A federal judge in Washington issued a decision holding that two cities in Washington violated the sixth amendment right to counsel because their public defender system was so underfunded and understaffed that the representation amounted to little more than a “meet and plead” system. The decision is critical of the caseloads that the appointed counsel held—and the fact that they therefore could not, and did not, investigate cases, run motions, or even have confidential conversations with their clients before they plead guilty. The ACLU sued both cities.
This is reportedly the first time a federal court has ruled that a local system of providing indigent defense services is constitutionally inadequate. It seems clear that there are many other jurisdictions around the country that could be criticized for systems that are not dramatically better than those in these two cities in Washington. It will be interesting to see if this case is the beginning of a larger movement to use the federal courts to bring change to local indigent defense systems.
It is also interesting to note how the decision discussed the use of plea bargaining. The decision criticized two defense lawyers who held a previous contract to defend indigent defendants stating that,
“In general, counsel presumed that the police officers had done their jobs correctly and negotiated a plea bargain based on that assumption. The appointment of counsel was, for the most part, little more than a formality, a stepping stone on the way to a case closure or plea bargain having almost nothing to do with the individual indigent defendant. To the extent that ‘adequate representation’ presumes a certain basic representational relationship, there is a systematic failure…”
The court was careful not quantify how many cases appointed counsel should handle, or how many adversarial proceedings or motions they would expect to see defense lawyers participate in for a given caseload. The decision did acknowledge that the deals the defense lawyers negotiated for their clients may have been good deals but
“that the system is broken to such an extent that confidential attorney/client communications are rare, the individual defendant is not represented in any meaningful way, and actual innocence could conceivably go unnoticed and unchampioned. Advising a client to take a fantastic plea deal…may appear to be effective advocacy, but not if the client is innocent, the charge is defective, or the plea would have disastrous consequences for his or her immigration status.”
The decision included injunctive relief and ordered the cities to do a number of things to correct the situation, most of which centered around hiring a public defender supervisor and close supervision of various aspects of how the defense lawyers are doing their jobs. The cities were not ordered to dramatically increase spending on defense services, hire investigators, or hire a certain number of additional defense lawyers. Although the cities were ordered to “reevaluate their existing contract” for indigent defense services.
The Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest in the case, taking no position on the merits, but suggesting possible remedies if the court were to find (as it did) a violation. The DoJ Statement of Interest can be found here and clearly was influential in the injunctive relief the court ultimately ordered.
The full decision can be found here .
An AP article about the case can be found here .