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Status and plans for Public Defenders Office outlined in ASG’s Comprehensive Report

David Vargas

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Faced with a shortage of attorneys, the Public Defender’s Office out-sourced cases to private attorneys in 2022, which has been described by the Administration as a “challenging year” for the office, which provides legal representation to indigent criminal defendants in misdemeanor, felony, traffic, immigration and juvenile cases, and other matters as directed and appointed by the Court.

This is according to the 2022 Governor’s State of the Territory Comprehensive Report, distributed to lawmakers last month and also made available to federal agencies, such as the U.S Department of Interior.

At the start of 2022, the PD’s Office was staffed with only two lawyers and by March, former Public Defender Michael White was the only attorney in the PD’s Office tending to cases in both District Court and High Court. In June 2022, White resigned.

“As with all other specialized fields, the Public Defender’s Office is not immune to workforce shortages,” the report says.

It notes that the territory has and continues to face the challenges of inadequate specialized staff  — lawyers, doctors, engineers etc. — to fully service constituents.

The report claimed that the Lemanu-Talauega Administration has “prioritized and implemented salary increases for specialized fields as a way to hire and retain critical staff.”

In July, David Vargas was appointed Acting Public Defender and later approved by the Fono. Since being appointed, the new Public Defender has been able to outsource over 100 cases to local private attorneys to assist the PD’s Office.

It explained that the PD’s Office secured temporary contracts with four local private attorneys to provide legal representation to 105 indigent clients. Additionally, a local Assistant Public Defender will be fully on board by the middle of this year.

Other accomplishments in 2022 by the PD’s Office, as summarized in the report are:

•           Federal funding has been secured to hire an Investigator/ Interpreter and the position is ready to be filled.

•           Federal funding has been secured to facilitate the move of the Office of the Public Defender from the A.P. Lutali Executive Office Building in Utulei to the Tedi of Samoa Building in Fagatogo. Projected move-out date is February 2023. (Samoa News notes that the Tedi of Samoa building is across the street from the High Court and District Court buildings.)

•           Federal Funding has been secured to purchase and implement a case management system database; and, this purchase is pending.