On December 4, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington issued a landmark decision that reinforced the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright that all criminal defendants have a constitutional right to adequate defense counsel, regardless of their economic status. The case, Wilbur v. City of Mount Vernon, involved a challenge to the public defense system of two cities in Washington. The plaintiffs alleged that the cities provided ineffective defense counsel to indigent defendants, and the Court agreed. The Court found that the public defenders were understaffed and lacked adequate resources, forcing them to take on burdensome caseloads that led to situations where attorneys did not have the time to meet with clients, investigate their cases, or provide meaningful representation, leading to the risk that “actual innocence could conceivably go unnoticed and unchampioned.” The Constitution Project earlier lauded the Department of Justice for intervening in the case in support of the plaintiffs.
The Court ordered the two cities to reevaluate their public defense contracts and hire a public defense supervisor to oversee the cities’ compliance with the court order to provide constitutionally adequate defense. The order also allows the plaintiffs’ counsel to review the work of the public defender system on an annual basis so that they may evaluate the cities’ compliance with the order and the work of the public defense supervisor. In concluding its opinion, the Court stated it “has been fifty years since the United States Supreme Court first recognized that the accused has a right to the assistance of counsel for his defense in all criminal cases…The notes of freedom and liberty that emerged from Gideon’s trumpet a half a century ago cannot survive if that trumpet is muted and dented by harsh fiscal measures that reduce the promise to a hollow shell of a hallowed right.”
For more on the history of Gideon, you may view TCP’s documentary commemorating the 50th anniversary of the decision.