July 2014 Bar Bulletin
A Groundbreaking Ruling for the Rights of Indigent Defendants
By Doug Honig
Fifty years after the landmark Gideon case established the right to counsel for all people accused of crimes who could not afford an attorney, a Washington case is breaking new ground for fairness in the criminal justice system. In Wilbur v. Mt. Vernon and Burlington, the U.S. District Court in Seattle found that the joint public defense system of the two cities systemically deprived indigent persons facing misdemeanor criminal charges of their right to assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment.
Judge Robert Lasnik found that the cities' public defenders had excessively high caseloads, rarely provided an opportunity for the accused to confer with them in a confidential setting, and rarely engaged in investigations or researched possible legal defenses. He concluded that the defense services amounted to little more than a "meet and plead" system.
The ruling in Wilbur has made clear that simply providing an attorney is not enough: Cities need to commit themselves to providing adequate resources for public defense. Garnering national attention, the case has put a spotlight on the need for reform in our state and elsewhere.
The case has made a big impact in several ways: