New public defender offices planned in the House budget, but no intent to expand public defense statewide

The House budget unveiled by Republican leaders Wednesday night would provide funding to establish new public defender offices serving eight counties across North Carolina, an infusion of  funds to ensure poor people charged with crimes are adequately represented in court. But despite that there are such offices in less than half of the state’s 100 counties, lawmakers did not consider fully funding public defenders across North Carolina.

“There was nothing discussed amongst the chairs about expanding public defenders throughout the state,” said Rep. Ted Davis, Jr. (R-New Hanover), one of the chairs of the Justice and Public Safety Appropriations Committee. “That doesn’t mean it might not happen one day. But also, we took the amount of money that we had, and we tried to apply it to as many things as we could, and we addressed it to the public defender’s districts that we were asked to do.”

Rep. Joe John (D-Wake) asked whether Republican leaders had considered making a statement of the General Assembly’s intent to expand public defender districts across North Carolina. Davis said no.

Rep. Abe Jones (D-Wake) asked what it would cost to expand public defender services across the state — Davis didn’t answer that question and reiterated they only had so much money to allocate — and said he supported such a proposal.

“I think it is very badly needed,” Jones said. “It’s just a concept that I think one day could happen, I hope.”

House Republicans unveiled their plans for the budget Wednesday night and held legislative hearings on the proposals Thursday. Among those hearings was one before the Justice and Public Safety Appropriations Committee, where representatives from various related state agencies weighed in on the funding appropriations and legislators like John and Jones asked questions about the allocations.

Under the budget proposal Indigent Defense Services would receive $1,020,102 to establish a public defenders’ office to serve Bertie, Halifax, Hertford and Northampton counties; $763,247 to open an office to serve Johnston County; $925,723 to fund an office serving Brunswick County; and $1,071,211 to open an office to serve Alexander and Iredell counties.

All together, the new offices would be staffed by four public defenders, up to 38 assistant public defenders and up to 22 employees to provide support.

Roughly 40 of the state’s 100 counties have a public defender office. The others rely on court-appointed attorneys, who earn much less from the state than what they could charge as a private attorney. A joint investigation by The Assembly and the Border Belt Independent found that the number of lawyers willing to take on court-appointed cases has sharply declined since 2018, a problem especially acute in rural areas. The Office of Indigent Defense Services increased its assigned counsel pay rate last year for the first time since 2011, but that pay is still below the rate those lawyers were making more than a decade ago.

Under the House budget proposal, 46 counties would be served by public defenders’ offices. By law, Indigent Defense Services can recommend to the legislature that a regional or district public defenders’ office be established after they consult with the affected district bar, the senior resident superior court judge and the chief district court judge.

Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham), said legislators should make sure assistant district attorneys and assistant public defenders are paid the same, so prospective hires don’t choose one side or the other because one pays better.

“We want to keep, hopefully, some parity, because to keep the courtroom functioning you need both sides to be represented,” said Morey, who, like John and Jones, is also a former judge. “Just like if you have judges, you need clerks.”

The budget is not final. The governor released his own budget proposal earlier this month, and members of the Senate will weigh in with their own plan. The Republican-controlled General Assembly will negotiate over the state’s funding in the coming months.

Gun violence is a proxy war on the American public

A day after a mass shooting at The Covenant School, a woman is overcome with emotion in front of an impromptu memorial. (Photo: John Partipilo, for the Tennesse Lookout)

As the riot of gun violence in America produces fresh massacres by the day, firearm fundamentalists refuse to acknowledge the blood on their hands, and their suicidal stance in the face of escalating carnage is that more guns are the answer.

But it’s worse than that.

Take a close look at the arguments that gun extremists advance and a dark truth emerges. They repeatedly put defense against tyranny at the center of their claim to unfettered access to firearms. In the almost 232 years since the ratification of the Second Amendment, individual gun owners have had no substantial or sustained occasion to take up arms against the federal government. Yet guns are involved in almost 49,000 annual deaths in the United States. Anyone who has studied the matter arrives at the simple conclusion that more guns mean more death, and the gun-permissive U.S. is an extreme outlier in the developed world.

The nature of gun violence in America therefore amounts to a proxy war, with school children targeted as unwitting infantry and grocery store shoppers conscripted as cannon fodder. Attackers armed as if for military engagement, backed by Second Amendment fanatics, are deployed in public to kill unsuspecting innocents.

This is a hot war. We know which side is the aggressor. Gun extremists aren’t just political misfits. They are belligerents.

It is true that the framers crafted the Second Amendment as a defense against a form of 18th-century tyranny. Some representatives from the various states were wary of a strong federal government that could establish a standing army and dissolve state militias, and the right to “keep and bear arms” is explicitly tied to militia service in the text of the one-sentence, 27-word amendment.

What’s not explicit in the amendment is an individual right concerning firearms. In the records of the First Federal Congress, which produced the amendment, “There was no discussion at all about private ownership of guns,” notes Ray Raphael in his annotated U.S. Constitution.

Second Amendment scholar Michael Waldman makes a similar point. “There is not a single word about an individual’s right to a gun for self-defense or recreation in (James) Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention. Nor was it mentioned, with a few scattered exceptions, in the records of the ratification debates in the states. Nor did the U.S. House of Representatives discuss the topic as it marked up the Bill of Rights,” Waldman wrote in Politico Magazine.

Courts treated relevant cases accordingly, and state and local governments adopted gun restrictions more or less uncontroversially for more than two centuries.

That all changed with the rise of the National Rifle Association and Second Amendment fanaticism in recent decades. It wasn’t until the 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller that the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time said the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to own a gun. Read more

Bernie Sanders confronts former Starbucks CEO over union-busting allegations

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders conducted a U.S. Senate hearing to examine charges that the Starbucks coffee chain has engaged in union-busting. March 29, 2023. Photo: screenshot

WASHINGTON — Democratic senators at a hearing on Wednesday grilled the former CEO of Starbucks over allegations that the giant coffee company intimidated, harassed and fired workers who tried to form unions.

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