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Minnesota public defenders reach deal to avert strike

Public defenders were set to go on strike as early as Tuesday across Minnesota.
Credit: KARE 11
Minnesota lawmakers are considering several proposals designed to close loopholes KARE 11 explosed.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota public defenders reached a tentative contract agreement, union officials said Saturday, averting a walkout that threatened to bring much of the state court system to a standstill.

Negotiators for the unionized attorneys and the Minnesota Board of Public Defense met with a state mediator Friday. Gus Froemke, a spokesman for Teamsters Local 320, which represents the 470 public defenders and 200 support staff members, said the agreement was reached shortly before midnight.

Public defenders were set to go on strike as early as Tuesday across Minnesota. The attorneys said they have been pushed to the brink by routinely high caseloads that have become unmanageable amid the coronavirus pandemic. Legal system observers say the same pressures are being felt across the U.S.

The union said the tentative agreement includes cost of living adjustments through 2023. The deal includes a 3.5% retroactive pay increase from July 1, 2021, and an additional 3% increase after July 1 of this year. Both parties also agreed to pursue a supplemental budget allocation from the Legislature this year.

“After over nine months of hard bargaining for fair working conditions and better pay, both of which are essential to retaining good quality attorneys and support staff, we are excited to have reached a deal with the Board that will help us more justly represent Minnesota’s indigent defendants,” public defender Ginny Barron said in a statement.

Defense attorneys will vote on the contract within two weeks, the union said.

Large-scale public defender strikes are almost unprecedented. Attorneys held a one-day walkout in Ventura County, California, in 1995, but in many states, public defenders aren't unionized. In many jurisdictions, most are private practice attorneys who defend indigent clients part-time.

By coincidence, Friday was the 59th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark “Gideon” decision, which held that states are constitutionally required to provide attorneys for criminal defendants who can’t afford them.

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