Not-so-happy Birthday Gideon v. Wainwright

This year marks 50 years since the landmark Supreme Court case, Gideon v. Wainwright, was decided. Gideon v. Wainwright set the standard "that anyone too poor to hire a lawyer must be provided one free in any criminal case involving a felony charge."

This set a wide-reaching mandate for both federal and states courts, but states cannot keep up. "While the constitutional commitment is generally met in federal courts, it is a different story in state courts, which handle about 95 percent of America’s criminal cases. This matters because, by well-informed estimates, at least 80 percent of state criminal defendants cannot afford to pay for lawyers and have to depend on court-appointed counsel."

After Gideon was decided, Florida established a public defender office that was a shining model for the rest of the country, but demand has outpaced financing as "caseloads for Miami defenders have grown to 500 felonies a year, though the American Bar Association guidelines say caseloads should not exceed 150 felonies."

Last Thursday, "[t]he Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Miami-Dade County public defender’s office could withdraw from a large chunk of felony cases because of excessive workloads." It seems that the Florida courts have realized that these excessive workloads mean inadequate defense as "[a]ttorneys are routinely unable to interview clients, conduct investigations, take depositions, prepare mitigation, or counsel clients about pleas offered at arraignment. Instead, the office engages in ’triage’ with the clients who are in custody or who face the most serious charges getting priority to the detriment of the other clients."

There is a similar problem across the country as more indigent individuals need court-appointed representation, but the funding for indigent defense has not kept pace with demand. This at a time when the Michigan legislature is set to vote on new standards for effective counsel without offering any financial help to revamp the system. There is a constitutional right to indigent defense, but without proper financing, at this point, the best we can hope for is ineffective assistance unless more attorneys are willing to do these cases pro bono.

NYTimes -- The Right to Counsel: Badly Battered at 50

ABAJournal -- Public defenders can reject cases because of excessive workloads, state supreme court rules


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