On August 14, 2013, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a Statement of Interest in Wilbur v. City of Mt. Vernon, a case in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington involving potential violations of misdemeanor defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Citing the Constitution Project’s report Justice Denied: America’s Continuing Neglect of our Constitutional Right to Counsel, the Statement of Interest noted, “The United States has an interest in ensuring that all jurisdictions – federal, state, and local – are fulfilling their obligation under the Constitution to provide effective assistance of counsel to individuals facing criminal charges who cannot afford an attorney, as required by Gideon v. Wainwright.”
The Constitution Project (TCP) applauds the DOJ’s leadership in intervening in this case. While the DOJ did not take a position on whether defendants’ right to counsel were, in fact, violated by the two cities named in the suit, Mount Vernon and Burlington, it did assert that the court had the authority to issue an injunction against the cities that could include naming an independent monitor to ensure compliance with these constitutional obligations.
Perhaps even more encouraging to TCP and our allies, the Statement of Interest called on the court to include caseload limits as a measure of compliance, but added “a public defender must have the authority to decline appointments over the caseload limit [and] caseload limits are no replacement for a careful analysis of a public defender’s workload, a concept that takes into account all of the factors affecting a public defender’s ability to adequately represent clients, such as the complexity of cases on a defender’s docket, the defender’s skill and experience, the support services available to the defender, and the defender’s other duties.”
This recognition by DOJ of the myriad factors that affect the quality of indigent defense is only the most recent in a series of positive developments. Attorney General Holder recently noted, “despite the undeniable progress our nation has witnessed over the last half century – America’s indigent defense systems continue to exist in a state of crisis,” and “in some places – do little more than process people in and out of our courts.” Both in the Attorney General’s speech and in the Statement of Interest, there was an appreciation that a chronic lack of resources and staggering caseloads have left indigent defense programs in states and localities across the country in a state of crisis.
The Constitution Project is gratified that the DOJ has demonstrated strong leadership with this Statement of Interest. Efforts to combat the shortfalls in indigent defense have gained some momentum in recent years, but without federal oversight, indigent defense programs across the country will undoubtedly remain in a state of crisis.