Indigent defense put to important test

Civil rights suit could result in federal takeover

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SEATTLE — In a landmark case 50 years ago, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court found it to be an "obvious truth" that the criminally accused, regardless of their circumstances, have the right to an attorney and adequate legal representation.

Today, many in America's legal and law enforcement communities -- from judges and prosecutors to defense lawyers -- believe the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright, grounded in the Sixth Amendment, has mostly gone unfulfilled.

To prove it, some point to Mount Vernon and Burlington.

The Skagit County towns are at the center of a groundbreaking class-action civil rights lawsuit over indigent defense filed two years ago by the American Civil Liberties Union, alleging misdemeanor defendants were given little more than a "meet 'em, greet 'em and plead 'em" defense by a pair of public defenders expected to handle more than 2,000 cases a year.

Now, with a Seattle-based U.S. District Court judge set to rule on the case, Mount Vernon and Burlington may become part of an unprecedented solution — the first-ever federal court takeover of a public defender system.

'State of crisis'

The U.S. Department of Justice on Aug. 14 filed a "statement of interest" in the case of Wilbur v. Mount Vernon et al, saying the "United States has an interest in ensuring that all jurisdictions -- federal, state and local -- are fulfilling their obligation … to provide effective assistance of counsel" to criminal defendants who can't afford an attorney of their own. It quotes Attorney General Eric Holder saying the nation's indigent defense systems exist in a "state of crisis" where, in some places, they do "little more than process people in and out of the courts."

The Department of Justice statement does not take a position on the ACLU's assertion that the rights of the criminally accused in Mount Vernon and Burlington were systematically violated, which is the key question being mulled by U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik after a bench trial in June.

However, if Lasnik should arrive at that conclusion, the Justice Department urges him to considering appointing a federal monitor to oversee reforms.

That in itself would be "huge," according to Jonathan Rapping, a criminal-law professor at the John Marshall Law School in Atlanta and the founder and president of Gideon's Promise, a national organization aimed at improving indigent defense.

But the Justice Department is going even further, he said, by suggesting in its letter of interest that the court not only consider attorney caseloads — the number of clients an attorney is representing — but also workloads, recognizing that some cases are more difficult and require more time.

The goal, Rapping said, should be that the indigent accused "receive the same kind of representation that you or I would pay for."

The reality at this point, however, is that most public defender agencies — including the federal Public Defender's Office — are struggling with budget cuts and a paucity of resources, he said.

"It's unfortunate, but over the years we have become accustomed to a lower standard of justice for poor people," Rapping said.