A day in the life of a Minnesota public defender

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The wheels of justice may move slowly, but some important cogs, like public defender Lisa Kloster, are spinning at a dizzying pace. Their ranks will thin by several dozen later this month when layoffs begin, thanks to legislators and Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who erased $3.8 million $1.5 million from the public defenders’ budget to solve the state’s budget deficit. Good for the politicians who immediately toured the state touting their financial prowess, bad for the defendants, the state’s judicial system, and Atty. Kloster, who already is — by any reasonable standard — overworked.

The public defender ranks are being thinned, but crime isn’t, judges aren’t and prosecutors aren’t.

It’s happening on this 45th anniversary of Gideon vs. Wainwright, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case establishing that everyone has the right to an attorney, even people who can’t afford one.

Those people are “an interesting cast of characters,” and the part of the job Atty. Kloster says she loves the most. But she can’t spend as much time with them as she’d like. That’s the part she hates the most.

A Green Bay native, Atty. Kloster moved to Minnesota to attend the University of Minnesota and the U’s law school. She settled on the law because she heard lawyers make good money. “How’s that going?” I asked. “Not so good,” she said with a laugh over lunch.

It’s certainly not glamorous, unless you think sitting in your car in the parking lot of a closed coffee shop on a Sunday night, trying to tap into the shop’s wireless Internet so you can finish some research on a case to be heard the next day is glamorous. That was Lisa Kloster’s Sunday night fun after her Internet connection at home failed.

I spent Monday afternoon with Kloster and about a half dozen or her clients — cases Kloster would juggle over the next few hours.

Kloster works a 30-hour week — though last week, she says, she worked closer to 50.

She had one luxury going for her on Monday. All of her cases were before the same judge in the same courtroom.

1:22 p.m. Lisa Kloster checks in with the clerk in courtroom 2A. “Are we going to have a chance to talk?” one young man asks. “Go sit in the hallway, I’ll come meet you,” she says. A few seconds later another man asks the same question and gets the same answer. She’s carrying a thick book of Minnesota laws in one hand, and a canvas bag with case files in another. She thumbs through each one to see if everyone has shown up for their court appearances. Only one has not, the one being held on charges in Hennepin County who was supposed to be transported to court today.

1:30 p.m. Kloster gathers four or five of the clients who’ve arrived and ushers them into a small room just outside the courtroom. She tells them who I am and what I’m doing there, assures them that I’m doing a story about her day and not their cases. She tells them she trusts me. It’s clear they trust her because none of them asks me to leave. Later, as we go back into court, one young man whispers, “She’s the best public defender I ever had.”

1:37 p.m. It’s 7 minutes past the start of the court session, but no judge is present. Instead, at a table in the courtroom, Ken Kevin Golden is holding court. He’s the prosecutor in the office of Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom and it’s clear from the expression on Kloster’s face that he’s in no mood to deal.

1:52 p.m. “He can plead,” Golden says in a loud voice, saying “no” to Kloster’s efforts to resolve the case of a man who had sex with a woman at party who may have been too drunk to say “no.” “What if he pleads guilty to count one and gets credit for time served?” she asks. No deal.

1:53 p.m. Kloster picks up another folder. It’s the case of a woman who is charged with embezzling. The woman had previously been convicted in Hennepin County. Kloster is trying to keep her out of prison. “I can’t ignore that (Hennepin County),” Golden says. Kloster reminds him the victims want their money back and that can’t happen if the woman goes to prison. Another attorney is waiting to see Golden. Kloster looks up from her stack of files and announces, “I still have another one.”

2:04 p.m. Kloster finishes another discussion with Golden and as he turns to the other attorney, another man — Assistant Dakota County Attorney Nick Hydukovich — walks in with a file. It’s another case of Kloster’s — not on today’s docket. They compare notes and as the other attorney finishes with Golden, Kloster finishes with the other prosecutor (they settle on two possible court dates).

2:07 p.m. Kloster discusses the case of a man who caused a head-on accident when, he says, his dog jumped into the front seat of his car. A woman in another car was badly hurt. The man’s dog died at the scene. But tests show what was originally thought to be morphine in the man’s blood. It turned out to be methadone; he’s a recovering addict. This is the case Kloster was researching at the closed coffee shop; does methadone impair one’s driving? Sometimes, is an accident just an accident? She gets nowhere with Golden and says she’ll call the other country prosecutor with whom she’s been discussing the case.

