All over the country, public defenders have been faced with budget cuts and stressful workloads. Now, a recent court filing from the Department of Justice (DoJ) may help overburdened attorneys who represent poor citizens, and could have “dramatic implications for the representation of indigent defendants,” NPR reports.
In 1963, the Supreme Court of the United States declared that states are obligated to provide legal defense for criminal defendants who are too poor to afford one. In the case of Gideon v. Wainwright, defendant Clarence Earl Gideon, a 52-year-old mechanic, was wrongly charged with burglary and was sentenced to five years in prison.
Gideon filed an appeal to the US Supreme Court, saying that the state of Florida denied his constitutional right to liberty by refusing him an attorney. Since then, states are required to provide counsel in order to ensure a fair trial for the accused.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s 1963 decision has led to taxpayer-funded public defenders facing crushing caseloads. “The quality of legal representation varies from county to county and people stand before judges having seen a lawyer only briefly, if at all,” the Associated Press reported in March.
But the “unprecedented” recent court filing may help to ease the burden on indigent public defenders. “This is a breakthrough moment,” Norman Reimer of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said earlier this month at the Law Library of Congress. “If you want to talk about something that could give us cause for optimism, this to me is the most optimistic development we’ve seen in years.”
The DoJ will weigh in on a case about the quality of indigent legal defense in two cities near Seattle, Washington. The plaintiffs in the case say that, at the time they sued, the cities had only two part-time attorneys overseeing 2,000 misdemeanor cases.
“Many people are arrested, processed and plead before they see a defender at all,” Thomas Giovanni, a former public defender, said this month.
If a judge holds the cities responsible for depriving people of public defenders, and thereby their Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel, an independent monitor could be appointed for public defender workloads.
“We are absolutely committed to the principle that every indigent person who is accused of a crime is entitled to his or her constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel,” Jocelyn Samuels, leader of the DoJ civil rights unit, told NPR.
“Independent monitors have provided an objective source for assessing accountability, for evaluation whether an entity is complying with the terms of a consent decree and for gaining community confidence in the fact that the reforms will take place in a systemic and effective way,” she said.