The stereotype of the over-worked, under-paid public defender exists for a reason. Even though I’ve personally fought against the stereotype here on the blog and in real life, I must necessarily admit that in a lot of States, the caricature is not a caricature at all, but an accurate representation of the state of indigent defense. Often, the public defender is only as good as the resources and time available to her. The best lawyer may seem incompetent if overburdened and underfunded.
I noted a while ago that a battle was brewing on the state of indigent defense and two recent news items seem to validate that observation. First, via CrimProf, a troubling decision out of Florida, where the intermediate appellate court reversed a trial court’s ruling granting a public defender’s motion to withdraw from one particular case because he could not adequately represent the defendant due to his high caseload. Then, on July 7, the Third District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court, holding that the mere word of a public defender that he was unable to provide constitutionally adequate representation was not enough to establish that the defendant would suffer prejudice:
Here’s a statute that so blatantly conflicts with the professional and ethical responsibility of a lawyer to withdraw from the representation of a client if he feels he is unable to provide adequate and competent representation. Court, making the determination of whether to permit counsel to withdraw, do so on a case-by-case basis, but to exclude a very real and prevalent reason for that inability to provide adequate representation seems to be problematic on many levels, not the least of which a violation of the separation of powers.
The problem with the standard articulated by the appeals court is further highlighted when viewed against the backdrop of the facts as found by the trial court:
Mr. Kolsky had between 105 and 164 pending felony cases during 2009. In fiscal year 2008-2009, he had handled 736 felony cases in addition to 235 pleas at arraignment. Because of his caseload, he cannot meet with in-custody defendants until two months after arraignment, and then usually only for 30 minutes. The judge found that “The unrebutted testimony is that Kolsky has been able to do virtually nothing” on the case for which he was seeking an order of withdrawal. His only meeting with the client was at arraignment. He had not investigated the case or discussed discovery with his client. The client was facing a possible life sentence as an alleged habitual felony offender.
In essence, the appeals court is saying that we cannot say whether the defendant’s rights have been prejudiced because he hasn’t gone to trial yet and the sub-text is: “who knows, he may be really guilty and the lawyer can’t do anything about it even if he spent all year working on the case”. That the prejudice required for arguments such as these is the fact of conviction, it is a duplicitous and misleading argument, as I’ve argued before. From the appeals court’s perspective, there is nothing constitutionally deficient or problematic about a defendant going to trial for a case which could result in a life sentence, assisted by a lawyer who’s met him once over 2 yeas and that too for 30 minutes at arraignment.
The idea that a lawyer’s crippling workload renders him unable to spend any time focusing on a particular defendant and that this in turn renders his representation per se ineffective (because, well, he hasn’t done anything!) and prejudices the defendant, is not a difficult one to grasp at all and shouldn’t be outside the reach of the august minds on appellate courts.
But that they choose to ignore this reflects a dangerous attitude that underscores how deep the “guilty until proven innocent” culture runs in the justice system. There may be some hope, though. The appeals court did certify the question of whether the statute is unconstitutional to the Supreme Court of Florida, which accepted that question. It’s up to the court of last resort in Florida to restore a semblance of dignity to the Constitution and the criminal justice system.
[Here's a collection of excessive workload litigation links and filings from the Miami PD.]
The second story comes from the Constitutionally Confused State of Georgia, whose Supreme Court has remanded a case to the trial court to determine whether there has been a systemic breakdown of the public defender system. In Phan v. State, the GA Supreme Court remanded a capital case to the trial court to determine whether a systematic breakdown exists and if that breakdown deprived Mr. Phan, now on his 6th year of incarceration awaiting trial, of his constitutional right to a speedy trial. The deprivation of Phan’s rights here is caused primarily by the lack of adequate funding:
The defense attorneys had wanted funding to go to Vietnam and search for mitigating factors, the lawyers said in court documents. The sole witness identifying Phan as the shooter, Hoangoah Thai, the wife and mother of the victims, returned to her village there after awakening from a seven-week coma caused by her injuries in the shooting, they said. Also, all of defendant Phan’s family remains there.
Those allegations, the state Supreme Court majority wrote, “are based on the notion that budgetary shortfalls and the lack of funding have caused a systemic breakdown of the public defender system.”
Nor have Harvey and Adams been paid for their work. Adams said he last was paid in August 2008, and is owed about $45,000. Harvey, who the court record indicates has not been paid for his four years on the case, was in court and could not be reached for comment. Adams, noting that the state’s public defender system has a $22 million funding shortfall, said he thought his co-counsel was owed about the same amount.
Adams, who is co-chairman of the death penalty committee for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said nationwide data from his group shows capital cases are about 10 times as expensive as non-capital cases. He said the average cost of a Georgia death penalty defense is about $360,000, not factoring in prosecution and court costs, and that the Phan case likely would cost more because of factors such as the sole witness being in Vietnam.
In July 2009, Adams and Harvey filed two motions to dismiss the charges against Phan, who has remained in jail since his arrest more than five years ago. They said that the state failed to fund Phan’s defense against the death penalty, and alleged that his speedy trial rights were violated.
Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Ronnie K. Batchelor denied those motions, agreeing that there was a “systemic failure” and noting that the district attorney had agreed as well.
The dissent argues that the evidentiary hearing before the trial court already determined that there was a systemic breakdown, so let’s get on to Barker already. And then there’s the concurrence, which cuts right to the heart of it:
The trial court may take aggressive action to safeguard the public interest and preclude a speedy trial violation … and the District Attorney has the authority to dismiss the death penalty notice, if that will make adequate funding available to the defense and allow for a speedy trial of this case.
Of course, when a prosecutor gets called out in an appellate opinion, said prosecutor has to respond:
When the portion of Nahmias’ concurrence noting the DA’s authority to dismiss the death penalty notice was read to him, [District Attorney] Porter said, “It’s been suggested at several points along the way, and … I’ve considered it but I have not agreed to it … because I’ve always had more or less the feeling that at that point, it’s a capitulation which I’m not prepared to make. If that’s the solution, then why not just do away with the death penalty? The public defenders at that point have managed to win the war of attrition.
I guess it’s easier to stick your fingers in your ears when faced with an increasingly defeaning chorus that the obstinate desire to stick with a barbaric and expensive mode of punishment is contributing to current and future economic ruin of the State and the wholesale trampling of core Constitutional rights. You’re right, Mr. Porter. Just do away with the damn thing already.
The third story is just an update of sorts on the rotten Georgia peach. Jamie Ryan Weis, whom the Georgia Supreme Court told to “fcuk off, coz it’s all ur fault, u crim1nal” (exact quotes, btw) back in March, is seeking cert. from the Supreme Court.
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