2:08 p.m. She calls “methadone guy” into the conference room. She tells him the prosecutor isn’t dealing today. He’s agitated. She tells him what she’ll need from him to fight the case. He shows her two doses of methadone he keeps in his pants pocket. He asks the same question several other clients will ask during the afternoon: “If I’m found guilty, what am I looking at?”

“We’re not going to go there,” she assures him. “We’ve got a good case. We’re going to fight this.” She tells him his case may result in a misdemeanor charge, but not felony. They end their talk at 2:20 p.m.

2:23 p.m. “Don’t freak out,” she tells the woman charged with embezzling, who’s looking at 19 months in prison. “Easy for you to say,” the woman says in the hallway outside the courtroom. Kloster tells her the case will be continued. The woman walks away.

2:27 p.m. On a sofa in the hallway, Kloster talks with a woman who is charged with neglect, child endangerment, and malicious punishment. The woman had yelled at her son because he wasn’t getting ready for school and the bus was coming. The kid was so scared that he told officials at his school. Today, the woman, who has completed parenting classes and anger management counseling, is trying to end the case with as little damage to her reputation as possible. If she wants to plead guilty, she has to choose which of three possible charges to plead to.

More discussions follow. “Hang out here and I’ll call her,” Kloster says as she gets up to leave. It’s 2:35 p.m.

2:35 p.m. “Are you a public defender?” a woman also sitting on the sofa asks. “Yes, and I’m pretty busy but I can answer a question,” Kloster tells her. The woman asks about an auto accident she had. She had no insurance. Kloster tells her if the woman pleads guilty, authorities can take her license away for 30 days on a first offense. The woman thanks her.

2:37 p.m. While the discussions were taking place in the hall, Judge John Connolly arrived in the courtroom. A hearing of some sort is going on. Kloster watches while standing near the jury box and then sees the client charged with having sex with the woman who may have been too drunk to say “no.”

2:38 p.m. In the small conference room, Kloster delivers the bad news. No deal. Kloster advises him to go to trial.

2:39 p.m. Another public defender knocks on the door and asks Kloster if she needs any help. “Nothing is getting resolved today,” she says with some exasperation. The other public defender is heading to the jail next door. The discussions with the client continue until 2:50.

2:51 p.m. Atty. Kloster calls Nicole E. Nee, the assistant Dakota County attorney and asks to meet. It’s not about this case. Kloster is in full-scale juggle.

2:52 p.m. “It’s not going very well,” Kloster says as we walk back into the courtroom. She quickly finds another of her clients, and brings him back to the small room. This one is charged with receiving stolen property. He allegedly tossed some guns obtained in a burglary into an Apple Valley pond. Prosecutors have a “boatload” of pictures of things seized during a search, she tells him. They go over the possibilities.

3:00 p.m. Another knock on the door. It’s Nicole Nee. It’s time to deal. They talk about “guns in the pond” guy, then — at 3:15 — turn to “methadone guy.”

“It’s a righteous case,” Nee tells her. They discuss the case but it’s clear there’s no deal forthcoming and they anticipate a court date in late September.

They also talk about the mother who yelled at her son.

3:16 p.m. “Do you have one ready to go?” Judge Connolly asks Atty. Kloster. They do. It’s methadone guy, and Kloster and Nee tell the judge they’ve been unable to reach an agreement. Another date for another court appearance is set.

3:20 p.m. The embezzlement case is called and Kloster asks for a pre-sentencing interview between the woman and Dakota County authorities, hoping that the results will give her some ammunition to use in her defense… later.

3:25 p.m. We head to a secure area of the courthouse where people are held in a locked facility. She meets a man being held in Isanti County. He makes it clear he’s been through this before, telling Kloster what he’s looking for. It’s a domestic assault case involving terroristic threats. He keeps talking, Kloster keep saying “wait, wait, wait…” to him while she tries to tell him what’s going on.

“Total time: What am I looking at?” he asks her. “Wait, I’m not done yet,” she tells him, as she continues telling the man what authorities have for charges. He starts doing the math on points — a formula under sentencing guidelines in which the severity of the crime (See the grid they refer to — Word format), leads to prison. He smiles when he learns “he’s still in the gray.” No prison.

