A day in the life of a Utah public defender — a whole bunch of cases and not enough time

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Washington County public defender, Ed Flint heads back to the courtroom in the 5th District Court in St. George, after a short lunch break, Wednesday, July 10, 2019.

St. George • He’s not a social worker, but he tries to help people who suffer from addictions.

And he’s not a secretary, but he files paperwork and instructs clients on how to send payments.

Edward Flint is an attorney — a public defender who is overwhelmed and frustrated, working in southern Utah’s rapidly growing Washington County, where his salary is set no matter how many cases he gets assigned. And that number is growing.

As a result, the people Flint defends sometimes get just a few minutes of his time, an email exchange and a whispered conversation from a courtroom bench, before making decisions that have lasting effects on their lives.

But some relief is coming. Washington County, which has been criticized and sued for how it handles the defense of indigent residents, will get a state grant to hire one more public defender.

Flint says that’s not enough, and he welcomed The Salt Lake Tribune to observe what one of his workdays is like to get a better sense of a system he says is terribly strained.

One morning, 22 cases

On a recent Wednesday, Flint starts his day in his shared St. George office, a ground-level suite with mismatched furniture, law books on display and boxes of files stacked up in a corner near his desk.

He uploads evidence into a computer system and shoots off an email or two — ”yes show up,” he quickly types to one woman he will see in court in an hour or so — as he drinks a breakfast shake at his desk, which is covered in case files.

He leafs through a stack of tattered green folders, each marked with the name of a defendant written above scribbled out names of clients who have come before them. There are 22 files, one for each indigent client he’ll represent before 5th District Judge Michael Westfall that morning.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Washington County public defender Ed Flint looks through folders containing the cases he will argue that morning, as he prepares for his day in the courtroom, Wednesday, July 10, 2019.

There is a man who is accused of sex abuse, his case more difficult because he speaks Spanish and Flint has been able to talk to him only once with an interpreter. There’s a woman who faces another drunken driving charge. And then there are clients who have emailed or called with last-minute reasons for why they can’t be in court — a broken foot, a recent stroke, a sick grandmother or no way to get there from Millard County.

It’s just before 9 a.m., but the summer heat already is evident as Flint drives a few blocks down Tabernacle Boulevard to the courthouse, where he settles into his chair in Courtroom 3C next to another public defender, Trevor Terry.

Over the next four hours, the two volley back and forth for the judge’s time, alternating through their 50 or so cases as clients are brought in from the jail in handcuffs or come up from the courtroom gallery. Their caseload in Westfall’s courtroom is split — Terry handles the even numbered cases, Flint takes the odd.

As Westfall hears some of Terry’s cases, Flint spends the first minutes finding his clients. He talks to one woman for less than a minute before handing her paperwork to sign, moving on to a huddle with a man. He chats with a prosecutor before approaching a third client. All this happens in less than nine minutes.

When their cases are called, Flint’s clients often spend less than 60 seconds before the judge — though those who plead guilty get about 15 minutes as Westfall painstakingly goes over the legal ramifications of their admissions.

Some of the court appearances are routine, and new dates are set. Others, Flint makes an argument on their behalf. The woman who pleads guilty to a second DUI won’t be released from jail, even as he argues that keeping her there means she will lose her job and housing. One hour and seven clients later, another woman comes to the podium dressed in a jail jumpsuit, her hands cuffed in front of her, a waist chain draping over her pregnant belly. She’s seven months along, and the judge grants Flint’s request that she be allowed to go free after sitting in jail for weeks on drug charges.

“It’s a slow day today,” Flint says. Sometimes he can have twice as many cases.

(Photos by Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ed Flint, a public defender in Washington County, represents dozens clients in St. George in one day on July 10, 2019.

Flint finishes his last case just after noon, a woman who has missed a few court dates on a charge of giving false information to a police officer. This one clearly means more to him than some of the others. He tries harder, saying she reminds him of his daughter. He tells Westfall that his client has been in a series of abusive relationships but just received help from a domestic violence center to get an apartment.

“She has a good future beginning now, that hasn’t been so good until now,” Flint tells the judge. “I don’t want [you] to be too angry with her for all the times she missed court.”

The woman pleads guilty that day, and Westfall orders her to probation — but doesn’t have her arrested for missing court.

Later, in the elevator, Flint offers her encouragement to continue to get help, and she smiles, nodding in agreement.

Heavy caseloads

It is cases like that one that keep Flint going, even as his number of cases creeps higher and higher. He can relate and empathize with those clients struggling with substance abuse issues. He enjoys taking on big, challenging cases where the stakes are higher.

But he can’t give that kind of attention to every person represented by one of those tattered green folders.

He has 287 active cases, a mix of serious felony charges — such as a recent one involving a teen who brought a bomb to a high school — and misdemeanors involving drugs or DUIs. Mixed in are clients whose cases are resolved but they are accused of violating probation.

