David Duke

Former Region 9 Deputy Public Defender David A. Duke is shown in February 2015. Duke is no longer the deputy public defender for Yellowstone County.

CASEY PAGE/Gazette Staff

Another region's deputy chief public defender has taken over local duties as the State Public Defender Office has continued to decline comment on the exit of former deputy chief public defender of Region 9 David A. Duke. 

Deputy Chief Public Defender of Region 7 Douglas Day will serve as the interim deputy chief public defender for Region 9, which includes Yellowstone, Big Horn, Carbon and Stillwater counties.

Day already oversees seven counties in Region 7: Meagher, Judith Basin, Golden Valley, Fergus, Petroleum, Wheatland and Musselshell counties. His office is located in Fergus County.

Duke left his office Friday without a clear explanation for his departure.

Duke was appointed to his position in 2008 by then-State Chief Public Defender Randi Hood. At the time, Duke replaced Billings attorney Kris Copenhaver, who was deputy chief for two years prior to Duke taking the job. He worked several high-profile cases in Yellowstone County, including the serial rape trial of Toby Griego and multiple murder trials. His office was strained by a growing caseload. 

Day was a law clerk before becoming regional director in 2006. Day, like Duke, was appointed by Hood and has held his position for about 10 years. Day said he will focus on having a client-centered practice in Yellowstone County.

Speeding up processes

The responsibilities of the deputy chief public defender include communicating with attorneys, other local criminal justice agencies and attorneys' clients, as well as making sure the public defender's office runs smoothly.

Duke had been working with Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito on speeding up daily motions before he left, Twito said. Four blocks of time are set aside each week for judges to hear attorneys' uncontested motions in open court, from arraignment to sentencing. Those set blocks of time can start at 9:30 a.m. and stretch until 1 p.m. some days.

Day will meet with Twito on Tuesday to discuss speeding up law and motion, among other topics. Day wouldn't give an exact number of cases he was taking over from Duke or how many he has from Region 7, but he said it's a rural county that doesn't have the high case volume Yellowstone County does.

Personnel issues

A portion of Duke's clients were previous clients of Erik Moore, a former public defender in Yellowstone County who also left the office without any explanation from the State Public Defender's Office. 

Yellowstone County District Judge Russell Fagg confirmed at the time the Public Defender's Office fired Moore in August, The Gazette reported. The Public Defender's Office never confirmed they had fired Moore or why he left. Moore's clients were transferred to Duke at that time. The office said Moore's privacy outweighed the public's right to know why he no longer worked for the office.

Chief Public Defender William Hooks has said the same thing regarding Duke's departure. 

"I cannot comment on personnel issues," Hooks said in an email Monday. "The right to individual privacy outweighs the public's right to know."

The office will not confirm whether Duke was fired or resigned.

In October, the office also couldn't give a clear answer regarding the employment status of Gary Quigg, a legal assistant who was brought before Montana Board of Probation and Parole for selling methamphetamine. Quigg had violated the conditions of his parole after he was released from prison, where he was serving time for a homicide conviction.

Case load

In the eight years since Duke became the Region 9 director, the case load from Yellowstone County has more than doubled.

For fiscal year 2015, Region 9 handled about 7,500 cases — 22 percent of the state's workload. Every public defender in the office except for two was assigned more work than state target recommendations, including case loads more than 50 percent higher than recommended. The office has 20 full-time attorney positions.

Due to the large and continued growth of the Office of Public Defenders in the face of a Montana crime spike, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock assigned a task force to begin looking at the operations of the State Public Defender's office. 

Richard Gillespie, chair of the Public Defender Commission, said the office will enter the next legislative session without a predetermined budget. The office will have to justify not only its 250 full-time employees and its budget, but also a request for 25 new employees. This type of "ground-up" approach is supposed to allow for more transparency about the office's spending. 

"We believe we are delivering the minimum level of representation at the moment, and with more resources we could do better than we are now," Gillespie said. 

Gillespie said the office will face changes in the coming two years as it attempts to structure itself better to provide a greater range of services to its clients. Duke's departure has nothing to do with this restructuring, however. 

"It's just a matter of things that developed that can't be discussed," Gillespie said. 

Duke operated a private law firm in Billings before becoming the head of the local public defender's office. He also did legal work for the public defender's office representing juveniles in Youth Court. 

Yellowstone County District Judge Michael Moses said Duke was a good lawyer with an incredible amount of institutional knowledge. 

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Justice reporter for The Billings Gazette.