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Louisville public defenders' union in jeopardy as merger with state approaches

The public defenders' bargaining committee has struggled to achieve concessions more than a year after attorneys unionized.
Jacob Munoz
The public defenders' bargaining committee has struggled to achieve concessions more than a year after attorneys unionized.

Attorneys voted to unionize over a year ago. But a drawn-out aftermath and looming state merger have jeopardized their efforts.

Cat Vining has spent more than three years representing Louisvillians who can’t afford attorneys. Much of that time has involved helping young people in need of counsel, a source of passion amid the stress of her work.

But in February, management told her she and a colleague were being moved out of the Louisville-Jefferson County Public Defender Corporation’s juvenile division. She would instead be working with adult defendants, in a division with the highest caseloads.

The transfer put the juvenile division into the hands of private attorneys contracted by the office. Vining said she was blindsided.

She believes the move was retaliation for her work with the attorneys’ union.

“Them moving me out of juvenile is something that I am pretty sure is motivated to try to get me to quit, because they all know how much I love juvenile. And I tell them all the time that I want to stay and I want to represent the kids,” Vining said.

Officials at the public defender corporation said in a statement to WAVE 3 that Vining was “[misrepresenting] the truth of the situation,” and that the private attorneys they hired “[had] as much or more experience in handling juvenile justice matters as anyone on the staff.”

The situation, which came after a similar charge made last year, was another example of hostility between the office and its unionized attorneys.

Vining and other public defenders successfully voted to form a union in January 2022, more than 20 years after a previous organizing attempt at the corporation succeeded but eventually fell apart.

Advocating for workplace changes, the group won big in an election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. Only five of the more than 50 eligible attorneys voted against unionizing with IBEW Local 369.

But the union has struggled to achieve bargaining progress, with leaders alleging the office is unwilling to budge on issues that organizers say are critical to their cause.

Not only that, the union was also put in limbo by House Bill 568, which became law in March. The bill passed the Kentucky legislature with almost exclusive Republican support. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear vetoed it, citing concerns that it “[appeared] to have been motivated by a desire to retaliate against [the union],” but both GOP-controlled chambers overrode his action.

The bill requires the Louisville office to fully merge with the state’s Department of Public Advocacy, which runs every other Kentucky county’s public defender team, by July 2024. Union leaders worry that change effectively puts an expiration date on their efforts, because the union was organized around a private corporation and not the state.

Vining, a member of the union’s bargaining committee, said conflict in the office existed well before the recent union effort.

“There are things that we have asked for years… and it falls on deaf ears,” she said, referencing concerns like high caseload numbers and feeling out of the loop on management’s decision-making. “Some of these are just simple changes that we've asked for, that we're just not allowed to have. And they won't give us reasons why.”

The conflict between the union and office adds to the already tense environment that Vining said public defenders operate in.

“You're overworked, your client just wants to get out of jail, and the judge isn't going to grant your bond motion… You're just trying to get the best deal you can at that time, instead of properly advocating,” she said. “And there are days where it wears on you, where you are like, ‘If I had seven more hours in the day, if I had 100 fewer cases, I know I could have worked that case harder and gotten a better deal for someone.’”

Work-related worries

Attorney Ryan Dischinger remembers his first interview with the public defender office nearly a decade ago. He said Executive Director and Chief Public Defender Leo Smith, who at the time was Deputy Chief Public Defender, had warned him the job wouldn’t be easy.

“I sat down for an interview and was told, ‘You don't want this job. It's a lot of hours, and it's low pay, and it's just what it is.’ And there's something wrong with me and I went, ‘So I really want this job,’” he recalled.

Dischinger has been at the office for more than eight years. He’s in its capital division, which involves cases where a defendant is eligible for the death penalty, and a member of the union bargaining committee. He said the job can be exciting but also demanding, and that attorneys deal with a work environment where leaders aren’t always communicative.

He said staff have expressed their frustrations over the years and want more say about handling issues like high caseloads. Dischinger and Vining said some of their colleagues have up to 300 active cases.

“I think that, by and large, a lot of people that have come through want the opportunity to be able to weigh in on, ‘What should we do about these big broader issues?’… In the whole time that I've been at the office, the very top of the office has not been great at actually having that conversation,” he said.

Public defenders in Louisville represent indigent clients, which can include cases at Jefferson County District Court.
Jacob Munoz
Public defenders in Louisville represent indigent clients, which can include cases at Jefferson County District Court.

Among other changes, the union also wants a voluntary anti-discrimination policy to be implemented. Vining said the group is worried that workplace rights surrounding gender identity and sexual orientation could be rolled back by the conservative U.S. Supreme Court, and wants protection.

They’re also pushing for the office to offer paid parental leave. Attorneys currently have to apply vacation time toward up to 12 weeks of family or medical leave, according to a document submitted by the office to Louisville Metro Council last year. Once that runs out, the rest of their leave is unpaid in accordance with the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Since forming last year, the public defender’s union has struggled to achieve concessions. Leaders said they’ve achieved only small victories, like better access to pay stubs and a military leave policy. Both the union and the office have also filed charges with the NLRB, alleging the other refuses to bargain in good faith.

Last week, the union offered management an “all or nothing contract proposal” to put an end to lengthy negotiations, according to Vining.

