Criminal Justice

Public defenders can reject cases because of excessive workloads, state supreme court rules

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Updated: The Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Miami-Dade County public defender’s office could withdraw from a large chunk of felony cases because of excessive workloads, the Miami Herald reported.

Describing what it called a “damning indictment” of representation for poor criminal defendants, the court divided 5-2 on the issue, with Justice Peggy Quince writing a majority opinion (PDF) that said attorneys who represent defendants in third-degree felonies often have as many as 50 cases set for trial in a week.

“Clients who are not in custody are essentially unrepresented for long periods between arraignment and trial,’’ Quince wrote in the opinion. “Attorneys are routinely unable to interview clients, conduct investigations, take depositions, prepare mitigation, or counsel clients about pleas offered at arraignment. Instead, the office engages in ’triage’ with the clients who are in custody or who face the most serious charges getting priority to the detriment of the other clients.” A dissenting opinion asserted the Miami-Dade public defender’s office had not proved harm to defendants.

“This decision is a very significant victory for public defenders across the nation struggling with excessive caseloads,” said Parker Thomson, an attorney at Hogan Lovells, whose firm has been representing the public defender’s office pro bono for five years. “The Florida Supreme Court has given real meaning to effective representation of indigent defendants, as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution under the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright. The Florida Supreme Court held that the ethical rules of representation apply equally to public defenders, on a systemic basis, who must decline representation if excessive caseload creates a substantial risk of inability to effectively represent an indigent defendant.”

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and a group of state prosecutors fought the public defender’s office’s attempt to pull out of the cases at the state supreme court last year, the Miami Herald reported. Louis Hubener, who represented the state, pointed to a law barring public defenders to withdraw from cases over “inadequacy of funding or excess workload.”

Although the Florida Supreme Court found the law constitutional, it disagreed about how it should be applied. The majority opinion noted that public defenders sometimes withdraw from representing people because of conflicts that arise and that the state has a system to appoint other attorneys to take cases when such withdrawals occur.

Hat tip: FlascBlog.

Updated May 30 to include comment from Thomson.

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