It's not a title that's on the lips of New Mexicans every day. Many may not even know it exists. But New Mexico's Chief Public Defender (CPD) is in charge of a government agency that handles about 90 percent of the criminal defense work in the state. The department has a $42 million operating budget and close to 300 lawyers who represent 60,000 people a year. The CPD must work closely with the governor to ensure the department has enough resources to represent all of its clients and must maintain a good relationship with New Mexico's district attorney's office and the state courts.
After five-and-a-half years, Chief Public Defender John Bigelow is stepping down, and Gov. Bill Richardson has appointed Hugh Dangler to take his place beginning July 1. Dangler is the district public defender for North Central New Mexico and has also worked in the office as an appellate and trial attorney and as the department's training director.
"I've been a state employee for 20 some-odd years, and most of my career has been with the public defender," Dangler says. "I strongly believe in the agency's mission, and I look forward to improving the work we do and making it easier for our lawyers and staff to do their jobs."
In January's Legislative session, Richardson vetoed House Bill 193, which would have created a commission charged with the task of selecting the CPD. As things stand, only the governor has a say in deciding who's appointed. The thinking behind the bill was that the governor should not have undue influence on the CPD's decision-making, especially since the governor also sets crime policy.
Bigelow says he advised Richardson to veto the bill because the perceived conflict of interest between the governor and the CPD doesn't exist. "If there was any real problem with the way the CPD is selected, it would have been raised in the courts," Bigelow says. "Theoretically, it's possible that a governor could ask the CPD to do something that wasn't in the best interest of their clients, but I can't imagine something like that happening."
Dangler says the bill amounts to fixing something that isn't broken. "I think the commission is a terrible idea," Dangler says. "We're being run well, and our lawyers and staff do a great job."
For Brian Pori, president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Association, it's Dangler's experience that makes him an attractive CPD. "This is the first time in 10 years that someone who's climbed the ranks has been elevated to chief," Pori says. "It's such a blessing for the department because his energy and passion for the job is contagious."
One of the CPD's tasks is to lobby the Legislature and the governor for funding, but he can also voice their opinions about legislation he feels will help or hurt clients. Dangler and Pori disagree about how much lobbying the CPD should do. "Our main job is to make sure our department runs well," Dangler says. "We should be in front of the Legislature when we're asked to be, but lobbying is not our primary task."
Pori says the public defender's office needs to provide the Legislature with the downside of strict crime laws. "The public defender's office should be more involved in lobbying, because people don't realize that when we 'get tough on crime,' it bogs down an already overloaded court system," Pori says. "These grandstanding measures can actually hurt public safety, and the CPD should lend expertise to the Legislature when these issues are discussed."
Pori says one of the biggest challenges facing the CPD is the need for parity in funding between Dangler's department and the district attorney's office. "John Bigelow has worked very hard to try to level the playing field as far as resources, but there's no question that things aren't equal," Pori says. "If the district attorney is given a set amount of money for prosecuting cases, the public defender should get the same treatment for representing clients."
Bigelow says he recognizes the need for increased funding. Since 2003 when he became CPD, the public defender's budget has gone from $23 million to more than $42 million.
Even so, Bigelow says parity isn't as important as job performance. "We are an agency that does very well with less than optimal resources," Bigelow says. "I don't care if the district attorney's office has a couple more assistants than we do, because we're still able to do our duty. We'd like a little more funding, and we'll fight for a little more, but we're in much better shape than a lot of public defenders in other states." Dangler declined to comment on the various challenges his new job presents until he is steps into the CPD position in July.