JOHNSTOWN - Fulton County's hiring three years ago of a full-time assistant public defender to exclusively handle Family Court cases has been effective, according to county Public Defender J. Gerard McAuliffe Jr., especially in light of an increase in Family Court cases.
McAuliffe provided that assessment to the Board of Supervisors' Public Safety Committee Thursday at the County Office Building.
"That position has been in effect for three years now," he said of the fourth assistant public defender, a position created in August 2006.
(The Leader-Herald/Michael Anich)
Fulton County Public Defender Gerard McAuliffe addresses county supervisors at a meeting Thursday in Johnstown.
At that time, McAuliffe told supervisors, his office was having trouble keeping up with the caseload assigned by Family Court.
"There was a dramatic increase in assignments from 2005 to 2006 and another dramatic increase from 2006 to 2007," he said.
The numbers went up after former Fulton County Family Court Judge David Jung in 2006 began assigning public defenders to every person who sought one. In 2005, the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court had ruled Jung deprived a local woman, Karrie Foote, of her right to an attorney in a child support case.
Supervisors voted to drop an appeal of that decision in early 2006, and after Jung began assigning all cases to the public defender's office, some supervisors said they felt he was retaliating against them for dropping the appeal, by not screening case clients to see if they had the ability to pay for their own lawyer.
In early 2008, Jung was removed from the bench by the state Court of Appeals after the state Commission on Judicial Conduct determined he had violated the rights of some individuals in Family Court cases.
Since 2007, McAuliffe said, the numbers have "settled down" somewhat in Family Court.
McAuliffe told the committee his office is projected to handle 475 cases in Family Court by the end of 2009. The public defender's office has handled 225 cases through July 30, and there is a "rush" of Family Court cases, usually involving visitation disputes, around the holidays.
He said the projected 475 cases would represent an increase of about 350 percent from the 134 cases handled by his office in 2004.
"As you can see, there's been an enormous increase," said McAuliffe.
He said the new full-time assistant has been a "major factor" in his ability to limit his expenditures from the assigned counsel budget.
McAuliffe also informed the committee it's his understanding that New York City may set a maximum number of cases for its public defenders. He said there's been talk on the state level about "actually limiting the number of cases a public defender can handle," although he's not aware of any proposals that would affect upstate counties.
Gloversville 4th Ward Supervisor Anthony C. Buanno asked if any of those receiving public defense can pay for any of their own finances.
"They are asked that," McAuliffe said, but state and federal constitutional statutes require that a person who can't afford an attorney must be provided one.
Michael Anich covers Johnstown and Fulton County news. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.