On Idaho’s public defense, and what’s next

On Friday,  the Idaho Supreme Court released a decision allowing the ACLU of Idaho’s lawsuit over public defense to go forward in district court — nearly two years after the initial challenge, and ten years after the State Appellate Public Defender first asked for a study on Idaho’s indigent defense. While we wait for the court to make a decision, Idaho’s counties, attorneys, and defendants are still dealing with the reality of a strained public defense system.

While the district court initially agreed with the state that the ACLU hadn’t sued the correct parties (that was the decision the Supreme Court partially reversed on Friday), Idaho courts haven’t yet ruled on the merits of the case itself — that Idaho’s indigent defense system is constitutionally inadequate.

As we’ve reported before, Idaho isn’t the first state to face lawsuits over the constitutionality of its public defense system. (Nor is it the most recent: Louisiana and Missouri are the latest in a growing list to face similar challenges.)

And the state and ACLU aren’t the only players. In April 2016, three months after the initial lawsuit was dismissed, then-US Attorney Wendy Olson and the Department of Justice filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the ACLU,  saying “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.” (For much more on the larger implications of the nation’s public defense issues, read this post from May 2016.)

That brief came after the 2016 Legislature passed the first step of public defense reform, which included $5.5 million for the state’s Public Defense Commission to provide grants to counties and establish standards.

But by that point, the ACLU’s challenge was already in motion. Now that the Supreme Court has remanded the case back to trial court, we have to wait and see whether the Legislature’s actions are enough.

Meanwhile, some counties are still facing the reality of an overburdened public defense system — and in at least one case, struggling to keep their defenders. In September, Nez Perce County increased the pay for its contracted public defenders by $25,000 each after two left their position  (Eventually, one attorney returned to the position, while the second left. The county filled that vacancy with another attorney.)

Nez Perce County had previously been cited as having overburdened public defenders, and Idaho Reports profiled the county in 2015 to explore its indigent defense workload. You can watch that episode here. 

Idaho Reports will continue to report on public defense reform. And if recent history is any indication, we’ll have a while before we get a final answer.

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