Nez Perce County commissioners start interviews next week to fill one of the county's four public defender contracts earmarked for vacancy in January when Kwate Law Offices withdraws from the role.

Three applicants applied for the contract, including Lewiston attorneys William J. Fitzgerald and Robert J. Van Idour - both of whom have worked locally as public defenders in the past - and Magyar, Rauch and Associates of Moscow.

Whoever is awarded the $210,000 contract can look forward to a changing environment, as the Idaho Legislature considers tweaking how public defenders operate in the state.

The Idaho Public Defenders Commission has asked lawmakers to consider at least two adjustments that, if approved, could go into effect next year.

One of the new standards would require public defenders to be in court when defendants make their first appearance, usually a day after their arrest. Currently, defendants appear alone before a magistrate who charges them, sets their bond and appoints a public defender if they qualify.

Kimberly Simmons, who heads the commission, said rural counties must work out the logistics, but having a defense attorney present can reduce the number of cases and help defendants get a fair bond.

"It is one of the areas the ACLU has found constitutionally deficient," Simmons said. "Some cases can be resolved at the first appearance."

Studies have shown that having a defense attorney present at the defendant's initial appearance can reduce case loads by 25 percent, Simmons said.

The Legislature also is poised to adopt a standard dubbed "vertical representation," in which public defenders appointed at the initial appearance stay with the defendant throughout his or her trek through the court system. In more populous districts such as in Ada County, defendants are assigned different attorneys from magistrate court, to district court and post conviction.

Paige Nolta, who is contracted for felonies and misdemeanor indigent cases in Nez Perce County, said the "vertical representation" rule likely will not affect local public defenders, who already employ the practice.

Having public defenders attend initial appearances, however, could pose time constraints and raise conflict issues. Misdemeanor and felony first appearances happen throughout the week.

"That's going to be a little more problematic," said Nolta, whose office has one of Nez Perce County's public defender contracts, as well as one in Lewis County. "It probably won't affect caseloads as much as the time we have to put in, if we have to be there that day."

If the Legislature adopts the new standards, as the defense commission expects, ironing out the wrinkles at the county level will be one of the first orders of business. By next year, the Legislature also may consider capping the caseload that each public defender is allowed, Simmons said.

As more changes are proposed, Nez Perce County Commissioner Doug Havens thinks rural counties will, in the near future, have to establish public defense offices, similar to the prosecutor's office - a common county institution. More populous counties such as Kootenai have a jump on that.

"We're getting closer to going in-house," Havens said. "We've had those conversations. Once the caseload cap is established, we will have to look at getting more attorneys."

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Bartholdt can be contacted at rbartholdt@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2275.