National Center for State Courts develops caseload model for SADO and MAACS

From the June 2024 Criminal Defense Newsletter

To provide effective representation, apply enough time and attention to each client’s case, comply with ethical rules, and sustain their own health and well-being, appellate public defenders need reasonable workloads. That said, quantifying a reasonable workload can be remarkably difficult. In 1973, 10 years after Gideon v. Wainwright,1 the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals put out the first national public defense caseload standards. Since then, developing updated caseload standards has largely happened at the state level. As the National Public Defense Workload Study published in 2023 recognized, “[t]he gold standard for analyzing attorney need is a weighted caseload model. . . . Substantive law and court rules and procedures have an impact on the amount of time attorneys require to represent their clients. Because these factors can vary substantially from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, the most accurate weighted caseload model is developed specifically for an individual state or jurisdiction.”2

In 2022, the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office (SADO) contracted with the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) to develop a weighted caseload model for SADO appellate attorneys and Michigan Appellate Assigned Counsel System (MAACS) roster attorneys. NCSC is an independent non-profit corporation with more than three decades of experience developing weighted caseload models for judges, court staff, and public defenders. The goal of the caseload study was to develop clear and objective caseload standards to establish the number of appellate defenders and roster attorneys required to ensure SADO and MAACS’ clients receive constitutionally effective representation. While SADO had caseload standards in place at the time of this study, they were over 40 years old and had not been adjusted to account for modern criminal defense practice including changes in policy, technology, and case law.

A weighted caseload model is grounded in the understanding that different types (and sizes) of cases vary in complexity and the amount of work they generate. A weighted caseload model consists of (1) a set of case weights that specify the average amount of time required to provide quality representation in each type of case and (2) an attorney year value that quantifies the amount of time one full-time appellate defender has available for client representation in one work year, accounting for non-working times and non-case-related work. The model can be translated into numerical standards for the number of cases of a single case type that can be handled per attorney, per year.

The caseload study was a multi-phase project. To start, SADO assembled a Workload Assessment Advisory Committee comprised of SADO management, senior SADO public defenders, experienced MAACS roster attorneys, and other stakeholders, to oversee the project and make policy decisions regarding the content of the final weighted caseload model. The next step was to gather as much data as possible. SADO provided several years of appointment data; MAACS provided voucher and billing data; NCSC conducted focus groups with SADO and MAACS attorneys to gather information on how cases are handled; and SADO attorneys engaged in a time-keeping study. Following the data collection period, the time study and appointment data were used to calculate preliminary case weights.

In September 2022, NCSC convened a quality adjustment or “Delphi” panel with SADO attorneys. The panel reviewed the preliminary case weights developed from the time study data and compared those to SADO’s existing weighted caseload model. The data showed that the average trial appeal transcript is approximately 600 pages, and that, on average, SADO attorneys were spending 92.5 hours on a standard trial appeal – considerably more than the 48.2 hours allotted for by SADO’s existing weighted caseload model or 45 hours, the presumptive caps under the MAACS system. The panel was also asked to identify specific case types and case activities where more (or less) time is needed to provide quality representation.

Ultimately, after considering the workload adjustments proposed during the Delphi panel and the way those adjustments would impact the maximum number of cases each attorney could handle per year, the Advisory Committee chose to adopt the preliminary case weights for jury trial appeals and keep the relative weight for a plea appeal at .375 of the baseline weight for a standard trial appeal (1.0), consistent with SADO’s current model. In other words, the new caseload standards will be representative of SADO’s current practice but do not incorporate additional, wished-for adjustments.

From there, NCSC considered the new case weights and attorney year value to make recommendations about the maximum number of cases (of each case type) a SADO or MAACS attorney should be appointed each year. The final report3 recommended a maximum case weight per year is 14.8, which translates into roughly 15 standard trial appeals per year. In addition to the new caseload standards, the report proposed an implementation plan. NCSC recommended that the new weighted caseload model be implemented through an incremental, three-year process and that both SADO and MAACS grow to be able to realize the recommendations. NCSC further recommended that SADO expand to hire enough attorneys to significantly increase the percentage of overall appeals handled by SADO public defenders and reduce the overall assignment pressure on the MAACS roster.

So, what comes next? SADO is working to grow its public defender division to meet the appellate indigent defense caseload standards developed by the NCSC weighted caseload study. In addition to more assistant defenders, we will bring on more investigators, mitigation specialists, and paralegals to meet client needs. SADO will also continue to collect data to ensure a fair distribution of cases, accurate information on caseloads, and the long-term needs of the organization.

Katherine Marcuz

Managing Attorney, SADO


Endnotes

1 372 US 335 (1963).
2 Nicholas M. Pace, et al., National Public Defense Workload Study (RAND Corp. 2023), p ix.
3 Cynthia G. Lee, et al., Michigan State Appellate Defender Office Workload Assessment (NCSC 2024).