Dischinger and Vining said they believe the office’s leadership has resisted making union-supported changes because of a long-held expectation that turnover is inevitable. But they argued attorneys’ perspectives of their work are evolving.

“I don't think people come here just to get trial experience. I think they really truly believe in the mission of public defense, in the calling that every person deserves a voice,” Dischinger said.

In the meantime, the office has struggled to retain attorneys. That exodus includes a blow to the union effort: Vining estimated more than half of those who originally voted in favor of unionizing have left.

Chief Public Defender Smith said in an email that 54 of the 76 attorney positions are filled.

At a Louisville Metro Council budget hearing a year ago, Smith said the corporation saw significant turnover over the previous two years and that he had been contracting private attorneys to assist with the workload.

Smith argued that low salaries caused his and other public defenders’ offices nationwide to struggle with maintaining attorneys, leading to hard-to-manage case numbers. He declined to speak with LPM News for this story.

Damon Preston, who leads Kentucky’s Department of Public Advocacy, wrote in an April 2022 letter to Smith that the agency was allocating $800,000 to the Louisville office to address staff turnover.

“The hope is that that’s going to make a big difference,” Smith said at the hearing, adding the decision would raise entry-level starting salaries from $45,000 to $52,000 to match changes to state public defenders’ minimum pay.

The city and state have provided $4.5 million and $6 million, respectively, for the office in the current fiscal year.

Last year, state lawmakers allocated about $7 million in the state’s two-year budget to increase public defenders’ salaries. It came months after the Kentucky Public Advocacy Commission, which oversees the Department of Public Advocacy, sent a letter to Gov. Beshear asking for funding to improve attorney retention, a challenge faced by both state leaders and the Louisville office.

An opposition to organizing

Smith said during last year’s Metro Council meeting that his office had sought the Kentucky Supreme Court’s guidance on whether public defenders unionizing was lawful. The court subsequently declined to opine on the matter.

“Contrary to what has and is being said, I’m not opposed to unions. However, I have legal, ethical and fiduciary responsibilities to our indigent clients,” he said.

According to documents obtained by LPM News, Smith sent several emails to attorneys during the organizing campaign in 2022 urging them to vote against the union. He said the union could not guarantee any workplace improvements, unlike management, and argued that abstaining from the vote was equivalent to supporting the union.

At least a couple of the office’s public defenders also pushed back against the organizing campaign, alleging to colleagues in emails that they felt excluded by private discussions and that changes to working hours could harm clients. Vining pushed back on that claim, arguing that while organizers had kept union talks under wraps, they had also reached out to the two attorneys.

One of the anti-union attorneys expressed concern in late 2021, before the union vote, that collective bargaining could lead to the local office merging with the state. A year later, the merger became a reality when HB 568 passed the Kentucky legislature.

The legislation fell almost exclusively along party lines: no Republicans voted against the bill, while only one Democrat voted for it.

The corporation and the Public Advocacy Commission supported the bill in a joint statement, saying the move had been anticipated for decades and would offer more resources for the Louisville office.

“Now is the right time to make the merger and consolidation a reality,” they wrote, citing reasons such as financial and legislative support.

HB 568 also includes an amendment that non-managerial employees at the Louisville office can’t be fired without cause until the merger is complete. Democratic Senator Cassie Chambers Armstrong of Louisville proposed the change along with an amendment to delay the merger’s end date to mid-2026, but that latter revision was not adopted.

The Louisville Public Defenders Union petitioned the public to send letters in support of their efforts to the corporation's board of directors.
Christina Wood
Courtesy of Christina Wood
The Louisville Public Defenders Union petitioned the public to send letters in support of their efforts to the corporation's board of directors.

Smith said in an email to LPM News that he was not consulted by state lawmakers about the Republican-sponsored bill. He added that he had talked with the mayor’s office in the past to promote a merger, but had not spoken with current Mayor Craig Greenberg’s administration.

Twenty of the office’s attorneys and more than a dozen support staff signed a letter in opposition to the bill. The group said it was concerned about the consequences of eliminating city funding for the office and the effect of a “rushed” merger.

Dischinger said in an email that he believes the bill spells an eventual end to the attorneys’ union, subverting a push to transform the Louisville office that has lasted more than a year.

“Our focus at this point is having a voice in the transition. The IBEW is continuing to represent us all the way up until they can't anymore,” he wrote.

Vining and Dischinger added that staff expect to meet with Preston, the state’s lead public advocate this month.

It’s not clear how the merger will ultimately affect Louisville public defenders’ job satisfaction. Vining said two positive changes could be pay raises and the introduction of compensation time for the city attorneys, while Dischinger said he hopes the transition will lead to a workplace culture that keeps staff on board.

In the year-plus since forming a union, attorneys have received local public support. Vining said community members had sent more than 500 letters to the corporation’s board of directors in support of the union, and that Greenberg attended the union’s one-year celebration.

Before state lawmakers forced an essential end to the union, she said she believed it would contribute to a positive legacy that organizing efforts have had in workplaces.

“I didn't grow up in a union household. But as you get older, you kind of look around and you see the importance of unions,” she said. “And you can see the way that they have a very lasting effect for generations to come.”

Jacob is LPM's Business and Development Reporter. Email Jacob at jmunoz@lpm.org.