Trials & Litigation

Did cities violate right to counsel by providing 'a warm body with a law degree'?

At closing arguments Tuesday in a trial over the public defenders provided by two Washington state muncipalities to low-income individuals charged with crimes, counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union asked a federal judge to find that “a warm body with a law degree doesn’t cut it.”

But the defense said there was no evidence to show defendants had suffered from the work done by two part-time lawyers handling 2,000 cases annually or that Burlington and Mt. Vernon routinely violated the right to counsel, the Associated Press reports.

“Where’s the wrongfully convicted individual?” asked attorney Andrew Cooley, who is representing the municipal side of the Seattle case. “Where is the evidence that disappeared because they were too slow to run to the jail to interview somebody?”

Attorney Toby Marshall argued on behalf of the Washington state chapter of the ACLU, asking U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik to find that the public defender system in place from 2005 to 2012 was inadequate. The ACLU also wants a monitor put in place, at an annual cost of $50,000, to see that lawyers meet with clients in a timely manner, review evidence and prepare for trial rather than simply helping clients make guilty pleas.

The cities have already made significant changes to their public defender programs in response to new state supreme court rules that mandate minimum standards for lawyers deemed to be government employees.

Lasnik said he expects to rule by the end of the summer.

See also: “Trial begins in federal class action over public defender caseloads in municipal court” “Stop-and-frisk project reaches ‘appalling’ conclusion: No right to misdemeanor trial in Bronx, NY”

Seattle Times (opinion): “Editorial: Don’t rush revamp of King County public defenders”

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