Constitutional Law

Federal judge finds 2 cities' public defender programs deficient; will he OK a federal monitor?

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Two cities in Washington state’s Skagit County systematically violated the rights of indigent individuals through their inadequate public defender programs and were “willfully blind” to problems caused by cost-cutting, a federal judge has ruled.

In a Wednesday opinion (PDF) resulting from a June bench trial of a groundbreaking class action, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik agreed with the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union that Burlington and Mount Vernon had not provided adequate representation to indigent defendants, reports the Associated Press. Now the big question is what solution he will approve to resolve the situation.

The ACLU characterized two overworked public defenders, who were hired on a part-time basis through private law firms and expected to handle up to 1,000 misdemeanor cases each annually, as offering little more than a “meet ’em, greet ’em and plead ’em” representation, the Seattle Times reported in September.

And, in an unusual move, the U.S. Department of Justice, while not taking a position on the merits of the case, filed a statement of interest (PDF) in Wilbur v. Mount Vernon in August. It suggested that Lasnik appoint a federal monitor to oversee the provision of public defender services in the two cities, should he rule in the ACLU’s favor. If imposed, this remedy would be the first federal court takeover of a state public-defender system, the Times reports.

If Lasnik appoints a federal monitor, this could give the DOJ leverage to pressure jurisdictions throughout the country to improve substandard public defender systems elsewhere, Jessica Eaglin of the Brennan Center for Justice told the newspaper. She serves as counsel for justice programs at the nonpartisan policy institute, which is part of New York University School of Law.

“It would allow others to bring suit and push forward indigent defense reform through the courts, not through legislation,” said Eaglin of the possibility of an unprecedented federal takeover of the public defender system in Burlington and Mount Vernon.

Last year, the Washington State Bar adopted new standards calling for misdemeanor caseloads for individual lawyers not to exceed 400 cases annually. However, the DOJ seems to be interested in looking at workload factors, too, recognizing that some cases require more time than others, Professor Jonathan Rapping of the John Marshall Law School in Atlanta told the Times. Rapping founded and is president of Gideon’s Promise, a national indigent defense advocacy group.

See also: “Class Action Says Too-High Public Defender Caseload in Muni Court Denies Right to Counsel” “Did cities violate right to counsel by providing ‘a warm body with a law degree’?” “How to Meet New Caseload Limit for Wash. Public Defenders? Some Towns May File Fewer Cases”

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