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Saturday, May 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Judge Takes a Stand on Snubbing of Wash.’s Poor

(CN) - The "systematic failure," understaffing and neglect of public defenders led two cities north of Seattle to trample a "hallowed right" treasured by indigent defendants since a landmark 1963 Supreme Court decision, a federal judge ruled.

"It has been fifty years since the United States Supreme Court first recognized that the accused has a right to the assistance of counsel for his defense in all criminal prosecutions and that the state courts must appoint counsel for indigent defendants who cannot afford to retain their own lawyer," U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik wrote. "The notes of freedom and liberty that emerged from Gideon's trumpet a half a century ago cannot survive if that trumpet is muted and dented by harsh fiscal measures that reduce the promise to a hollow shell of a hallowed right."

Gideon v. Wainwright, the opinion to which Lasnik alluded, inspired the nonfiction book, "Gideon's Trumpet," and a made-for-TV movie by the same name starring Henry Fonda. This title plays on a Book of Judges story in which Gideon led a small force armed with trumpets and torches in clay pots to exaggerate their size and scare off a much larger enemy camp.

In 2011, three indigent criminal defendants led by Joseph Jerome Wilber sued the cities of Mount Vernon and Burlington in Skagit County, Wash., on behalf of "scores" of others in their class. Their lawsuit claimed that both cities overstretched public defenders with well more than the 400-cases-per-year permitted allowed by law.

Judge Lasnik held a bench trial this past June over the claims, which had been removed to federal court. His 23-page opinion Wednesday upbraids the cities' former public defenders Richard Sybrandy and Morgan Witt.

"There is almost no evidence that Sybrandy and Witt conducted investigations in any of their thousands of cases, nor is there any suggestion that they did legal analysis regarding the elements of the crime charged or possible defenses or that they discussed such issues with their clients," Lasnik wrote. "Substantive hearings and trials during that era were rare. In general, counsel presumed that the police officers had done their jobs correctly and negotiated a plea bargain based on that assumption."

Appointment of counsel was "little more than a formality," he added.

"Adversarial testing of the government's case was so infrequent that it was virtually a non-factor in the functioning of the cities' criminal justice system," the opinion states.

Judge Lasnik called this the "natural, foreseeable, and expected result" of the cities laying approximately 1,000 cases per year on the lawyers in addition to their private-practice cases.

"Although both counsel testified that they did not feel rushed or overworked, it is clear that, in light of the sheer number of cases they handled, the services they offered to their indigent clients amounted to little more than a 'meet and plead' system," he wrote.

Sybrandy did not immediately respond to an email request for comment, and he was not reachable by telephone in his office.

Wilber's lawsuit prompted the firm Mountain Law to replace Sybrandy and Witt, and take some steps in the "right direction," but its attorneys still handle caseloads "far in excess of the per attorney limits set forth in the Supreme Court's guidelines," according to the opinion.

"The point here is that the system is broken to such an extent that confidential attorney/client communications are rare, the individual defendant is not represented in any meaningful way, and actual innocence could conceivably go unnoticed and unchampioned," Lasnik wrote.

Declining to resolve the problem by setting a number for limiting caseloads, the judge imposed broad monthly supervision in an injunction scheduled to last for three years.

An attorney from Mountain Law declined to comment as future court proceedings will likely discuss remedies.

In a statement praising the decision, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington indicated it was the first time in United States history that a federal court had ordered such monitoring over a public defender's office.

"The right to be represented by an attorney if you can't afford one is essential to ensuring that everyone - rich and poor alike - has a fair chance to defend themself in court," ACLU-WA legal director Sarah Dunne said. "We're thrilled to obtain a ruling enforcing that principle for towns in Washington."

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