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CJ laments lack of lawyers for PD's office

Chief Justice Lealaialoa Fritz Michael Kruse has reminded the Executive branch of the rights of a criminal defendant to counsel to assist if unable to pay for one; this right includes rights to a speedy public trial by jury secured under the Sixth Amendment of the constitution, federal and locally.

This is outlined in a letter endorsed by the Chief Justice dated August 16, 2023, addressed to Governor Lemanu P.S. Mauga regarding the staffing and resources required of the office of the Public Defender.

The Chief Justice acknowledged this in his second correspondence in June, urging the realistic commitment of resources provided for a functional Office of the Public Defender. The Chief Justice noted the PD initially represented in open court that his term with the office was provisional.

However, since taking office, he has been inundated with the public defender's office caseload. As a result, he has needed more meaningful time to recruit the necessary legal and clerical support staff.

Kruse noted that ASCA Title 4 contemplates hiring Assistant Public Defenders and support staff to discharge the function of the office. In addition, the territory’s growing class of criminal defendants mainly comprises indigent individuals.

With the onset of illicit drug-related charges, these indigent numbers have, in his view, swelled beyond the needs of the services provided by the stagnant office of the Public Defender annual funding of under $500,000.

Thirdly the temporary Public Defender has lately been unable to attend to his court-related duties owing to health reasons. Consequently, his illness has abruptly stopped the court's seriously backlogged criminal calendar due to the COVID lockdown.

Kruse noted that, as indicated earlier, a criminal defendant has the right to counsel. The Chief Justice recently sanctioned private counsel appointments to help with indigent representation at discounted billings.

However, the private bar cannot be expected to shoulder the executive branch's statutory duty occasionally. He is not unmindful of potential complaints of involuntary servitude from the private bar.

Therefore, given the necessities and difficulties presented by the circumstances and the enduring criminal elements on the island, he is forced to support a court-appointed rotation involving every American Samoa Bar Association member who is not a criminal prosecutor to address the needs of indigent criminal defendants.

He told the Governor if the Executive Branch's prosecution arm is to continue filing criminal complaints seeking to invoke the Judiciary's process against those accused by the Government of criminal conduct.

The Executive Branch's public defender arm must also have the resources to improve its functionality to serve the needs of the disadvantaged members of society, as mandated by law.

Otherwise, due to paltry resource allocation, their continued diminution of the law's mandate could lead to prosecution outcomes that the community would find authority repugnant. In closing, the Chief Justice said that before the legislature established the Public Defender's office in 1977, all private bar members were required to function as public defenders on a gratis basis.

In creating the office of the Public Defender, the government initially invited bids from the private bar to undertake indigent representation.

The successful bidder, the Law offices of Tuinei and Gurr, took on those services for a decade, with the rest of the bar subject to a rotation called at discount rates where the contractual OPD encountered conflicts.

The Chief Justice suggested the executive branch, regarding their recent supply of legal advisers whom he admitted to practicing law in the territory, seriously look into the feasibility of this option. It would alleviate a lot of time-consuming logistics entailed with recruitment and office setup.

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