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Court Rules Cities' Public Defense Systems Constitutionally Inadequate

A federal district court judge ruled on December 4th that the public defense systems provided by the cities of Burlington and Mount Vernon violated the U.S. Constitution's Sixth Amendment guarantee of effective assistance of legal counsel to indigent persons charged with crimes.  See Wilbur v. City of Mount Vernon, Memorandum of Decision (12/04/2013).

The court found that the provision of public defense services prior to 2012 by the two cities "was marked by an almost complete absence of opportunities for the accused to confer with appointed counsel in a confidential setting," with most interactions between counsel and their indigent clients occurring in the courtroom. The court determined that

The appointment of counsel was, for the most part, little more than a formality, a stepping stone on the way to a case closure or plea bargain having almost nothing to do with the individual indigent defendant.

The court deemed this situation to be "the natural, foreseeable, and expected result of the caseloads the attorneys handled."

The cities contracted with a different law firm in April 2012 and the per attorney caseload was reduced, but not to the court's satisfaction. The court determined that the new public defense firm "continues to handle caseloads far in excess of the per attorney limits set forth in the [Washington] Supreme Court’s guidelines." Ultimately, Judge Lasnik concluded:

the public defense system in Mount Vernon and Burlington has systemic flaws that deprive indigent criminal defendants of their Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel. Although counsel are appointed in a timely manner, the sheer number of cases has compelled the public defenders to adopt case management practices that result in most defendants going to court for the first time – and sometimes accepting a plea bargain – never having had the opportunity to meet with their attorneys in a confidential setting.

The court's remedy was to issue a "continuing injunction" against the cities that, among other things, required the cities to hire a "Public Defense Supervisor" to supervise and evaluate the cities' provision of public defense services and to ensure that indigent clients are provided certain specific services and receive adequate representation. The court did not impose numerical caseload limits.

While cognizant of the cities' "interests in controlling the manner in which they perform their core functions, including the provision of services and the allocation of scarce resources," Judge Lasnik noted that they were nevertheless obligated to comply with the dictates of the Sixth Amendment.

And, indeed, local governments in this and other states are faced with continuing fiscal constraints that severely inhibit their ability to perform their core functions. It will not be an easy task for these two cities - Burlington and Mount Vernon - to allocate their scarce resources to adequately respond to the requirements of the court's injunction. Other cities in the state that operate municipal courts - and the states' counties - will, of course, need to take heed of this court decision.  A full plate gets even fuller.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Bob Meinig

About Bob Meinig

Bob wrote extensively on the state Open Public Meetings Act, municipal incorporation and annexation, and a wide variety of other legal topics. He is now retired.