By Cat Ordoñez, Policy Counsel

Aurora’s Public Defender Office (APDO) has been the gold standard of indigent defense models for over 30 years. Late last year, Aurora City Council issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a private law firm to replace the APDO. It did so despite objections from the ACLU of Colorado, which urged the city not to eliminate the public defender’s office on constitutional grounds, statutory grounds, and because of the financial hardship it would pose to taxpayers. 

Although Aurora is only one of two cities in Colorado to have a freestanding public defender’s office, it has unique needs for its public defender’s office: 

  1. The city of Aurora has made policing and incarceration a priority. More policing and more incarceration mean more criminal cases and more indigent defense. 
  2. Unlike most municipalities in the state, Aurora has chosen to institute mandatory minimum sentences for municipal crimes, including motor vehicle theft, failure to appear in court, and shoplifting. 
  3. The city of Aurora has chosen to heavily prosecute domestic violence cases — over a thousand cases per year, which are much more complex and sensitive than other municipal crimes. 
  4. The Colorado Attorney General has found the Aurora Police Department has a pattern and practice of racially biased policing and excessive use of force. Aurora’s Public Defender’s Office has played a critical role in uncovering systemic abuses by the city’s police department and prosecutors. 

Aurora City Council sought to eliminate its public defender's office through a flat fee contract. Under a flat fee contract, a lawyer receives a flat fee regardless of how much they work on a case. These contracts encourage lawyers to do as little work as possible. That means the lawyer’s financial interest is on a collision course with the client’s constitutional right to adequate representation. Flat fee contracts are extremely problematic. They have been rejected by the American Bar Association and banned in several states, including Idaho, Michigan, South Dakota, and Washington. 

The ACLU of Colorado joined with other partners and community members to advocate for the continued existence of the APDO. The coalition aimed to raise community awareness of the importance of the APDO, to inform the criminal defense bar about the bad deal the city of Aurora was offering, and to stop the city from privatizing the public defender. 

Coalition members packed the Aurora City Council meeting on February 25, 2024, along with many individuals signed up to testify in support of Councilmember Allison Coombs’ resolution to repeal the RFP. That evening, Aurora City Council suspended its own meeting rules and denied testimony from people who had signed up to speak in support of the Aurora Public Defender’s Office. 

Despite the city’s efforts to silence us, its privatization efforts were fruitless. Aurora received zero bids from law firms to take over the public defender's office. The word about the city's bait-and-switch got out to private attorneys in the criminal defense bar, who stood with us in support of the APDO by choosing not to submit a bid. 

This was a huge victory for our community. Alongside our community partners, we'll continue to defend the APDO from underhanded attacks.