September 2012 Bar Bulletin
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September 2012 Bar Bulletin

State Supreme Court Issues Historic Order on Defender Standards

By Robert C. Boruchowitz


KCBA Planted Seed with 1982 Guidelines

The Washington Supreme Court issued an historic order on June 15, requiring public defenders to certify that they meet certain standards, including caseload limits and experience qualifications. This will have a major impact on thousands of people who cannot afford to hire their own lawyers.

The King County Bar Association helped to plant a seed that led to that order, as 30 years ago this summer the then Seattle-King County Bar Association published "Guidelines for Accreditation of Defender Agencies."

The Guidelines were the product of a blue-ribbon Indigent Defense Services Task Force that was formed in the wake of a 1981 study by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association that found that Seattle's Municipal Court dispensed "supermarket justice" in its arraignment calendars. Newsweek reported on the court in 1982 under the headline, "Is Free Legal Aid Too Cheap?" and stated:

Court officials inform defendants of their rights over loudspeakers. "The need to 'process cases' has clearly taken precedence over the obligation to [dispense] justice," concluded the report.

The KCBA set caseload limits and experience qualification requirements, and made recommendations for courts and prosecutors. These standards, includ­ing a per-lawyer, per-year limit of 300 misdemeanor cases, became the foundation for the later-developed Wash­­ing­ton Defender Association (WDA) standards and the Washington State Bar Association standards, elements of which the Supreme Court has now adopted.

The acceptance of standards continued to evolve after the KCBA beginning. The WDA first published standards in 1984 and the WSBA Board of Governors endorsed them, as it did amended standards in 1990 and 2006.

The Legislature in 1989 passed RCW ch. 10.101, which required local governments to develop standards. The current version of that law states: "The standards endorsed by the Washington state bar association for the provision of public defense services should serve as guidelines to local legislative authorities in adopting standards."

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