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Sullivan County, Tenn., is approved one of 19 new public defenders included in the state's budget


BLOUNTVILLE – As an elected public official, Sullivan County Public Defender Steve Wallace knows how hard it is to get more money from Nashville.

"If you miss the boat" when legislators are handing out money, he said, sometimes the boat doesn’t come around again for a long time.

But Friday, Wallace was in Nashville and learned one of 19 new assistant public defender positions included in this year’s state budget will go to Sullivan County.

It was music to his ears, but it doesn’t solve all his problems.

"According to their chart, we need six new lawyers," Wallace said in a telephone interview while traveling home Friday afternoon. "They had it calculated in a variety of ways."

"They gave certain time values to certain types of cases, and they also looked at a percentage of need based on case loads," he said.

"Basically any way that you cut it, we came up pretty high. We were sixth overall in the need category – how many lawyers you have and how much work you have. We came up as the sixth-neediest office in the state," Wallace said.

He said this is the first time since the Sullivan County Public Defenders Office was created in 1989 that the state has provided a position based on need.

"In the past, there’s been other factors considered," Wallace said.

Including Wallace and the new position, there are nine state-funded public defenders and two county-funded public defenders for a total of 11 lawyers in his office.

He hopes to add one more this year if the County Commission approves a request for more county dollars.

Wallace said the position won’t cost taxpayers money because a portion of his office is supported through court fees.

He made the request based on his calculations of the fee-generated revenue available for his office.

"We’re running a surplus. The money’s there," he said, but the county must approve the expenditure.

"Getting the new state lawyer will give us another one to send to Judge [Jerry] Beck’s court," Wallace said. "If the county follows through, we’ll put that position in there full time, and we’ll be able to have another full-time lawyer to go to General Sessions Court."

Wallace said this is just the third time since 1989 the state has created a substantial number of public defender positions.

In addition to Sullivan County, which makes up the Second Judicial District, Wallace said the First Judicial District and the Third Judicial District each received one position.

"Everybody will benefit," Wallace said of the new Sullivan County slot.

"Court won’t drag on so long and clients will feel like they have a lawyer who has time to talk to them," he said.

rcampbell@bristolnews.com | (276) 645-2558