2009 to 2011
In a letter to the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners dated May 19, 2009, the Juvenile Court Judges informed the Board that they no longer wished to use the contracts to provide legal services in the Separate Juvenile Court of Lancaster County and asked the Board to let the contracts expire as they came to the end of a term. The judges decided to revert to the ad hoc assigned counsel system paying private assigned counsel $65 per hour.
In their letter, the Juvenile judges said that their new system "could" save money in the delinquency cases (which are only 11% of the contracts' costs) and the new system "could result in cost savings through a more efficient...process." However, they also complained that the current contract system for guardians ad litem encourages doing "less for children rather than more," which implies that the judges expect more work to be done. Lancaster County Public Defender Dennis Keefe informed the Board that several studies he had conducted always showed that the contracts reduced the costs of providing these services by 30%. As a result of the judges' action, two contractors gave notice terminating their contracts during 2009, and two other contracts were allowed to expire without renewal.
The office experienced more turnover in 2009 than we normally see. Two attorneys, Matthew Graff and Andrew Weeks, left the office for other opportunities Dorothy Walker, who actually served two separate terms as a Deputy Public Defender gave notice that she would retire in early 2010, in order to spend more time with her grandchildren. Replacing Matt was former law clerk, Valerie McHargue.
Honors & Awards
On April 13, 2009, Deputy Public Defender, Susan Tast, was honored by the University of Nebraska Omaha College of Public Affairs and Community Service with a 2009 Alumni Award for Excellence in Public Service for her many years of service to the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office. Pictured here at the awards luncheon are (left to right) Dr. Candice Batton, Director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Susan Tast, and B.J. Reed, Dean of the College of Public Affairs and Community Service.
At the annual meeting and luncheon of the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association in November of 2009, Dennis Keefe was presented with the 2009 Don Fiedler Lifetime Achievement Award named after a long time member and criminal defense attorney from Omaha. Keefe was a co-recipient with Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley.
As the year began, Dorothy Walker retired from the Public Defender's Office in 2010. She actually served 2 terms as a deputy public defender in the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office. In her last year with the office, Dorothy represented clients before the Board of Mental Health and in Child Support and Paternity cases.
Two new attorneys joined the office in 2010. Yohance Christie, a native of Lincoln, joined the office on January 26, 2010 after having passed the Texas Bar Exam and motioning in to the Nebraska Bar. Yohance, a former law clerk with our office, began as an attorney in the juvenile division representing youth in law violation and status cases.
Todd Molvar was sworn in to the Nebraska Bar in February of 2010 after motioning in from the Colorado Bar Association. Todd is also a native of Lincoln. He began his career representing clients before the Board of Mental Health and in City Misdemeanor cases. He also assumed responsibility for the review cases where the client had been found not responsible by reason of insanity.
In February of 2010, Dennis Keefe was invited by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to attend The National Symposium on Indigent Defense. Also invited were Justice John Gerrard of the Nebraska Supreme Court and Robert Bartle, the incoming President of the Nebraska State Bar Association. The Symposium was held in Washington D.C. and brought together leaders from across the nation including public defenders, prosecutors, judges, legislators and advocates for the indigent. The Attorney General himself addressed the group about his concern over the national indigent defense crisis.
The Lancaster County Public Defender's Office received 2 grant awards from the Nebraska Crime Commission in 2010. One of the grants provided more than $46,000 in federal funds to purchase computer equipment, upgrade the office's case management information system, and provide funding for out-of-state training experiences for staff attorneys.
The second grant provided more than $29, 000 in federal funds for statewide training on the obligations of criminal defense attorneys to provide competent advice to clients about the immigration consequences of criminal convictions. In addition, this latter grant provides funding for out-of-state training for a number of criminal defense attorneys to learn immigration law. The second grant will be managed by the Nebraska State Bar Association, through its Minority Justice Committee.