As Kloster and he talk, several women are removed from cells, handcuffed and lined up to be taken to various courtrooms. Kloster is reading to him from some documents, he’s making eye contact with one of the female prisoners. He winks.

She tells him she’s going to go back to negotiate with Golden and says, basically, if authorities come to take him, he’ll know there’s no deal. It’s 3:45.

3:50 p.m. – Seated across from Golden in the courtroom, Ms. Kloster puts her head on the table, seconds after Golden shakes his head “no.”

3:51 p.m. “Do you have one ready?” the judge asks. Domestic assault guy is ready.

3:53 p.m. While waiting for “domestic assault guy” to be brought into the courtroom, Kloster gets up to talk with “guns-in-the-pond guy.”

3:54 p.m. “Domestic assault guy” is brought into the courtroom. “We haven’t been able to resolve the case,” Atty. Kloster tells Judge Connolly. At 3:56, trial is set for August 19.

Besides me, there are three people still sitting in the court.

4:00 p.m. Kloster huddles in the courtroom with the mother who yelled at her son. She relays Nicole Nee’s point that the charges have already been reduced from a felony. “I don’t think she’s going to change her mind,” Kloster tells her.

“I kind of want this to be over with,” the mother says. She starts filling out paperwork that will lead to her guilty plea. (See the form – pdf)

4:08 p.m. Kloster delivers the same form to the “guns-in-the-pond guy.”

4:10 p.m. Mother who yelled at her son is concerned about her record if she pleads guilty. What will it make her look like? “I don’t know what to do,” she says to Kloster. “What’s best for me?” Kloster tells her to think on it.

4:20 p.m. “We were not able to resolve this case today,” Atty. Kloster tells Judge Connolly about “sex with a woman who may have been too drunk to say no guy.” Trial is set for September 30.

4:24 p.m. “Guns-in-the-pond guy” pleads guilty, but not before Atty. Kloster grills him in front of Judge Connolly about the form he just signed. “Do you understand you’re not going to have a trial? You’re not going to get to testify? You’re not going to be able to challenge your accusers,” she says.

“Yes, ma’am,” he replies.

“You are pleading guilty because you are guilty?”

“Yes, ma’am.

Judge Connolly sentences the man to a three-year sentence that is stayed, imposes a $50 fine and a $77 surcharge with the amount of restitution to be decided later.

4:34 p.m. Turning immediately to the mother who yelled at her son, Kloster asks, “Alright, what should we do?”

“I just want to go ahead and be done with it,” she replies.

Moments later, Kloster is repeating the same questions. The woman says, “it was a split decision I shouldn’t have made,” and then laughs nervously. A few minutes later, she tells the judge she was going through a divorce, had been under stress, hasn’t been able to get a job and said the incident has ruined her life. “I will never do this again.”

Around 5 o’clock, 30 minutes after county offices have closed, Lisa Kloster’s last client of the day leaves the courtroom without saying “thank you” to her lawyer.

Kloster shrugs. “It’s emotionally draining,” she says. “We had cases that could’ve been resolved today.” She also admits she’ll have a hard time tonight not thinking about some of today’s clients.

But she’ll have to. She’s got a little more than an hour to get to a 6:30 pottery class with her 11-year-old daughter.

Live-blogging Midmorning – Tuesday 9 a.m.

Lisa Kloster and John Stuart, head of the state public defenders, are guests on Midmorning.

9:09 a.m. Lisa Kloster discusses her day yesterday. She says it was lucky everything was in one courtroom. She had seven clients and was simultaneously dealing with three prosecutors. She currently has 65 open files. “I may go to court and finish a case and have it closed out, but the day after that I’m in the jail opening up new files; I can get 15-20 more files the next day.”

9:11 a.m. “People do a good job and part of it is your mind is working during the night so in the morning when you’re taking a shower, you’re thinking of today’s cases,” Stuart says. “It’s like M*A*S*H. The doctors are operating and while they’re operating, the helicopters are coming in with more wounded.” He says 72 public defenders will be dropped because of the budget cuts. He says people aren’t retiring as often because of the economy. Usually, about 30 public defenders retire a year; this year it was 4.

9:19 a.m. Should young lawyers become public defenders? “It’s a little bit of social work and a little bit of criminal defense. 99% of my clients are in the court system because of a mental illness, a family problem, chemical use. They’re not sociopathic bad people,” Kloster says. “There’s always an issue of trying to get them back in a good place and out of the court system. You have to want to help people to do this.”

