A few months ago, I wrote a story about the controversy surrounding the hire of a new chief of the appellate division at the State Office of the Minnesota Board of Public Defense. (story here)
After I finished the story, I made a note to follow up on it. Merchant declined to comment for the story saying that he would like to be in the new job for a while before talking to a reporter. I agreed to call him in a few months.
Last week I got a call from someone who did not leave his name. He suggested that it was time to revisit the appellate division. He said morale was low at the office and several attorneys are looking for a new job. He said Merchant is a fine person, but simply under qualified for the job and as a result the other attorneys and managers in the office have been forced to pick up the slack, at the expense of their clients. The caller said he didn’t work there.
I called Kevin Kajer, the chief administrator for the state Public Defender’s Office. I asked him about the environment at the appeals division and how the attorneys were responding to Merchant.
“It’s going really well,” Kajer told me. “David has moved in there and people have responded. He’s worked with them to develop a collegial work relationship and he’s co-chairing at least one case with one of the folks who wrote the letters [back in February.] I think it’s working out well [at the office.] Sometimes the uncertainty is worse than what actually happens. The people find out this guy isn’t coming in here to tear the place apart.”
This is about what I expected to hear from Kajer. Nothing against him, but I wasn’t counting on him telling me the inmates are running the asylum and the place is falling apart.
Next, I phoned or e-mailed a few of the attorneys that wrote the letters of protest and that I interviewed for the original story. I didn’t hear back from two, and one said she had to think about what she was comfortable saying on the record. I also called Merchant. He called me back and left a voice mail.
He said he wasn’t ready to talk to the media at this point and he declined comment. He suggested I follow up with him later. He did say he is “starting to develop relationships with the staff.” I also called a member of the state board of public defense. He told me he doesn’t know how it’s going at the office. He said he hasn’t heard much, though he has spoke with Merchant a few times, but he is not keeping a closer eye on that office even with all the controversy back in February.
Everyone agrees that Merchant had the least amount of appellate experience of the four applicants. The question is why he was hired over the other three. Was it a gut feeling by the board? Or was it because the board wanted to bring someone in from the outside rather than promote from within? Or was Merchant clearly the best candidate? Every time I ask that question, I am told essentially the same thing: All four applicants were qualified, we just chose Merchant.
So there you have it. A rather lengthy account of what’s going in at the appellate division of the Minnesota Public Defenders Office.