Washington Judge Finds Grant County's Public Defense System Deficient

October 20, 2005 12:00 am

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Trial Begins in ACLU Case on November 8 to Devise New System
ELLENSBURG, WA — A superior court judge has ruled that indigent defendants have a well-grounded fear that they will not receive effective legal counsel from Grant County’s public defense system. In his ruling, Kittitas County Superior Court Judge Michael E. Cooper found that Grant County’s system overworked its lawyers, failed to provide effective supervision, and allowed the Grant County Prosecutor’s Office to interfere with funding for expert witnesses and investigators.

“We are pleased with the decision,” said David Taylor, a cooperating attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which brought the case in conjunction with Columbia Legal Services. “It resolved many of the critical issues in favor of the plaintiffs and shows there’s a clear need for an injunction to protect the rights of people who cannot afford an attorney.”

The case is set to go to trial on November 8, during which both sides will work toward devising a public defense system that meets the county’s constitutional obligation to provide effective assistance of counsel.

The ACLU and Columbia Legal Services filed the lawsuit against Grant County in central Washington in April 2004 on behalf of Jeffrey Best, Daniel Campos and Gary Dale Hutt. The three men charged that Grant County failed to provide them with effective assistance of counsel, despite the fact that they were facing felony offenses. The lawsuit also includes a taxpayer plaintiff, Greg Hansen, who wants the county to provide constitutionally adequate defense to indigent persons and to use public funds wisely. The court granted the plaintiffs class action status in August 2004.

In his ruling issued on October 14, Judge Cooper wrote that, “[A] right to effective assistance of counsel is inherent in the guarantee of counsel and is essential to a fair trial.” Judge Cooper said it was “virtually uncontested” that the Grant County public defense system in place before April 2004 “suffered from systemic deficiencies, ” such as public defenders with excessive case loads or little meaningful supervision. The system also allowed county prosecutors to interfere with the selection of defense attorneys and with the funds for defense experts and investigators.

The county’s own expert in public defense systems testified to the court that prior to the filing of the lawsuit, Grant County’s public defense system was “terrible” and that “intolerable caseloads” prevented public defenders from providing effective assistance of counsel.

In his ruling, Judge Cooper noted that although some improvements have been made with the 2005 public defense contract, problems continue. He added that the court will rely on the Washington Defender Association Standards for Public Defense Services and the principles established by the American Bar Association to devise a new system that meets constitutional standards.

The ACLU of Washington is reviewing practices in other counties to ensure that their indigent defense systems are constitutionally adequate. The 2004 ACLU report, “The Unfulfilled Promise of Gideon” shows that a majority of Washington counties lack comprehensive standards for the delivery of public defense services. Many counties do not have adequate oversight systems in place to sufficiently ensure these publicly funded legal services meet basic fiscal and constitutional standards of accountability. “The Unfulfilled Promise of Gideon” is available online at http://aclu-wa.org/Publications/pdf/Unfulfilled%20Promise%20of%20Gideon.pdf.

The lawsuit is being handled by attorneys at the Perkins Coie and Garvey Schubert Barer law firms. The litigation team includes ACLU cooperating attorneys David Taylor, Breena Roos and Beth Colgan from Perkins Coie and ACLU staff attorney Nancy Talner. Garvey Schubert Barer attorneys include Don Scaramastra, Justin Dolan, Charles Cottrell and Lori Salzarulo. Columbia Legal Services attorneys are Pat Arthur, Joachim Morrison and Chris Kerkering.

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