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CO Public Defenders Try Unionizing, But Face Legal Barrier

Despite a state law banning collective bargaining for employees in the state's judicial system, Colorado public defenders are pushing to form a union in 21 regional offices, the Denver Post reports. Leaders of Colorado Defenders Union, which will affiliate with Communications Workers of America Local 7799, say they hope their collective power will be strong enough to force their bosses and the state legislature to listen, despite the unionizing ban.

The union seeks to represent up to 800 lawyers, paralegals, investigators, social workers and administrative staff across the state, said Kiyomi Bolick, a co-chair of the organizing effort and a lead deputy public defender in Steamboat Springs. Office managers and supervising attorneys will not be included. The two biggest issues for Colorado’s public defender employees are increasing pay for the staff that supports the lawyers and lightening the caseloads of those attorneys, Bolick said. The lawyers want caps on caseloads because it’s hard to provide adequate legal counsel to everyone when they are juggling too many clients. “We can’t say we have a conflict with a case because we are overburdened or we lack resources,” Bolick said. “A public defender is not allowed to say, ‘Judge, I have so many cases right now that I can’t possibly represent one more.'” The American Bar Association in 2020 reported that unionizing within public defenders’ offices is a growing trend. A bill that would have allowed public-employee unions in Colorado was gutted in the 2022 legislative session.


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