By Ben Olson
Five years ago, the ACLU threatened a lawsuit against the state of Idaho in regards to the public defense system. Last month, citing Idaho’s persistent failure to address the situation, the ACLU made good on its threat when it filed suit.
The class-action lawsuit names Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter as a defendant, along with seven other state officials involved with the public defense system.
There are five plaintiffs named, each with specific cases outlining holes in the public defense system. Some appeared for in court without having met their court appointed lawyers while others claim to have spent mere minutes with theirs to discuss complex cases involving extended jail time.
“We have been working on this for over five years now,” said Leo Morales, acting Executive Director with the ACLU of Idaho. “What we have been doing during that time at the ACLU is trying to work with the state and pressure them to fix the defective system.”
Right to legal counsel and due process are constitutional rights guaranteed under the Sixth and 14th Amendments and Idaho state code. Morales claims that the faulty system denies individuals their constitutional rights when facing inadequate funding and unfair variances from county to county.
“Every person in this country is deemed innocent until you’re proven guilty,” said Morales. “That’s a common ideal that, as Americans, we strive to live by. Today, the realty is that we have a very powerful government, a powerful prosecution team that works with law enforcement and has adequate resources … and we don’t necessarily have the same on the other side.
“We have an adversarial system of criminal justice,” continued Morales. “Both teams must be very well equipped to enter the arena.”
According to Morales, the criminal justice system in Idaho does not afford the same luxuries to the public defense system as it does the prosecution.
Of all the 44 counties in Idaho, only seven have public defense offices. The others either share offices, or rely on a contract with individual attorneys or private law firms. While some counties rely on a sliding scale to account for the differing levels of financial commitment for defendants, other counties rely on fixed fees, which don’t account for any variance of income levels.
“In 2014, the state passed a law banning fixed fee contracts,” said Morales, “The reality is, there are still 19 counties that continue to use the fixed fee system.”
It is this variety of public defense options that Morales says creates an imbalance of justice from county to county.
“The Supreme Court has made it very clear that public defense is a state responsibility,” he said. “What Idaho has done is push that responsibility over to the counties, without providing the adequate resources for the public defender system. The state has been creating study committees after study committees and kicking the can down the road. Everyone knew what the problem was, but no one wanted to face the responsibility.”
For Izzy Robertson, Head Public Defense Attorney for Bonner County until 2012, she can identify with the defects the ACLU claim within the system and believes that Bonner County could use a lot more funding.
Citing examples of cases presented with only a few days before trial when she would have preferred a week or two to do some discovery of what the prosecutor has, Robertson said, “I think we would’ve put on a better show in court and possibly won more cases.”
The lack of resources to hire investigators was also an issue, according to Robertson, though she was quick to point out that she was appreciative for the Sandpoint Police Department because they never “short change” clients and they are thorough.
Idaho is not the only state to be accused of shortcomings within the public defense system.
“This is an issue across the country,” said Morales. “It’s part of a larger systemic problem with criminal justice courts in our country.”
The ACLU also filed suit in Washington state recently, as well as in Michigan and New York.
“The New York case was just resolved,” said Morales. “The court ruled in our favor this spring.”
Morales hopes the lawsuit against Idaho will help centralize and equalize the public defense system, and provide desperately needed resources to the counties to fund it.
“Most public defenders are doing an amazing job,” he said. “They really need the state to step in to provide the resources and create some uniformity once and for all.”
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