Lawsuit Challenging Unconstitutional Public Defense System Goes to Trial

News Release: 
Monday, June 3, 2013

Suit Says Mount Vernon, Burlington Defense System Promotes
Meet ‘Em and Plead ‘Em Justice

June 18: Update - The trial wrapped up today with closing arguments. The judge said he will ask for some additional briefing by both sides and will rule later this summer.

A class-action lawsuit challenging the deficient public defense system in the cities of Mount Vernon and Burlington goes to trial in U.S. District Court in Seattle on Monday, June 3. Filed in 2011, the suit (Wilbur v. City of Mount Vernon) says that the cities operate a public defense system that systemically deprives indigent persons who face criminal charges in municipal court of their constitutional right to assistance of counsel.

“The public defenders in Mount Vernon and Burlington have had grossly excessive caseloads and spend too little time on each case, which makes it impossible for them to represent their clients. The cities are not meeting their duty to ensure that low-income individuals have a fair chance to defend themselves in court," said Sarah Dunne, legal director at ACLU-WA.

“This year marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark Gideon case that guarantees a government-appointed lawyer to defendants who cannot pay for one.  This suit is a reminder of the work that still needs to be done to ensure that the right to an attorney is realized for all defendants,” added Dunne.

The suit alleges that:

The cities knew the public defense attorneys’ caseloads were very excessive for many years, and they still refused to monitor compliance with caseload limits. At the time of filing the suit, the cities knew that part-time public defenders were handling thousands of cases per year.  In 2012, the public defenders still opened far more public defense cases than are allowed under applicable Washington State Bar Association standards.

The public defense attorneys fail to reasonably investigate the charges filed against their clients. During an eight-month period in 2012, they utilized an investigator only four times. An expert who reviewed 50 randomly selected case files found no evidence of any investigatory work.  This continues a longstanding practice of rarely investigating cases.

The public defense attorneys fail to spend sufficient time on their clients’ cases, effectively forcing defendants to accept plea deals.  According to their closed case reports, the attorneys are spending an average of less than two hours per case. In the past, the public defenders routinely spent less than 30 minutes on a case.  The current attorneys continue to fail to adequately meet with their clients, both when in custody and out of custody.  They overlook significant legal issues and do too few trials. In effect, they continue the cities’ practice of operating a “meet ‘em and plead ‘em” system.

The cities fail to provide any meaningful oversight of the public defense system. Indeed, the cities maintain they have no obligation to monitor or supervise the system. They do nothing to determine whether their public defense system meets constitutional standards.

Since the suit was filed, the cities have moved further in the wrong direction. Among other things, the cities in 2012 eliminated numerous performance benchmarks from public defense contracts, including fundamental safeguards such as prompt client contact. When an expert concluded in January 2013 that the public defenders were failing to devote sufficient time to cases, the cities instructed them to stop reporting the hours they spent on cases. Complaints go to a Mount Vernon administrator who admits he has never considered an indigent defendant’s complaint to be valid.

The lawsuit is seeking to have the court order injunctive relief by requiring the cities to appoint a supervisor to ensure constitutional compliance in their defense system.

The suit is being handled by ACLU-WA cooperating attorneys James Williams, Breena Roos and J. Camille Fisher of Perkins Coie LLP; ACLU-WA staff attorneys Sarah Dunne and Nancy Talner; attorney Toby Marshall of Terrell Marshall Daudt & Willie PLLC; and Matt Zuchetto of The Scott Law Group, PS.

Previously, the ACLU-WA and Columbia Legal Services, with assistance from the law firms of Perkins Coie and Garvey Schubert Barer, pursued a lawsuit against Grant County over its public defense system. In settlement of that suit, Grant County in 2005 agreed to overhaul its system and underwent seven years of court-supervised monitoring in order to ensure compliance.