President's Message: Celebrate our state constitution, and all who work to uphold it
By Brian Smith
While in college, I worked part time for an attorney who mostly practiced in personal injury law. When I mentioned that I was thinking about going to law school, the first question he asked was what type of law I was interested in. My quick and immediate response? Constitutional law. This attorney said I would not be interested in constitutional issues because there was no money in it. Whether Keith Miller was right or wrong, or whether money was even part of my decision-making process, is a discussion for another day, but the sufficiency of pay didn’t stop 24 lawyers in 1972 from joining other delegates and spending 56 days in Helena drafting a new constitution for the State of Montana. We, the attorneys of the State Bar of Montana and the citizens of Montana, are indebted to the contribution of these 24 lawyers. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, and it will and should be celebrated. The question going forward is not whether we should protect and strengthen Montanan’s constitutional rights as it enters its next 50 years, but how. This is a weighty question, but one clear answer to enhance and protect Montana’s constitution is to invest in those individuals dedicating their practices and their lives to defending it.
Much of Montana’s Declaration of Rights is protected against government encroachment by attorneys that work for and contract with the Office of the State Public Defender. Nationwide, and in the State of Montana, public defense is at a crisis point. Montana, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oregon, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada … the list goes on… are all struggling with appropriately funding our public defender systems. Most states and jurisdictions don’t prioritize or invest in public defense to provide an even playing field for the prosecution and defense. Parity between defense and the prosecution is a core principle of public defense, and the American Bar Association recognizes it in its Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System. Pay and resource parity between the defense and prosecution is critical to the proper function of the justice system. While there are many facets to the justice system, which itself is a complex tangle of people, politics, and justice, one area of common ground on which everyone should agree is this:
Those using the color of state law to incarcerate or otherwise affect the life, liberty, and property of Montana’s citizenry and those dedicating their lives to defending our citizens and our Constitution should be equally compensated.
The 1972 delegates provided for the right to counsel in section 24, the Rights of the Accused. “In all criminal prosecutions the accused shall have the right to appear and defend in person and by counsel.” We need only look at the resources we give the defense to determine how much we – the citizens of Montana – value our constitutional rights, including the right to counsel. How much is the right to privacy or the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizures worth? Sections 10 and 11. How much is the right to bear arms worth? Section 12. How much is due process worth? Section 17. How much is the right to counsel worth? Section 24. The disparity in resources is staring us in the face.
A 2020 legislative audit of the Office of the State Public Defender found that public defenders were paid, on average, less than all other public sector attorneys. When comparing public defenders to prosecutors it isn’t hard to find examples of attorneys with equal experience commonly being paid $10,000 to $15,000 less for comparable positions, and in some instances the public defender pay is as much as $30,000 less than their prosecution counterparts. Why? Do we value the defense of our Constitution less? There are solutions to these issues, but they require the willingness to invest in our Constitution, just as our predecessors did 50 years ago at the Constitutional Convention. Montana has a powerfully protective constitution against government encroachment and interference, even more so than the United States Constitution, but our protections are only as strong as the support we provide to those that defend it.
Was Keith Miller right? So far, yes. But there is hope he will eventually be wrong. For the first time in our nation’s history, we have a former public defender on the highest court. Congratulations on your confirmation, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. You give us hope. The State of Minnesota (where Keith is from) recently reached an agreement with its defenders to pay them more and control their caseloads. Oregon appears to have made a commitment to re-evaluate the way it provides defense services. The chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court has sounded the alarm and the legislature recently allocated $12.8 million to counties with the largest shortage of attorneys. The pandemic and attorney shortages have not been kind to public defense nationwide, including Montana. But also the problem is deeply rooted in systems and history. Time will tell how Montana will respond. How much is defense of constitutional rights worth? We should value protection of these rights as much as efforts to remove these rights. Celebrate Montana’s Constitution this year. But remember, constitutional rights are only as strong as their current defenders. We had strong attorney defenders of rights at the 1972 Convention. Here is to the hope that we will have stronger, well resourced, defenders in the present.
Brian C. Smith is a longtime criminal defense attorney from Missoula who currently serves as Public Defender Division administrator with the Montana Office of State Public Defender.