July 2014 Bar Bulletin
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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:

  • It is one of the few challenges to an indigent defense system to be litigated in federal court and the only one (of which the ACLU is aware) to go to trial. All other cases were settled prior to trial. The ruling sends a message that any jurisdiction not operating a constitutional public defense system needs to fix it.
  • The ruling reinforces the importance of Washington State Bar Association caseload standards. Under the WSBA's Standards for Indigent Defense Services, the maximum for public defenders should be 400 misdemeanor cases a year. When the suit was filed in 2011, the cities employed two part-time attorneys to represent indigents in more than 2,000 cases. In response to the litigation, a new group of attorneys took over the public defense contract, but each attorney was still responsible for more than 650 cases a year.
  • The injunctive relief ordered by the court is extensive. It marks the first time a federal court has appointed a supervisor to oversee a public defense system. And the court is keeping jurisdiction over the case for three years while reforms proceed.
  • The ruling provides a dramatic example of the potential expense of failing to provide a constitutional public defense system. The court ordered the defendants to pay more than $2.16 million in attorneys' fees and $75,000 in costs.
  • The U.S. Department of Justice took an unprecedented step by filing a statement of interest in the case. In doing so, it reaffirmed a federal interest in ensuring the mandate of Gideon is met and effectively endorsed caseload limits for public defenders.
  • U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder cited the case in an op-ed he wrote for The Washington Post on the need to strengthen public defender systems nationwide.
  • Recognizing the case's significance, National Public Radio, the American Bar Association Journal and The New York Times ("The Right to an Attorney Who Actually Does His Job") reported on the ruling, and a Times columnist discussed its historic importance.

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