Public defender good for clients, county

Public defender good for clients, county by M. Jill Sundstrom The Clay County Commissioners have hired a public defender in an effort to solve a budgeting problem and save money.

Phil Peterson of Beresford began his duties as Clay County public defender March 2. He will be in Vermillion on Tuesdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. An office has been established on the second floor of the Clay County Courthouse.

�He is required to be here at least one day a week,� said Gerald Sommervold, chairman of the county commission.

�We hired a public defender to try to save some tax dollars,� Sommervold continued. �In the past, we used court appointed attorneys. The state sets the fee, which is $55 an hour. But we felt if we could lock in a certain amount for this service in any given year, it would be easier to budget.�

Typically, the county pays $40,000 to $50,000 per year for court appointed attorneys.

�But the amount varies from year to year, depending on the number of cases,� Sommervold said. �If we run under budget, that�s fine. But if there are more cases than what we�ve put in the budget, we have to go somewhere else to look for the money to cover the costs.�

By bidding out the job, Sommervold says the county can plan for one figure, which will stay the same no matter how many clients Peterson defends.

�We put this out for bids right after the first of the year,� Sommervold said. �We received several replies, from lawyers in Clay, Union and Yankton counties.�

Peterson came in with the lowest figure at $28,500.

Circuit Court Judge Arthur Rusch was also involved in the approval process.

�We wanted him to make sure that we were hiring someone who could do the job,� Sommervold said. �The commissioners did not want to be put in the position of interviewing prospects and determining the competency of the lawyer we chose.�

Due to the timing of the commissioners� decision to hire a public defender, Peterson�s �term� will run for 10 months. In the future, contracts will be awarded for 12 months.

The public defender�s cases will include DWIs, minor drug offenses, theft and burglary. Capital offenses are not included. On the Tuesdays Peterson is in Vermillion, magistrate court will take up about half of the day, while the rest of the time will be open to visit with clients about their cases.

Peterson graduated from The University of South Dakota School of Law in 1975. He has practiced law in Beresford since then and will continue to maintain his private practice there while serving as the Clay County public defender.

After a 24-year association with the Frieberg Law Firm in Beresford, Peterson established his own practice in 1997.

�It�s a general practice, with emphasis on trial work,� Peterson said.

From 1981 to 1985, Peterson served as the Union County state�s attorney. During that time he prosecuted over 1,200 cases. In private practice, Peterson has defended everything from trespassing to kidnapping and attempted murder. He compares the difference between prosecutor and defender to debate competition, in which both sides of an issue must be argued.

Peterson is pleased with his new role and foresees that his time in Vermillion will be busy.

�There were about 60 court appointments last year in Clay County,� he said. �I anticipate that by mid-summer, it will be pretty steady here.�

In addition to helping the county with budgeting, the public defender position is advantageous to the attorney as well.

�Clay County has become another one of my clients with this job,� Peterson said. �And it works out well because it takes away the challenge of trying to juggle time between court appointments in several different counties. This way, I can spend time in one place.�

Peterson also views the new position as a good one for clients who need his help.

�Too often, court appointed attorneys just put in time through inexperience or lack of motivation,� he said. �As a result, the clients feel that they receive less than adequate representation. But every client who is appointed to me will get the representation they deserve because they�re entitled to it.�

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