In May of 2010, a record number of employees in the office were honored for their years of service to Lancaster County at the annual employee recognition breakfast. Those honored and their years of service are as follows:
- Webb Bancroft, Attorney (20 years)
- Tim Eppler, Attorney (10 years)
- Angela Franssen, Paralegal (10 years)
- Kristi Gottberg, Paralegal (10 years)
- Robert Hays, Attorney (25 years )
- Dennis Keefe, Public Defender (30 years)
- Susan Tast, Attorney (20 years)
- Margene Timm, Attorney (20 years)
Dennis R. Keefe was sworn in to office for his 8th consecutive term as Lancaster County Public Defender in January of 2011 and shortly thereafter, the office celebrated its 40th anniversary. Keefe is the only current employee of the office that was also employed as an original member of the office in its first year (1971).
Rule of Law Partnership
Elizabeth Elliott, one of the Deputy Public Defenders in the office, was invited to join a team from the University of Nebraska College of Law in 2011, the first year of the Rule of Law Partnership, a USAID-funded program. The partners in this project were Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) and the University of Nebraska College of Law (UNL). The partnership was formed to help prepare UNAM faculty, students and the local bench and bar to meet the challenges they may encounter during the implementation of the new adversarial criminal justice system in Mexico.
Training in Mexico
Ms. Elliott traveled with her team to Mexico City where they provided training to their Mexican counterparts. The students of the training consisted primarily of UNAM professors who teach criminal law. During the 5 day "working seminar," they received instruction in the oral adversarial process, including conducting opening statements, questioning witnesses - by both direct and cross examination - and making closing arguments. Additionally, the professors were taught various critiquing methods and techniques to aid them when giving feedback to their students performing such tasks.
During the practical application portions of the workshop, each professor performed each segment of an oral trial in mock courtrooms and received both an in-courtroom and video-tape performance critique by members of the teaching team. Each professor also conducted two feedback exercises whereby they observed a performance and gave a relevant, appropriate critique. The teaching team for the workshop consisted of two experienced criminal attorneys representing UNL, including Ms. Elliott, and two professors from UNAM. The workshop held at UNAM was one of several trial advocacy training courses to be conducted during the three year life of the partnership.
In May of 2011, Kristi Egger-Brown, one of the Deputy Public Defenders was honored at the County's Employee Recognition Breakfast for her 20 years of service to the office. Ms. Egger- Brown was a law clerk with the office when she attended Law School and she worked for the Hall County Public Defender before joining the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office as a Deputy Public Defender.
The office also benefited throughout the year from two different grants that originated with the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance and was awarded to the office by the Nebraska Crime Commission. In one of the grants, the Lancaster County Public Defender's office partnered with the Nebraska State Bar Association's Minority Justice Committee, and Professor Kevin Ruser of the UNL College of Law to provide statewide training on the immigration consequences of criminal convictions.
Over 300 attorneys were provided with the training in state and the grant also provided funds to send 4 county public defenders to national immigration training in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In addition, the grant provided a number of county public defender offices with Professor Ruser's Manual on Immigration Law for criminal defense attorneys. The other grant provided the office with funds to upgrade the office's case management system, allowed us to purchase 7 additional mini laptop computers for attorneys to take to court and update their case files, as well as the ability to send all of the attorneys in the office to national premier training programs for criminal defense attorneys.
The budget process was a difficult one in 2011. The County was confronted with a decrease in state aid to counties and a significant demand from county corrections for additional funding for operational costs related to the new jail. The amount of general fund money budgeted for the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office actually decreased in 2011 (for FY12). As the County Commissioners were looking at all options, they asked the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office to lead a study of the costs of the entire indigent defense system. The County retained Elizabeth Neeley, PhD. as their research consultant and the report is due to be released in 2012.
American Bar Book
As the year ended, The American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, published a book entitled 'Securing Reasonable Caseloads -Ethics and Law In Public Defense'. The author of the book was Norman Lefstein, Professor of Law and Dean Emeritus of the Indiana University School of Law- Indianapolis.
Professor Lefstein had previously served as the director of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, as an Assistant United States Attorney in D.C, and as a staff member in the Office of the Deputy Attorney General, United States Department of Justice. He has played an important role over the past 50 years in the development of national standards for indigent defense as well as writing regarding ethical obligations of public defenders and public defender managers regarding caseloads. In the book, he cites favorably the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office's history of attorney time tracking as a worthwhile activity for public defender offices in their quest to find manageable caseloads.