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With Staff Stretched Thin, Chief Asks Judges to Curtail Caseload

By Tom Jackman
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page C04

Joanmarie Davoli has five kids, so she knows something about cleaning up messes. But she didn't anticipate the miasma of disarray that she found when she took over the Fairfax County public defender's office in October.

The 20 lawyers working for her had no Internet access at their desks and no e-mail. Only one computer in the office had a dial-up link to the Internet with online legal research limited to Virginia cases. There were no current lawbooks. An antiquated mail system resulted in important legal notices literally falling into the cracks behind mail slots.

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Davoli spent five years as an assistant public defender in Fairfax in the 1990s, before moving on to academia. Lured back last fall, she found an office overwhelmed: huge caseloads, low pay, lousy surroundings.

In Fairfax, the public defender represents about 80 percent of those charged with a crime, both adults and juveniles. Last year, Davoli's lawyers defended 8,452 clients, while trying to cover the courtrooms of 32 judges.

"We just lurch from crisis to crisis," Davoli said. "The whole system is just in collapse."

Davoli, 41, began badgering the state to remove broken furniture and boxes and boxes of old files. Finally, last month, her lawyers got Internet access and e-mail.

Now, Davoli is taking a drastic step: asking the Fairfax courts to stop assigning traffic and some misdemeanor cases in an effort to provide better legal work to those the office does represent. Each of her assistants handles more than 400 cases a year and is required to meet with every client within 48 hours of being appointed.

Davoli first asked the Indigent Defense Commission, which oversees the state's public defender offices, to let her hire more lawyers. The answer was no.

Then she watched as a new public defender office was established in Arlington, a county with one-fifth the population of Fairfax and staffed with 14 lawyers to cover 10 courtrooms.

"Fairfax County is being treated differently than the other counties," Davoli said. "Usually you allocate by population. Our tax money is subsidizing other counties and paying for them to get competent representation. But the poor people of Fairfax County aren't getting the same service."

So far, the Fairfax bench seems to agree. The Fairfax General District Court agreed to stop assigning traffic cases, with potential jail time, to public defenders as of June 1. And the judges in Fairfax Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court have called a March 31 meeting with the Fairfax Bar Association to explore removing the public defender from misdemeanors.

Corinne J. Magee, co-chairwoman of the Fairfax Bar's criminal defense section, called Davoli's case-reduction initiative "essential." She frequently sees public defenders meeting with six or more clients in the county jail on Sundays because the lawyers have been in court all week.

But removing public defenders from certain dockets will mean the courts will have to find lawyers willing to take cases for the state's maximum of $112 for misdemeanors.

"This will likely mean less experienced lawyers will be appointed," Magee said.

Richard Goemann, a former Fairfax public defender, is executive director of the Indigent Defense Commission. He said other public defenders have used the same maneuver to reduce their caseloads in order to ensure high-quality representation.

He declined to spar with Davoli over the allocation of lawyers to other offices, saying only that "the commission is continually working with the General Assembly to make sure that all of our offices have the staff that they need."

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