9:24 a.m. Caller “Brenda from Apple Valley” blames Pawlenty administration for “going from budget crisis to budget crisis.” She says the state needs to find the money to make sure the court system is doing what the Constitution says it should be doing. Stuart says he doesn’t deal with tax policy and says the Pawlenty administration is doing the best it can. On the oyher hand, he says, public defenders “get the work that other lawyers turn down. Public defenders get more work when the economy is bad. I don’t have anyone to blame.”

9:27 a.m. - “The hand-holding, information-providing stuff gets cut out in the public defender setting,” Atty. Kloster says. “I want to have trust with this person (the client), and if I have to cut something out, that’s what I have to cut out.”

9:29 a.m. – “Eric from Rochester” calls to support drug courts as a way of reducing workload. Stuart says public defenders won’t be staffing drug courts. “The courts will save Minnesota money in the long run. But in the short run it takes time and we can’t operate on the basis that we’ll give you 10 public defenders today to save 10 prison beds 2 years from now because the crunch is right now.”

Effective a week from today, public defenders will stop representing parents in child protection cases. The counties will provide the representation.

9:38 a.m. “We’re going to prioritize legal representation for the people who are already in custody. They’ve lost their freedom. Justice for people who are not in custody will have to be delayed,” Stuart says.

The caseloads are high,” says Kloster. “Trying to take care of stuff that needs to be done that week or tomorrow, that’s my challenge. As the crimes increase and the charges increase, as more people are in custody, that’s happening at the same time we’re losing public defenders. I’m picking up more cases.”

“Is the answer more plea barganing,” Miller asks.

“I get nervous when people say that,” Kloster says. “There are times when some need to be ‘dealt out,’ but it’s not just me making that decision. If the prosecutor doesn’t have the same view I have, we’re going to be trying that case. We have to work as a team on some cases to resolve cases.”

9:43 a.m. Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, calls to say he was in court last week (he’s an attorney) and the public defenders were representing people who don’t qualify. He says only the truly indigent should be represented by public defenders.

“Rep. Lesch is right,” says Stuart, “that we should work on the screening the courts do. When Lisa goes to court, nobody is asking whether the clients are eligible. She gets a list from the court that says ‘these are your clients.'”

Lesch says there’s been a “good attitude” toward funding public defenders at the Capitol. “The issue is the governor has been unwilling to invest in our public infrastructure and court system.”

(Aside: I’m enjoying the comments in the section. Highly intelligent, insightful, and focused and respectful. Nice.)

9:53 a.m. What about victims’ rights, an online questioner asks. “People are going to wait longer to get their day in court,” Stuart says. A lot of victims aren’t individuals, however. Some are stores, for example.

9:56 a.m. Kerri asks Lisa if she’s thought about leaving. She says “I’m not even pursuing private clients because I’m concentrating so much on my public clients. I’ve been doing public defender work for 13, 14 years. I complain about it but my husband says I must love it because I never talk about leaving.”

  • http://doughamlin.com Doug Hamlin

    I shadowed a public defender for an afternoon once a few years ago. It was fast paced and chaotic. Seems things have only gotten worse. Thanks for bringing this to the public, Bob.

  • GregS

    We owe a debt of gratitude to Lisa. She is a hero for doing a hard, draining job in a hard, draining business.

  • http://n466pg.blogspot.com Daveg

    Kloster huddles in the courtroom with the mother who yelled at her son. She relays Nicole Nee’s point that the charges have already been reduced from a felony.

    ???!! There has to be more to this, because if yelling at your child is a felony, I’m Al Capone (minus the tax evasion).

    This was an excellent article, Bob. I’ve had the privilege of jury duty, and it was a fascinating introduction to the workings of the justice system. It would be interesting if you could do a companion piece from the point of view of the prosecutor as well. The natural conflict between the diametrically opposed agendas of both sides in pursuit of a common goal is compelling stuff.

  • Bob Collins

    //here has to be more to this, because if yelling at your child is a felony, I’m Al Capone (minus the tax evasion).

    Well, she threatened him and she was making some breakfast at the time and had a knife in her hands.

  • Bruce

    Thank you for this story. It’s no surprise we have 1 out of 100 adults in jail in this country.

