Public Defense Reform Commission: Plenty of problems, no clear solution

Attention Idaho legislators: Fixing Idaho’s public defense system is up to you.

That was the message presenters gave to the Public Defense Reform Interim Committee Friday, attended by just six of ten lawmakers who serve on the committee.

Regardless of where stakeholders stood on potential improvements to the state’s public defense system, everyone agreed on one thing: A fix from the Idaho Legislature would be better than a fix from the courts. But even though the message wasn’t new, there still isn’t a clear path forward for the committee.

The task of reforming Idaho’s public defense system has more urgency after the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho sued the state over what it calls an unconstitutional public defense system. Among the ACLU’s claims: public defenders have huge caseloads, very little time to prepare defenses, and, in some cases, no rooms in which to privately counsel their clients.

During his presentation to lawmakers, Idaho Deputy Attorney General Mike Gilmore didn’t focus on whether the public defender system is adequate. Rather, he argued that the ACLU’s lawsuit has “fuzzy standards” for public defense. Gilmore also said that by suing Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and the State of Idaho, the ACLU targets the wrong defendants, and that this isn’t a problem a judge can fix.

“This very much is not simply just a lawsuit involving issues that a judge can resolve,” Gilmore said.

Thus far, the state has only filed a motion to dismiss the case, Gilmore said; A more hardy defense of the public defender system may come later. Regardless, Gilmore didn’t argue to lawmakers that public defenders aren’t overworked.

Dan Chadwick, executive director of the Idaho Association of Counties, outlined some of the solutions, but there were caveats to all of them: Some, like statutorily changing levy limits, aren’t politically palatable.

Chadwick also said that while the courts can resolve the problem, it will be much better if lawmakers took up the issue themselves.

Another problem: There is no enforcement for standards or recommendations that are already in place. Judge Molly Huskey of the Public Defense Commission said the legislature needs to give more guidance and enforcement power. Huskey said while her commission can make recommendations on public defense standards, it has no enforcement power.

“(Counties) can use that paper to start a bonfire for all the value our opinions have,” Huskey said.

There are also no repercussions for not following rules that are already in place. Michael Henderson of the Idaho Supreme Court said Idaho law requires counties to file reports to county commissioners and administrative district judges on who uses public defense services, but more than half of Idaho’s counties haven’t filed those reports. In his slideshow, Henderson suggested lawmakers clarify the statute.

Committee co-chair Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, said she was confident that the committee would take their task seriously, regardless of the ACLU lawsuit.

“I think regardless of the outcome of the motion to dismiss the lawsuit itself, I feel the committee is certainly committed to making improvements in the public defense system,” she said.

But as to what those improvements might be, that’s yet to be seen.


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