IA Public Defender Acted Properly In Dropping Conflict of Interest Case, High Court Rules

Iowa case law summary by Attorney Richard Clem: Public Defender, Conflicts of Interest.

State Public Defender v. Iowa District Court. IA Public Defender, Conflicts of Interest

In this juvenile case, the district court of Story County appointed the local public defender at 9:00 AM. At 10:07 AM, the public defender filed a motion to withdraw, citing concurrent conflicts of interest. That afternoon, the trial court held a detention hearing at which time the withdrawal motion was also heard.

The public defender informed the court that she had conflicts of interest relating to three other representations. When the court asked her what the juvenile's position was with respect to the hearing, the public defender reiterated that she could not represent the juvenile.

The district court granted the motion to withdraw. But ten days later, it issued an order assessing costs against the state public defender's office, since the local public defender "took absolutely no action to mitigate the consequences to the client in its effort to withdraw." In particular, the court noted that the public defender had taken to steps to obtain conflict-free representation.

The state public defender then filed a petition for certiorari with the Iowa Supreme Court. The Supreme Court granted the writ, holding that the district court had acted improperly.

The supreme court first noted that costs can only be taxed upon statutory authority, and also noted that the state public defender was not a party to the action.

It also stated that the local public defender had acted ethically and properly. Under the circumstances of the case (just over an hour between appointment and hearing), the court held that the public defender did not breach any duty to obtain outside counsel.

It noted that the public defender had previously provided the court with a list of attorneys who could be appointed when the public defender was not available.

For these reasons, the Supreme Court held that the District court had exceeded its lawful authority, and granted the writ.

No. 15-0848 (Iowa Oct. 21, 2016).

Please see the original opinion for the court's exact language.


Richard P. Clem is an attorney and continuing legal education (CLE) provider in Minnesota. He has been in private practice in the Twin Cities for 25 years. He has a J.D., cum laude, from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul and a B.A. in History from the University of Minnesota. His reported cases include: Asociacion Nacional de Pescadores a Pequena Escala o Artesanales de Colombia v. Dow Quimica de Colombia, 988 F.2d 559, rehearing denied, 5 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1041 (1994); LaMott v. Apple Valley Health Care Center, 465 N.W.2d 585 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991); Abo el Ela v. State, 468 N.W.2d 580 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).

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