State Politics

ACLU sues Idaho for lack of action to fix ‘broken’ public defender system

Citing Idaho’s persistent failure to fix a broken public defense system, the ACLU followed through Wednesday on a threatened lawsuit to force the state to create a centralized public defense system and take other steps to insure compliance with federal and state laws on right to counsel and due process.

The class-action lawsuit on behalf of five Idaho residents names Gov. Butch Otter and members of a legislative commission created in 2014 to address deficiencies in the state’s patchwork network of county public defender offices and practices. That commission was itself an outgrowth of an earlier governor-appointed panel. Commission after commission “passed the buck,” the lawsuit charges. The group said it would file the suit Wednesday.

“It is a fact tens of thousands of Idahoans don’t make enough money to afford a private attorney,” Leo Morales, acting executive director of the ACLU of Idaho, said Wednesday. “For too long they have been denied their Sixth Amendment right to counsel as a result of the state’s failure. Elected officials have deliberately avoided deploying the funding and meaningful supervision that they know we need to actually fix Idaho’s disastrous system of public defense.”

Right to counsel and due process are constitutional rights guaranteed under the Sixth and 14th Amendments and Idaho state code. The 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case, Gideon v. Wainwright, ruled that states must provide counsel just as the federal government must to people accused of a crime who can’t afford to hire a lawyer.

In Idaho, counties pay the cost of providing legal counsel to persons unable to afford a lawyer, but the type and quality of service vary widely. Some counties have their own public defenders offices, but most contract with outside attorneys, often for a fixed fee that covers all cases in the county. That fee structure is economical for counties, but hurts indigent clients who stand to receive less attention and service. The Legislature barred fixed fees in 2014, but 19 counties still pay for indigent defense that way.

Counties in 2014 paid a total of $22 million for public defense, mostly from their general funds. In most counties, the amount was substantially less than what they spent on prosecution, according to a 2014 state survey.

State officials have long conceded problems with indigent defense in Idaho. Urging action by the Legislature in his State of the State address in January, Gov. Butch Otter noted that the state’s system “does not pass constitutional muster.”

“Astoundingly,” the ACLU suit says, “the state failed yet again in the recently concluded 2015 legislative session to fund or improve its public-defense system,” the suit says. “Without a guiding statewide system governing public defense, the majority of Idaho counties have failed to implement standards and requirements that satisfy either statutory or constitutional mandates.”

The suit cites the findings of a state-sponsored 2010 report by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. The report cited fixed-feee contracts among a host of systemic problems that rendered public defender systems in the state constitutionally inadequate.

The Public Defense Act passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor in 2014 banned fixed-fee contracts and also set up another commission to find solutions. Last fall, the commission killed plans to give the state full responsibility for assigning attorneys to indigent defendants.

Since the 2010 study, conditions have worsened, the lawsuit alleges. In 2014, four of the 15 attorneys in Kootenai County’s office handled well over 400 cases each, more than double the recommended norm of 150 cases. Four other attorneys handled more than 300 cases each. Such workloads are all the more heavy, according to the suit, because 26 Idaho counties permit contracted public defenders to maintain private practices.

The 2010 study also cited sky-high caseloads and workloads for public defenders; lack of communication with their clients; inadequate or nonexistent case investigation; inadequate safeguards to protect the independence of public defenders, who in places serve at the will of county commissioners; poor representation of children in juvenile and criminal court; and lack of meaningful state funding, sufficient supervision, performance standards, training and professional development.

The suit acknowledges Idaho’s “long history of recognizing right to counsel” for indigent defendants. Idaho had a system in place before the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1963 ruling in Gideon vs. Wainwright. Idaho’s attorney general at the time supported the plaintiff, but Idaho “has taken several steps backward in the half-century since Gideon,” the suit alleges.

It seeks a ruling that the state is obligated to provide “constitutionally adequate” representation to indigent criminal defendants from their initial court appearance onward, as well as a finding that the constitutional rights of Idaho’s indigent criminal defendants “are being violated by the State on an ongoing basis.”

Besides requesting a deadline for corrective action, it asks for a statewide system of public defense to replace the existing county-by-county framework; state enforcement of uniform workload, performance, and training standards for public defenders; and a ban on fixed-fee contracts for indigent-defense services.