For this, he and the seven other public defenders who work in the district court are each paid a little more than $58,000 per year. They don’t get health insurance or retirement benefits, and they have to pay for their office space and supplies out of their salary.

Flint and his colleagues will soon get a $500-per-month bump in pay and at least a little relief. Washington County this week received $194,000 from Utah’s Indigent Defense Commission, which doles out state grants to help counties and cities cover the cost of public defenders. Beyond the pay increase, the county will hire one more public defender.

Flint thinks this isn’t nearly enough — he wants the county to adopt another model used in Salt Lake and Utah counties, where nonprofit offices take on indigent defense rather than individually contracted attorneys. Those offices also have support staff, social workers and more financial resources for attorneys to use to build a defense.

Washington County Commissioner Dean Cox hopes the additional funding will help ease the pressure on public defenders.

“We recognize the amount of time they are putting into it,” he said, “and want to make sure we’re compensating our public defenders to the very best we’re able to.”

Cox points out that Utah is unique in that it delegates its responsibility to pay for public defenders to counties and cities. Only in 2016 did state officials start funding grants to help local governments meet that constitutional obligation.

Washington County has come under fire in recent years for its public defender system, and was sued in 2016 over it. The lawsuit, which a judge eventually dismissed, alleged that because of large caseloads and flat-fee contracts, public defenders there can’t meet with their clients in a “meaningful manner” before they go to court, can’t adequately investigate the charges against their clients and rarely use expert witnesses or forensic testing at trial.

Flint also has publicly criticized how the county pays for indigent defense, and recently complained about his caseload during a court hearing in which a client indicated she was unhappy that he hadn’t visited her in jail more than once before she took a plea deal.

The County Commission took issue with the complaint, and pointedly asked Flint in a letter if he was able to do the job as outlined. He responded with a 12-page letter saying public defenders in Washington County are paid less than surrounding counties and shouldn’t have to “moonlight” by supplementing their work with private-pay clients just to make a living wage.

“In its current form,” Flint wrote, “this public defender contract is right on the edge of being totally untenable.”

But Cox told The Tribune that the $58,000-a-year contracts — which pay defenders like Flint the same whether they represent 50 clients or 250 — are not meant to be the only source of income for these attorneys.

And on this recent Wednesday, Flint feels that pressure of juggling both his public defender cases and clients who are paying him.

‘I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life’

The temperature has reached 104 degrees as Flint leaves the St. George courthouse to drive a few blocks to his office for a lunch break. He snacks on a banana and some fig newtons while he answers more emails and prepares for the afternoon.

Then it’s back to Courtroom 3C, where he has fewer public defender clients than he had that morning. He’s not there for long. After representing a handful of people, he has to break away to help a paying client in justice court who is insisting that his seven charges be taken to trial.

Flint rushes in and out of the justice court building, quickly setting the case for trial.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Washington County public defender Ed Flint leaves justice court and heads back to the 5th District Court for more cases in the afternoon, in St. George, on Wednesday, July 10, 2019.

Then, it’s back to his office, which he shares with six other attorneys who also hold public defender contracts. He dabs sweat from his forehead as he calls a private client’s grandmother, trying to work out how she can send him payment.

He’s got a few minutes before it’s back to the district courthouse, and he spends that time chatting with a reporter about the challenges and rewards he faces as a public defender. It’s a job he’s been doing now for five years, a move made after two decades in private practice at his own firm, which crumbled in a bad economy.

He loves the defense work he does now, and doubts if he returns full-time to private practice that he’ll be able to work on these high-impact cases again. But he says the public defenders are sometimes threatened by their clients, and he’s frustrated with the amount they are paid and the lack of benefits. At 59 years old, he wonders if he’ll be able to retire.

“I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life, I’m afraid.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Washington County public defender Ed Flint talks to a client in his office, during his lunch break, in St. George on Wednesday, July 10, 2019. Flint has hundreds of clients and has to spread his time across them to represent them in court. Public defenders in Washington County make only $58,000 a year and receive no health benefits.

It’s almost 3 p.m., and that means Flint has to drive back to the courthouse once more. Here, he represents four clients accused of violating the terms of their probation. The last is a man who is accused of testing positive for marijuana. At the podium, Flint leans in and tells the man what would happen if he admits to it. The man does, and he’s ordered to community service and his probation will be restarted.

By the end of the day, Flint wraps up a few cases, reducing his workload, though the judge also assigns him two new clients.

He goes back to his office once more, again to answer emails. He sternly tells all of his public defender clients to email instead of call so he can keep a clear record.

Flint doesn’t usually end his work day this early — it’s just before 5 p.m. — but the cases were light, so he takes advantage. He’s looking forward to heading home, to take off his tie and suit jacket and swim in his backyard pool.

That’s what he calls “zen time,” the place he relaxes after a day of case-after-case and rushing in the desert heat.

But the moment of relaxation will be short-lived. After he towels off and eats dinner with his wife, he’ll sit down at his home computer.

There’s still more work to do.