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The Ramsey County Courthouse stand in downtown St. Paul. Unlike other jurisdictions in Minnesota, Ramsey County has a four-week trial block, during which any of a specified number of trials may begin. (File photo: Bill Klotz)
The Ramsey County Courthouse stand in downtown St. Paul. Unlike other jurisdictions in Minnesota, Ramsey County has a four-week trial block, during which any of a specified number of trials may begin. (File photo: Bill Klotz)

Ramsey County trial calendar creates tension

An apparent misunderstanding and a pair of contempt findings may lead to changes in the way the 2nd Judicial District sets its criminal calendar.

Ramsey County Judge Thomas A. Gilligan Jr. found public defender Baylea Kannmacher in civil contempt and her boss, Chief Public Defender James Fleming, in criminal contempt on Monday, Nov. 6. Kannmacher was scheduled to begin a trial in a felony case that day. When she told Fleming that she had six other cases pending before two other judges, Fleming told her not to go and appeared in her place to ask Gilligan to start another trial instead. Kannmacher said she had notified Gilligan via email the previous week that she wasn’t prepared to begin the scheduled trial. Gilligan remembers it differently.

What followed were accusations of brinksmanship and conciliatory statements about resolving ongoing issues with the Ramsey County criminal calendar. Ramsey County public defenders typically handle an average of 570 misdemeanor cases and 300 felony cases per year, Fleming noted. The American Bar Association recommends that public defenders be assigned no more than 400 misdemeanor cases and 150 felony cases per year.

Unlike other jurisdictions in Minnesota, Ramsey County has a four-week trial block, during which any of a specified number of trials may begin. The client whose trial was set to begin Nov. 6 had agreed to delaying the trial until January so Kannmacher could prepare, she said. He is charged with kidnapping, theft and theft of a motor vehicle.

“It was clients and cases that wouldn’t be fair to pass off to anybody else,” Kannmacher said of the other six cases she was assigned. “There was an expectation that I would be able to give those clients to other attorneys in my office. That’s not effective representation.”

State Public Defender William Ward said the court treats his employees as “fungible goods” who can substitute for one another at any time.

“That’s terrible lawyering,” Ward said. “Their [the court’s] job is processing cases. What I am concerned about is representation of human beings and having the court understand that this isn’t about Case 62ER7. It’s about human beings.”

Other public defenders have been feeling overwhelmed lately. One burst into tears in Gilligan’s courtroom recently, and two others wept in their office, Fleming said.

“I don’t doubt that they’re under stress,” Ramsey County Chief Judge John Guthmann said. “We’re up 21 percent this year in homicide cases and 4½ percent in major criminal cases and 13 percent in speedy trial demands by the public defender’s office. They’re saying, ‘Slow down,’ but they’re also saying, ‘Speed up.’”

Meanwhile, the number of early-stage case resolutions has dropped, leaving judges stressed and having “a significant impact on what happens downstream,” Guthmann added.

A criminal calendar committee made up of judges, lawyers and court administrators invited the input of the public defender’s office earlier this year. One suggestion from that office to have individual public defenders work on both misdemeanor and felony assignments was not fully developed, according to Guthmann, who said the judges decided it would make matters worse. The public defender’s office also asked for the trial blocks to be cut from four weeks to two weeks.

On the same day that Gilligan found Kannmacher and Fleming in contempt, the public defender’s office notified the court that it would be making some changes, including to routinely request Rule 8 hearings between first appearances and omnibus hearings, a practice that would give attorneys more time to prepare cases. Public defenders could always request Rule 8 hearings, but they have fallen out of favor in Ramsey County, according to Fleming and Ward.

“There’s a lot of cultural habit in the ways courts are run and Ramsey has a lot of it,” Fleming said. “They’re very much unlike other jurisdictions and they very much cling to, ‘What we’ve done in the past is good enough.’”

Guthmann countered that the public defender’s office did not complain about the Ramsey County calendar system two years ago when the National Center for State Courts reviewed it and asked for their input. Fleming, the former chief public defender in Mankato, was appointed to the Ramsey County chief position in October 2016.

On Tuesday, Nov. 7, Gilligan met with Fleming, Ward, Guthmann and Criminal Assignment Judge Nicole Starr. Gilligan then held a hearing regarding the contempt and rescinded the one against Kannmacher. He stayed Fleming’s until Dec. 15, when Fleming could be ordered to pay $250 fine or face jail time.

It may not come to that. A second meeting was scheduled for Friday, Nov. 17 to discuss the calendar and a third for Nov. 21.

“This was kind of a painful process, but I think it’s going to lead to productive discussions about scheduling and modifications that maybe both the public defender’s office and the court system can utilize, because I do have significant concerns about the health and well-being of the lawyers that appear in front of me,” Gilligan said. “I also want them to be able to have time and the opportunity to get their cases prepared and to zealously represent their clients.”

Ramsey County caseload increase in 2017

Homicides  21 percent
Major criminal  4½ percent
Speedy-trial demands 13 percent

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