SEATTLE — Two Washington cities have systematically violated the constitutional rights of poor defendants to effective legal representation, a federal judge ruled Wednesday, blaming city officials for being "willfully blind" to the effects of their cost-cutting.
The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Skagit County towns of Mount Vernon and Burlington two years ago, alleging that public defenders there were so overworked that they amounted to little more than "a warm body with a law degree."
U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik agreed. He issued a ruling Wednesday, following a two-week trial in June, that could have broad ramifications for how cities provide legal help to the poor: "In the state of Washington, there are undoubtedly a number of municipalities whose public defense systems would, if put under a microscope, be found wanting," he wrote.
The judge ordered the cities to hire a part-time public defense supervisor to oversee whether poor defendants are receiving adequate legal counsel, saying "the court has grave doubts regarding the cities' ability and political will to make the necessary changes on their own."
Lawyers involved said they believed it was the first time in the nation's history a federal court had appointed such a supervisor to oversee a public defense agency.
Sarah Dunne, the ACLU of Washington's legal director, said in an emailed statement she was thrilled to see the ruling this year, which marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Gideon v. Wainright that the right to counsel applies in state courts as well as federal ones.
"The right to be represented by an attorney is essential to ensuring that everyone -- rich and poor alike -- has a fair day in court," Dunne said. "We've got a historic ruling enforcing that principle for towns in Washington."
Andrew Cooley, who represented the cities, said he was gratified the judge did not impose a case-load limit on their public defenders. The state Supreme Court has adopted such standards as it wrestles with how to improve the representation of indigent defendants, but they aren't scheduled to take effect until January 2015.