Pool of public defenders expands

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WALLA WALLA — Two local law firms have been added to the roster of attorneys who are appointed on a regular basis to represent indigent adult defendants accused in Walla Walla County Superior Court of felonies.

The firm of Jeff and Andrea Burkhart is now on the list, as is attorney Robin Olson of Olson Law Office.

They join Julie Brown, Jerry Makus, Gail Siemers and Richard Wernette as attorneys who contract with the county to provide legal representation for adult defendants who can’t afford to pay.

The additions were necessitated by Monday’s retirement of longtime lawyer Jim Barrett. His indigent clients have been reapportioned among the remaining attorneys.

Judges appoint the attorneys to represent newly arrested suspects on a rotating basis based on a caseload percentage for which each lawyer or firm has contracted. This year’s contracts, authorized by County Commissioners last month, are based on an assumption of not more than 358 total new appointments this year.

The county will pay the lawyers a total of nearly $436,000, broken down by shares of 14.

For instance, Burkhart and Burkhart signed up to accept 3/14s of the workload, as has Siemers, with annual compensation for each amounting to $93,775.

Brown, Makus, Olson and Wernette are in for 2/14s apiece. Each of those contract amounts is for $62,111.

The number of new clients each attorney is assigned is capped, with additional compensation required for any appointments above the limits.

The county also contracts with Brown and attorney Irving Rosenberg to represent juvenile criminal defendants.

In addition, contracts have been signed with various lawyers to provide services to those accused of probation violations, assist at mental health hearings, with child dependency and substance abuse commitment matters, and criminal representation for suspects charged in District Court with misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors.

All the contracts total $652,719, compared to last year’s $625,067.

Other jurisdictions anticipated huge cost increases and difficulties in signing public defenders due to caseload limits imposed by the state Supreme Court. The new standards will take effect in September.

Walla Walla County was more successful because, according to Superior Court Judge John Lohrmann, “Historically commissioners (here) have been concerned to make sure adequate standards are met, including rate of pay.

“It’s quite competitive here.”

Terry McConn can be reached at terrymcconn@wwub.com or 526-8319.

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