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Constitutional Law

Class Action Says Too-High Public Defender Caseload in Muni Court Denies Right to Counsel

Posted Jun 21, 2011 5:30 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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Three inmates have filed a class action suit against two cities in Washington state, contending that excessive public defender caseloads in municipal court have deprived them and other defendants of their constitutional right to counsel.

The Skagit County Superior Court suit, which was filed by Toby Marshall of Terrell Marshall Daudt & Willie and Matt Zuchetto of the Scott Law Group, contends that Burlington and Mount Vernon give lip service to the need to provide public defenders for low-income individuals charged with crimes. However, by contracting jointly with only two attorneys to handle 2,100 misdemeanor cases annually—in addition to the rest of their private practice—the cities effectively deny lawyers to the defendants by stretching them too thin, explains a law firm press release.

A Seattle Times article provides additional details.

One of the two lawyers who works for the cities, Richard Sybrandy, handles about 1,000 public defender cases and another 1,000 private criminal cases annually, the newspaper says. While the 15-year practitioner agrees that his caseload is "too high," he also says he achieves good results for his clients.

The state bar association recommends that public defenders handle no more than 400 such cases a year. In Seattle, an unusual limitation restricts the municipal court caseload for public defenders to 380 representations.

While most cities don't do this, the restriction is appropriate, law professor Bob Boruchowitz of Seattle University tells the Times.

"There are 1,600 to 1,800 billable hours a year, so if you are doing 900 cases, you've got 2 hours per case," says Boruchowitz, who formerly directed a public-defense organization in King County, Wash. That, of course, assumes that the public defender is working full-time; on a part-time schedule, it would be approximately one hour, or even less, per case.

"When the bulk of your cases are resolved in a half-hour or hour, you are not being able to do the work that needs to be done to represent someone," he states.

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