For the first time, possibly ever, the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender last week shut its physical offices to the public. Now the office is asking the state’s Supreme Court to postpone all pending trials and allow essential hearings to be done by phone.
In response to the growing number of COVID-19 cases in the state, signs posted on the office’s door last week informed the public that all business should be handled remotely, if possible.
In a statement released Sunday, Chief Public Defender Ben Baur acknowledged the importance of speedy trials, but said the health of those clients and public defender staff should take priority.
“If this virus gets into one of our jails, the conditions are such that it could spread rapidly in close quarters, and many people in jail are already in poor health,” Baur said.
The state Supreme Court already ordered limited actions in court buildings across the state, but said criminal trials should continue. Baur spoke last week with NM Political Report about the decision to close physical offices.
“Our doors will be closed to the general public and all LOPD business should be conducted via telephone and email, to the extent possible,” Baur said. “That’s to protect our clients as much as us.”
But unlike public schools or other events around the state, the LOPD cannot fully shut down.
Baur said it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many cases would be impacted by a hold on trials, but that the number is “easily over 100.” He said since the state first confirmed COVID-19 cases, the LOPD has been trying to utilize any and all resources to keep large groups out of court rooms and law offices.
Alec Ortenstein, the managing attorney for the LOPD office in McKinley County, said he has been working with the county’s district attorney to minimize the amount of people in court and the amount of time they spend there.
“Our district attorney and I see completely eye to eye on this issue,” Orenstein said.