On Friday, the Washington Supreme Court issued an Order, "In the Matter of the Adoption of New Standards for Indigent Defense and Certification of Compliance."
"State high court limits public-defender caseloads," is the AP report filed by Gene Johnson. It's via the Seattle Times.
For the first time, the state Supreme Court is setting limits on the number of cases public defenders can handle — an effort to improve the quality of legal representation for some of the 200,000 poor people prosecuted in the state every year, but one that could increase costs to local governments at a time of tight budgets.
By a vote of 7-2, the justices said lawyers who represent indigent defendants generally should handle no more than 150 felony cases per year, or 300 to 400 misdemeanor cases, and even fewer when the cases are complex. The caseload standards will take effect in September 2013 to avoid imminent hits to local budgets, Chief Justice Barbara Madsen said in announcing them Friday.
"Innocent people are convicted if they don't have an adequate defense," said Joanne Moore, director of the state's Office of Public Defense. "There's been a lot of information in the past few years that many attorneys who are providing public defense are burdened by very high caseloads, and they haven't been able to give the proper amount of attention to their public-defense cases."
Recent lawsuits in Washington have highlighted the problem with public-defender caseloads.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington is suing the cities of Burlington and Mount Vernon, saying those cities jointly contracted with two part-time lawyers to represent indigent defendants in misdemeanor cases.
The two lawyers together handled more than 2,100 cases in 2010 alone, the plaintiffs said. In allowing the lawsuit to go forward, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik said the evidence could support a finding the lawyers were so overburdened that the appointment of public defenders in those cities is "little more than a sham."
"Supreme Court Adopts Standards for Indigent Defense; Case Limit Guidelines Effective in 2013," is the news release issued by the Washington Courts. Here's the text:
The Washington Supreme Court has adopted new Standards for Indigent Defense Services. The new standards will be effective September 1, 2012, except Standard 3.4 regulating caseload limit guidelines which will take effect September 1, 2013.The new standards include guidelines for caseload limits and types of cases; administrative costs, limitations on private practice, qualifications of attorneys, appellate representation and use of legal interns.The rule was approved by a majority of the Court, with Justices Charles W. Johnson and Mary E. Fairhurst dissenting. A copy of the final order can be found online by clicking here together with the text of the new rule.The standards were authored by the Washington State Bar Association’s Council on Public Defense to address concerns about the quality of indigent defense services in Washington. The WSBA approved the standards, and recommended adoption to the Supreme Court in July 2011.Recognizing the fiscal impact new caseload guidelines will have on local governments, Chief Justice Barbara Madsen said, “We understand the delicate balance in providing a constitutional right to an attorney and the monetary impact on local governments. By delaying implementation of the caseload limits until 2013, our goal is to move towards the promise of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case of Gideon v. Wainwright.”Numerous reports, including the Seattle Times 2004 series entitled “Unequal Defense: The failed promise of justice for the poor” have documented serious flaws in the indigent defense system in Washington State. Since then, numerous legislative and court rule changes have made improvements to the system. This is the first time actual caseload limits by type have been adopted.The standards are also necessary to implement court rules CrR 3.1, CrRLJ 3.1 and JuCR 9.2 previously adopted by the Court which will become effective on July 1, 2012.The adoption of the standards by the Supreme Court follows a four-month comment period that ended in April 2012.