DAVID GREENE, HOST:
On this program recently, we've been looking for examples of how the steep budget cuts, known as sequestration, are affecting different parts of the country. Today, the search takes us to the offices of federal public defenders. They are the lawyers who represent people without enough money to hire a lawyer. We begin in Columbus, Ohio where a senior federal public defender says he's quitting to spare his office from having to fire several younger lawyers.
NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Steven Nolder joined the Federal Public Defender's Office when it opened in Columbus, nearly 18 years ago. Nolder handled the first federal death penalty case in the district and defended a former NFL quarterback embroiled in a ticket fraud scheme.
But lately, Nolder says, his professional world has turned upside down.
STEVEN NOLDER: In the last four or five months, the game has changed. And no longer is there an interest in quality representation by seemingly budget committees in Congress, but instead, it seems that money's going to rule the day.
JOHNSON: Nolder's being forced to slash his budget. But with little to trim, other than salaries and benefits, Nolder realized he'd have to make some tough decisions.
NOLDER: The people that came here to work for me, came from outside the district, moved their families here, are not necessarily licensed to practice law in the state of Ohio, they don't have to be to practice solely in federal court, and it seemed to me wholly unfair to target those people the last in, to be the first out, knowing they had no opportunities in this legal community.
JOHNSON: So Nolder did something that no one expected - he laid himself off, effective in June.
NOLDER: It's very emotional, it's been an emotional 45 days to come to this point.
JOHNSON: Around the country, other public defenders are reaching the breaking point. In New York, public defenders told a judge this week, they need to delay the trial of Osama bin Laden's son-in-law because they're under orders to take five weeks of furloughs. And in Washington, D.C...
A.J. KRAMER: We have nothing left to cut. We can't not pay the rent and we - everything else is personnel. We can't send a computer to court.
JOHNSON: That's A.J. Kramer, the top public defender in the Capitol. Kramer says the situation is the worst he's ever seen in 33 years in the system. Every decision about a case, he says, is coming under the microscope.
KRAMER: A lawyer gets to decide, or might decide that they ordinarily in the past would have had an expert work on some aspect of a case, and now they're thinking is this that going to cost me a furlough day if I hire this expert, and everybody else in the office a furlough day, so it really becomes a terrible ethical dilemma.
JOHNSON: It's not just defense lawyers who are howling. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer recently told the House Appropriations Committee that he's worried too.
JUSTICE STEPHEN BREYER: At this moment, I would say the public defenders are below the level that would be minimum. And it does really seem to me that there is a serious problem in terms of crime, in terms of justice, in terms of adding costs to the system if you can't protect the defenders.
JOHNSON: Just last month, the Justice Department celebrated the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright. That Supreme Court ruling gave poor people facing criminal charges the right to a lawyer, even if they couldn't afford one.
The obligation doesn't go away, even if longtime public defenders - like Steve Nolder in Columbus, Ohio - do.
NOLDER: These are not luxury services that we're providing. These are constitutionally mandated services, and because they're mandated, someone has to do it. We either do it, or the panel does it.
JOHNSON: The panel is a roster of private defense lawyers appointed by the court to represent poor defendants. Those private lawyers often cost more than the public defenders do, but without the same expertise, Nolder says.
NOLDER: So what Congress is forcing the American public to do is buy the $600 hammer. Pay more for less. It doesn't make sense.
JOHNSON: Michael Nachmanoff, the federal public defender in Virginia, says the whole system is on the verge of collapse. Nachmanoff says he hopes lawmakers will reverse some of the cuts - just as they did with meat inspectors.
MICHAEL NACHMANOFF: I think that indigent defense is every bit as important as the food that we eat. For our clients it's a matter of their liberty, sometimes, their life.
JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
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