DOJ requests to weigh in on public defense

The Legislature has weighed in on the need for indigent defense reform. So has the state. Now, the federal government wants a say.

On April 15, US District Attorney Wendy Olson and the Department of Justice requested to file an amicus brief on behalf of the United States in support of the ACLU’s motion to appeal the dismissal of their lawsuit over public defense in Idaho. Read the document here.

In January, Judge Samuel Hoagland dismissed the ACLU’s public defense lawsuit, and the state legislature passed the first step of public defense reform in March. But there is still a pending appeal from the ACLU in the case.

“The United States has a strong interest in ensuring that all jurisdictions – federal, state, and local – fulfill their constitutional obligation to provide counsel to criminal defendants and juveniles facing incarceration who cannot afford an attorney, as required by Gideon and In re Gault,387 U.S. 1 (1967),” the request says.

An amicus curiae — or friend of the court  — is a statement filed in court in which a party files a statement in a case in which it is not a litigant. 

In June 2015, the ACLU of Idaho sued the state over its indigent defense services. The lawsuit specifically cited the lack of standards, training and resources for public defenders in Idaho. That lawsuit was dismissed in January; Though Hoagland agreed there are problems with Idaho’s public defense system, he had issues with how the lawsuit was structured. The ACLU’s appeal will be considered by the Idaho Supreme Court.

Each of Idaho’s 44 counties has had its own public defense system. While some counties — namely, Ada and Twin Falls — have said they enjoy the autonomy, others have struggled to provide enough resources. Complaints include size of workloads for public defenders, inadequate training for lawyers, and lack of private rooms in which public defenders can discuss cases with clients.

In March, the Legislature passed the first step of public defense reform, which includes $5.5 million for the state’s Public Defense Commission to provide grants to counties and establish standards. Those standards haven’t yet been written or adopted, however, and at public defense legislation meetings, the legislative committee heard testimony that the commission needed more ongoing resources.

Basically, if the court grants ACLU’s appeal and rules in its favor, that first step taken by the Legislature might not be enough.

The request for amicus cites several examples of the DOJ stepping in and reforming local criminal justice systems after courts found those jurisdictions failed to provide adequate due process for both indigent and juvenile defendants, as well as examples of the DOJ filing amicus briefs and statements of support in similar indigent defense challenges. 

One case cited by the request: Wilbur vs. City of Mount Vernon, in which the district court ordered two Washington towns to hire a supervisor to oversee its public defense system after complaints of part-time public defenders handling too many cases and inadequately representing clients.

And while the ACLU appeal is in front of the Idaho Supreme Court, the Wilbur conclusion makes it clear where at least one federal judge in our neighboring state stands on the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments.  

“It has been fifty years since the United States Supreme Court first recognized that the accused has a right to the assistance of counsel for his defense in all criminal prosecutions and that the state courts must appoint counsel for indigent defendants who cannot afford to retain their own lawyer,” the Wilbur conclusion says. “The notes of freedom and liberty that emerged from Gideon’s trumpet a half a century ago cannot survive if that trumpet is muted and dented by harsh fiscal measures that reduce the promise to a hollow shell of a hallowed right.”




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