An Idaho court has ruled that a lawsuit filed by the state’s American Civil Liberties Union over public defender funding can move to class action status. “This decision is about ensuring even the most vulnerable among us have adequate legal representation and that public defenders have the time and resources they need to defend their clients against the colossal resources government can use to lock up Idahoans, break up their families, and take away their liberty,” ACLU of Idaho Executive Director Leo Morales said of the proposed class action.
The order indicated, “This case will examine the State and the Public Defense Commission’s policies and practices concerning public defender services in the state of Idaho,” and decide “whether, by abdicating its responsibility to adequately fund, supervise, and administer indigent defense services to the counties, the State has failed to ensure that indigent defendants are provided with effective legal representation, all in violation of the United States and Idaho constitutions.”
The lawsuit against the state began in 2015 on behalf of four plaintiffs who had claimed their public defender representation was inadequate. The initial lawsuit named Idaho’s Public Defense Commission and Governor Butch Otter as defendants, but this was ultimately dismissed the following year. The lawsuit was reinstated in 2017, removing Otter from defendant list. Now that the proposed class action has been approved more plaintiffs who say they’ve received insufficient public defender representation can be included.
The order reads that the eligible class includes “all indigent persons who are now or who will be under formal charge before a state court in Idaho of having committed any offense, the penalty for which includes the possibility of confinement, incarceration, imprisonment, or detention in a correction facility (regardless of whether actually imposed) and who are unable to provide for the full payment of an attorney and all other necessary expenses of representation in defending against the charge.”
The ACLU is claiming that the system is unable to handle the amount of work that hits the desks of public defenders because funding has been managed by individual counties instead of at the state level. Idaho argued against the class action, stating there was no commonality between defendants who use public defenders because of variations which exist between the counties. However, the court ruled these differences were irrelevant to the decision.
Of the current bandwidth issues and lack of proper structure, ACLU spokesperson, Jeremy Woodson, said, “Some of that stuff is really nonexistent – not because the public defenders are deficient in some way, but because really, the system and everything that’s been put in place to help them, there’s just not much there.” He explained that results in public defenders simply not having the time to adequately work for all of their clients, and innocent people, therefore, having to plead guilty, later getting out of jail and rebuilding their lives. The ACLU has long proposed changes be made to provide proper funding.
Other concerns detailed in the order include, “the widespread use of fixed-fee contracts; extraordinarily high attorney caseloads and workloads; lack of consistent, effective, and confidential communication with indigent clients; inadequate, and often nonexistent, investigation of cases; lack of structural safeguards to protect the independence of defenders; lack of adequate representation of children in juvenile and criminal court; lack of sufficient supervision; lack of performance-based standards; lack of ongoing training and professional development; and lack of any meaningful funding from the State.”