Hobbs draws national media coverage

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Cobb

The New York Times came to town recently.

In early October, the Hobbs Public Defenders Office began turning away cases citing heavy attorney caseloads and budget constraints, which could lead to ineffective assistance of counsel for its existing clients. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t stop there. In November, Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur, who is based in Santa Fe, was found in contempt and fined in five cases by District Judge Gary Cling-man. Later, Fifth Judicial District Attorney Dianna Luce’s petition to the New Mexico Supreme Court was denied and a hearing began December 15 in Lovington over the matter. No decision has been reached and the hearing is expected to continue next week.

The legal dispute drew the attention of a journalist reporting for the New York Times, who visited Hobbs Magistrate Court and attended part of the hearing in Lovington. A subsequent article spotlighted the Hobbs’ legal system and the City of Hobbs itself in an December 29 article titled, “When Defendants Cannot Afford a Lawyer, and Neither Can New Mexico,” which discussed the ongoing legal dispute. It also mentions Hobbs’ financial foresight, after “boom-and-bust cycles,” in an excerpt cited by the city’s Facebook page.

“At the same time, the City of Hobbs finds its budget in the black,” it reads. “Having learned their lesson from previous boom-and-bust cycles, its leaders decided to set aside a third or more of what the city was taking in during the flush times. The saving has helped to hire new police officers, which has led to additional strain on the state-run courts.”

Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb said the reporter, Fernanda Santos, was “impressed” with how the city put money back during times of economic growth and expanded police, fire and housing opportunities. However, Cobb said much of the discussion did not make the final edit.

“I think it’s good for us,” Cobb said. “I think the exposure to the community was positive. You never know who that’s going to touch in terms of opportunities for the community and so we felt fortunate to be able to get that word out.” Cobb said the city developed some relationships in the process and hopefully in the future there’ll be opportunities to feature Hobbs and some of the “positive things” the city is doing. When asked, Cobb added that he takes pride in how the city put back funds and noted some years the city “exceeded” that number.

“This year, we encumbered some funds for some public projects in anticipation of maybe seeing some reduction in funding from the state or some of those kinds of things,” he said. “I think it was a good strategy and a strategy that I hope people that follow us in the various positions in city and mayor’s office will continue to adhere to. Because history now has proven that it was a good — strategy.”

As for the bulk of the article, Baur he thinks it’s “clear” the public defender issue isn’t just in Lea County or New Mexico, but rather an issue across the country. He specifically named Missouri and Louisiana.

“That article did do good — there could be similar articles about many other places around the country,” he said. “We’re just not funding our court systems, specifically our indigent defense, the way that we need to.”

Meanwhile, Luce said it’s “always good” when this area gets exposure in the national news, but was disappointed the coverage was on this particular issue and with the article’s viewpoint.

“It seemed that it was definitely slanted in the view that the public defenders just don’t have funding, which I continue to point out that they have a statewide budget,” Luce said. “They determine how many positions of personnel they put in what offices. They could certainly put more positions in our area. They can certainly temporarily house files worked on by attorneys in other parts of the state. We’re a paperless office. Our disclosure is paperless to the defense. There are other remedies before they went to the extreme remedy of not taking cases.”

The article can be accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/29/us/new-mexico-lawyer-shortage.html.

Kelly Farrell can be reached at 391-5437 or courts@hobbsnews.com.