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U.S. Supreme Court

SCOTUS drops speedy trial case; dissent cites ‘systemic problems’ in Louisiana indigent defense

Posted Apr 30, 2013 5:40 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The U.S. Supreme Court’s dismissal of a case concerning a seven-year trial delay has produced a dissent calling attention to possible "systemic problems" in Louisiana's indigent defense system.

The court dismissed the case as improvidently granted on Monday. The petitioner, Jonathan Edward Boyer, waited seven years for trial on a charge that he had killed a man who offered a ride to Boyer and his brother. The court accepted the case to decide whether the state’s failure to fund his counsel for five of the seven years should be weighed against the state for speedy trial purposes.

The Louisiana Court of Appeals had said that most of the seven-year delay in Boyer's case was caused by lack of defense funding. But the record showed that most of the delay was caused by defense requests for continuances, while additional delay was due to defense motions and other events, including Hurricane Rita, according to a concurrence (PDF) supporting the dismissal. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote the concurrence, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

A judge had appointed a lawyer to represent Boyer, but a hearing on which branch of state government was responsible for paying the fees was put off for about 20 months at the urging of the defense, according to the concurrence. Another 15 months of delay was due to trial court continuances that drew no objection from the defense. The state eventually dropped its demand for the death penalty, and a lawyer from the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center took over as lead counsel. Boyer was convicted of second-degree murder and armed robbery.

“The record simply does not support the proposition that much—let alone ‘most’—of the delay was caused by the state’s failure to fund the defense,” Alito wrote.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the dismissal in an opinion joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan. Sotomayor said she would have deferred to the Louisiana court’s factual determination on the reason for the delay. The question, Sotomayor said, should be resolved in Boyer’s favor.

She also saw a larger issue. “The court’s failure to resolve this case is especially regrettable, because it does not seem to be an isolated one,” Sotomayor said. “Rather, Boyer’s case appears to be illustrative of larger, systemic problems in Louisiana. The Louisiana Supreme Court has suggested on multiple occasions that the state’s failure to provide funding for indigent defense contributes to extended pretrial detentions.”

The public defender system “seems to be significantly understaffed,” Sotomayor added. She cited a report that found the caseload of New Orleans public defenders is about twice the number recommended by ABA standards. She also noted an estimate that in one parish, the PD caseload is 528 percent of the ABA standard.

“Against this backdrop,” Sotomayor wrote, “the court’s silence in this case is particularly unfortunate. Conditions of this kind cannot persist without endangering constitutional rights.”

Prior coverage:

ABA Journal: "Fifty years after Gideon, lawyers still struggle to provide counsel to the indigent"

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