  • GregS

    Bruce,

    Given a good look at the rap sheets of people walking the streets you might feel 1 in a 100 is too few. The question is “do we have the right 1 in 100″?

    A strong criminal justice system ensures the answer is “yes”.

  • Pam Stenhjem

    Hi –

    My sister just resigned a year ago from being a juvenile PD in Washington County. She had an average open case file load of 300 cases. At one time she had to buy her own office supplies (note pads, pencils, etc) due to no budget to cover these essential items. She would take her clients to the Goodwill and buy them suits for court because so many of them had nothing. One day per week she had the jail roster – which meant she had to go to the jail and represent individuals she had never met in their first appearance in court. She had no time to prep and didn’t even know the individuals. The system is obviously broken when the city and county attorneys have their own research staff and the public defenders have to research and prep their own cases. I am baffled as to why so much money is poured into the prosecutors and so little is given to the public defense.

    In addition, I have a research project at the Hennepin County jail studying the effectiveness of Mental Health Court. It is very clear to me from interviewing countless individuals, that the jail is basically a housing facility for the mentally ill. Most of these individuals are represented by PD’s and most have committed petty crimes. They don’t really belong in jail – they need support and services they are not getting – which is why they continually revolve through the jail system. One individual had been arrested 80 times and she was only 34. This is what PD’s are dealing with and they have no support.

    The system is broken!

  • bsimon

    “I am baffled as to why so much money is poured into the prosecutors and so little is given to the public defense.”

    Because ‘tough on crime’ is a more successful campaign theme than ‘fair trial’. ‘Fair trial’ gets spun into ‘criminals’ rights’ and ‘soft on crime’. So politicians direct money towards ‘tough on crime’ projects instead. In the courtroom, the accused are innocent until proven guilty. But in the public’s eyes, it seems that once you’re accused, you should be locked up – the longer the better. Anything less is ‘soft on crime’.

  • Alex De Marco

    I find John Stuart’s magnanimous attitude of blaming nobody for our situation a bit shortsighted. The legislature spent $10 Million to expand parking at the Mall of America, and they couldnt’ find $1.4 million to keep attorneys at a constitutionally mandated office? I think everyone that voted for the budget is to blame, and think it’s time to hit members of the judiciary finance committee over the head the election season and strangle their unding from our wealthier colleagues at large firms and lobbying organizations.

  • pollyannaforpeace

    /The question is “do we have the right 1 in 100″?/

    I have witnessed many citiations and arrests doled out on the premise of revenge given by the alleged Washington County and St Paul authorities. Certain situations could have easily had been avoided, ie unneccessary arrests and citations. Perhaps an increase on the scrutiny of FRAUD WASTE AND ABUSE should be done within the police department in both these areas.

  • GregS

    “I am baffled as to why so much money is poured into the prosecutors and so little is given to the public defense.”

    I am uncertain of this, but I think prosecutors are paid by the county and PD’s are paid by the state.

    Different budgets, different tax systems.

  • GregS

    There is a good way to finance public defenders, one that lawyers themselves will vigorously oppose.

    Why give all or a substantial portion of punitive penalties to the public defenders office?

    Punitive penalties are something a client or a lawyer “earns”, it is a penalty the court imposes to change behavior. The money rightfully belongs to the public.

    Of course try telling the Democratic Party, an instruction bound tightly in the grip of politically powerful Trial Lawyers, that the public should be served with public money.

    Instead, we have to argue about “budget cuts”.

  • GregS

    Sorry, I should have written above.

    Why NOT give all or a substantial portion of punitive penalties to the public defenders office?

    Punitive penalties are NOT something a client or a lawyer “earns”, it is a penalty the court imposes to change behavior. The money rightfully belongs to the public.

  • Daveg

    I think that’s a great idea, but I suspect opposition to it would be noticeably bipartisan.

  • Mary

    But punitive damages are something the client or lawyer decides to impose, it’s not automatic. And if there’s a jury involved, the decision is up to them.

  • c

    /I am uncertain of this, but I think prosecutors are paid by the county and PD’s are paid by the state. /

    That being said I think that there is some excess fat that could be trimmed down at the Washington County Court House.

  • Lily

    I have an idea! The Ramsey County Commisioners just voted themselves a 3% increase, after a 20% increase last year. Maybe we could scale back on commish pay and put those bucks toward public defenders….at least in RC…..???

    Or is this another story, Bob?