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Public defender in Fitch trial praised – but the job's challenges continue

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Lauri Traub had one of the more high-profile cases a public defender in Minnesota may get – defending the Twin Cities man accused of killing Mendota Heights police officer Scott Patrick, a murder suspect so widely reviled by the public his trial had to be moved.

The Pioneer Press detailed the small, yet forceful steps Traub took to ensure her client, Brian Fitch Sr., got a fair trial.

Traub is an accomplished lawyer.

Her work helped lead to the shut down and reorganization of the beleaguered St. Paul drug crime lab in 2012, Sun This Week reported.

In 2013, she was named Attorney of the Year by Minnesota Lawyer.

And this year she took on the high-profile Fitch case in such a professional manner, that the family of officer Patrick actually thanked her (and her co-counsel) afterward for providing such a "vigorous defense," the Pioneer Press reports.

But awards and bigger cases don't mean a bigger salary for a public defender such as Traub.

The Hamline University School of Law graduate spoke with the Star Tribune about her side job as a waitress, at the hotel and restaurant Jake's near the Mall of America. That included a busy stint, mid-trial, when pond hockey players swarmed in from out of town, a plus for her since they tip well, she told the paper.

Challenges facing public defenders

Traub was first hired by the Public Defense Board in 1997.

She earned about $67,000 there last year, according to state payroll data. (FindingData pegs the average salary on that defense board at about $53,000.)

The median salary for a private practice attorney in 2013? About $114,000, the U.S. News and World Report says.

Then there's that waitress job to help her finances. For a public defender, having side work isn't uncommon.

Corey Sherman, a public defender in Minneapolis, told the National Law Journal "almost everyone" in her office had a second job. Sherman tutored law students and bartended weddings on the side.

For her, it was a combination of low starting pay for a public defender, and having to pay off student loans.

In addition, Traub and her colleagues are taking on more and more cases.

In 2010, MinnPost outlined the public defender "calamity" in Minnesota. Funding cuts sliced away staff members at those attorneys' offices, leaving the ones still there to cope with twice the amount of case work recommended by the American Bar Association.

The numbers, according to MinnPost: 423 full-time public defenders in 2008. Down to about 370 the next year. And then whittled even further, down to 350 by 2010.

So why do it?

Traub, Sherman and many others have repeatedly said the same thing: to defend the Constitution.

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