Monday, September 9, 2013

DOJ sides with overworked indigent defense attorneys

An unprecedented recent court filing from the U.S. Justice Department has cheered the overburdened attorneys who represent the poor and could have dramatic implications for the representation of indigent defendants, reported NPR.

"This is a breakthrough moment," Norman Reimer of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers told an audience at the Law Library of Congress. "If you want to talk about something that could give us cause for optimism, this to me is the most optimistic development we have seen in years."

At just 17 pages, the filing doesn't seem like a milestone. But lawyers at the Justice Department say the decision to weigh in on a case about the quality of indigent defense in two cities north of Seattle is nothing short of historic.

"We are absolutely committed to the principle that every indigent person who is accused of a crime is entitled to his or her constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel," says Jocelyn Samuels, who leads the DOJ civil rights unit.

Plaintiffs in the case say around the time they sued, the cities had just two part-time lawyers running 2,000 misdemeanor cases. The Justice Department didn't take a position on whether public defenders in those cities — Burlington and Mount Vernon, Wash. — systematically deprived people of their Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel.

But if a judge finds those cities should be on the hook, Justice lawyers urged that an independent monitor be appointed for public defender workloads, the first time ever in a federal case like this one. The overwhelming majority of cases about the quality of indigent defense move through state courts, which makes it much more rare for the U.S. Justice Department to intervene.

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