Minnesota’s top public defender reappointed over objections from rank-and-file

Board of Public Defense also adopts budget proposal with significant pay increases recommended by public defenders

By: - September 13, 2022 7:16 pm

Minnesota State Public Defender Bill Ward listens at a meeting of the Board of Public Defense on Sept. 13, 2022. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Minnesota State Public Defender Bill Ward was reappointed on Tuesday over the objections of a significant number of rank-and-file public defenders, who say he has failed to advocate for more funding for the state’s beleaguered public defense system.

The Board of Public Defense, a seven-member body appointed by the governor and Supreme Court, discussed the reappointment for nearly two hours behind closed doors before voting 4-2 to keep Ward for the next four years to oversee the state’s roughly 470 public defenders and 200 support staff.

The vote comes less than a week after public defenders, unionized with the Teamsters Local 320, voted 167-13 that they did not have confidence in Ward’s leadership. Support staff voted 97-8 no confidence in Ward.

Ward, who attended the board meeting, declined to comment.

Board chair Molly Jannetta said they considered the no confidence vote in private discussions along with all other information they had. That included positive reviews from district chiefs and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea. The board did not ask for feedback from rank-and-file public defenders.

Jannetta previously voiced her support for Ward after the no confidence vote, writing in a statement that he was “a highly effective leader and advocate for our clients.

Two board members, Elizer Darris and Prince Corbett, argued after the closed-door session that they should delay Ward’s reappointment, whose term starts retroactively on July 1, in order to receive more public input following the no confidence vote.

“We have never in the history of our public defense had … a vote of no confidence,” Darris said. “Because of the significance of that … I think that it is important that we open up the process and allow for more voices to be heard.”

Public defender Sarah Prentice-Mott, who attended Tuesday’s board meeting, said she was disappointed in the outcome.

“It felt like they really didn’t care what we were trying to say with the vote of no confidence,” Prentice-Mott said.

Public defenders, who voted to strike for the first time in state history earlier this year, say new leadership is needed to correct low morale and high turnover. New attorneys stick around only for about four years before seeking higher paying jobs as prosecutors or in private practice.

A letter sent by the union to its members encouraging them to vote no confidence said Ward “lacks respect for employees” and “operates under a culture of fear and intimidation.” The letter also said Ward “failed to advocate for his employees before the state Legislature,” which determines the budget for the state’s public defenders.

Union leaders said Ward had never requested “anything resembling” an adequate public defense budget, until Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, asked him in a legislative hearing to present a proposal for full funding.

During the committee hearing in January, Ward acknowledged he had never asked for full funding because it seemed to be a pipe dream.

Ward then brought a budget proposal to the Legislature requesting a 50% increase to the current annual budget of $106 million, which would have allowed the agency to raise wages and hire more than a hundred additional lawyers.

Democrats and Republicans agreed to the additional funding, which helped avert a strike that threatened to bring the justice system to a halt. However, the deal ultimately died when negotiations broke down over other items in a massive public safety bill at the end of the legislative session.

‘A radical budget’

While the Board of Public Defense rejected calls from public defenders for new leadership, they embraced a wage scale proposed by union attorneys that would mean massive pay increases for lawyers. Funding for the proposal is far from certain and will depend on who controls state government after the November election.

Under the board’s budget proposal, which they approved unanimously, the base salary of an entry level public defender would increase from $70,146 to $82,908 in 2024. Assistant public defenders at the top of the pay scale would earn as much as $157,097 a year, up from a maximum salary of $123,093 today.

The new pay scale would bring public defender salaries in line with those of prosecutors, who are employed by counties. Support staff would see about a 30% pay increase.

The budget proposal also includes funding for an additional 165 attorneys and 142 support staff for public defense offices across the state, in order to reduce caseloads that public defenders say are unethically high.

“The working conditions that we are under right now are deplorable,” Prentice-Mott, the public defender, told the board on Tuesday. “And the conditions that we work under are the same conditions that our clients make the most important decisions of their life.”

Prentice-Mott presented the union’s proposed pay scale to the board, saying it was based on six months of research with a group of public defenders from around the state.

Kevin Kajer, the chief administrator for the Board of Public Defense, estimated the cost of the proposal would require around a 50% increase to their budget, slightly more than what Democrats and Republicans agreed to earlier this year.

The new pay scale would also require larger budget increases in the future since it has fewer seniority levels between the lowest and highest paid attorneys. Under the new pay scale, attorneys could receive 6.5% annual wage increases, in addition to cost-of-living adjustments depending on contract agreements between the union and the board.

The board adopted the proposal over its staff’s slightly smaller proposal, which also included significant pay increases.

“It’s already a radical budget. … Why not be a little more radical?” board member Daniel Le said.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.