New Vermont Law Makes Public Defenders Into Immigration Lawyers
By David Jaroslav | June 7, 2018
The Green Mountain State of Vermont recently became the first in the nation to authorize, and in some cases actually require, that its taxpayer-funded public defenders appear in immigration proceedings in addition to state criminal court.
Vermont Senate Bill (S.) 237 was introduced by Senator Debbie Ingram (D-Chittenden) on January 3. As amended at the recommendation of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the bill first passed the Senate on February 14 by a vote of 28-2, with only Senators Carolyn Branagan (R-Franklin) and Randolph Brock (R-Franklin) voting No while the chamber’s other five Republicans joined all 21 Democrats and the two members of the “Vermont Progressive Party” in supporting it. The House amended it further and passed it on April 10, 97-40, with multiple Representatives explaining their opposition based both on lack of funding and on the public defenders’ lack of expertise in the complex subject of immigration law.
The Senate passed the amended version on April 18, by a voice vote. It was sent to Governor Phil Scott (R) on May 21. He signed it into law on May 25, and it takes effect on July 1.
The bill as originally introduced stated that “needy persons” had a “right” to counsel in immigration proceedings and specifically required public defenders to be appointed for them. As it emerged from the process after multiple amendments, the bill now:
- Requires that public defenders “shall” meet professional obligations to their clients “through representation that may extend to federal immigration court,”: in other words, requiring public defenders to appear in immigration court but most likely limiting this only to pre-existing clients they were already appointed to represent in state criminal court;
- Makes clear that public defenders may appear in federal court “in or with respect to a matter arising out of or relating to immigration status”; and
- Grants immunity from liability to attorneys contracting with public defenders to the same extent as if the contract attorneys were public defenders themselves.
The Vermont Legislative Joint Fiscal Office estimated that the bill as originally introduced would require hiring at least two new full-time attorneys and one full-time investigator, and cost state taxpayers between $301,900 and $407,875. That may not sound a lot, however the state’s general fund operating budget, not including education and transportation, is only around $1.5 billion a year. Moreover, the costs to the taxpayers may actually be higher than anticipated since the Joint Fiscal Office made numerous assumptions to determine the budget. Ironically, the legislature decided to burden Vermont taxpayers despite numerous nonprofit organizations already representing these individuals.
This new law siphons public defender money and resources away from criminal defense clients who have a constitutional right to representation to aliens who don’t.
According to FAIR’s 2017 cost study, The Fiscal Burden of Illegal Immigration On United States Taxpayers, Vermont taxpayers already spend over $33 million a year in services for illegal aliens, upwards of $5900 per alien. Evidently, the legislature and Governor Scott think that still isn’t enough.