the implementation of a mental health jail diversion grant.
Late in 2004, Lancaster County Community Corrections implemented a pre trial release program. The Lancaster County Board of Commissioners funded the agency to provide supervision to pre trial felons who would otherwise be held in jail in an attempt to delay the time when an addition to the jail would be needed.
The Lancaster County Public Defender's Office experienced another caseload crisis in 2005 in two areas: misdemeanor cases increased 12% in a one year period and felony cases showed a 12% increase in a 2 year period. The felony case increase was driven primarily by 3 factors: an increase in possession of methamphetamine and cocaine cases; an increase in domestic violence cases made into felonies by the legislature; and a increase in the number of driving related offenses made into felonies by the legislature. In response, Dennis Keefe presented the County Board with a two phase plan that included taking back the Child Support and Paternity cases and combining that docket with the mental health commitment cases, and then increasing the part time attorney position to a full time position. Both phases of the plan were eventually approved.
There were a number of staff changes also in 2005. In September of that year, Julie Hansen left our office because she was hired by the Federal Public Defender of Nebraska. John Jorgensen started as a deputy defender in October of 2005 and Elizabeth Foster was hired to fill the new attorney position also in October of 2005.
The County Board accepted phase two of our two year plan and in July of 2006, our office resumed responsibility for the Child Support and Paternity cases from the former contractor, Susan Ugai. Dorothy Walker, a former public defender who was now working part time on mental health cases, went full time again and was assigned responsibility for the Child Support, Paternity and Mental Health cases. Also in 2006, Sarah Newell, a former law clerk for the office, joined us a deputy in the juvenile division.
At the end of 2007, Lancaster County contracted with the Policy Research Center of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, to analyze the time data and conduct an empirical workload study. Liz Neeley, a Senior Research Manager for the UNL Policy Research Center, was assigned to this task of the study.
2007 brought a number of staff changes. Andrea Snowden left and was replaced by Andrew Weeks, who had formerly been an attorney in a private firm in Norfolk, Nebraska. Reggie Ryder was appointed a judge of the Separate Juvenile Court by Governor Dave Heineman and left the office in August of 2007. Jennifer Houlden was hired in September of 2007 to replace Reggie Ryder and she began her service in the juvenile division.
2008 saw the culmination of several years of work coming together from two different sources, both initiatives of the Nebraska Supreme Court. The Eyes of The Child project eventually resulted in guidelines being adopted by the Nebraska Supreme Court for those who serve as guardians ad litem in the juvenile courts. The Minority Justice Committee, a joint project of the Nebraska Supreme Court and the Nebraska State Bar Association, also recommended a series of standards for attorneys who are appointed as counsel for indigents in adult criminal cases. After considering those standards for some time, in 2008, the Court announced that it was declining to promulgate standards in this area.
On January 1, 2008, the office officially migrated from our old mainframe case management information system, called GIDEON, to the new web-based system called defenderData. As with all change of this type, it did not come without headaches. However, by the end of the year, most staff had adjusted to the new system and procedures.
The public defender's office experienced three major changes in 2008. First, in late February of 2008, the offices moved into the remodeled Courthouse Plaza sharing space with Community Corrections. The public defender's office has reception and interview space on the first floor, the misdemeanor and juvenile divisions on the second floor and the felony division on the third floor. By the end of the year, we were just settling in to the new environs.
Perhaps of greatest significance to the long range interests of the office was the completion of the study of the workload of the public defender's office and the issuance of the report by the advisory committee. The final version of the report can be found here.
After a presentation to the Lancaster County Board by Dennis Keefe and Dr. Elizabeth Neeley, the public defender's office studied the report and, in September, presented the office's response to the Board, which can be found here. The office implemented the caseload standards, as recommended by the advisory committee, on September 1, 2008. Dennis Keefe advised the Board that he would update them during future budget negotiations regarding the impact of the standards on legal services costs and the various options that the Board will have.